From affixes to idioms and loanwords: a linguistic view on the benefits of learning Bahasa Indonesia for your career
Written by Lotte Troost – AIYA National Blog Editor
Translated by Gabriela Pasya – AIYA National Translation Team. Click here to read the Indonesian translation.
Design by Dinda Rialita – AIYA National Graphic Designer
“Cutting Asian language courses at Australian universities hurting students’ job prospects, experts say,” captures the title of an April 2021 article by The Guardian. The article confronts us with the news that now fewer people are studying the Indonesian language in Australia than 50 years ago. In 2021, only three major national universities in Australia have offered courses in the lingua franca of their closest and largest neighbour, as universities cope with the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic.
Only looking at Indonesia’s population size, counting over 271 million people, one could say that universities would do good to continue offering students the opportunity to enrol in Indonesian language programs. And if you count both native and non-native speakers, the Indonesian language – locally known as Bahasa Indonesia – ranks among the top-11 of the most-spoken languages in the world. Mastering Bahasa Indonesia thus opens doors to communicate with millions of people, to conduct business in a fast-growing economy (pre-covid) or learn about the country’s many rich local cultures. Quite some articles about the advantages of learning Bahasa Indonesia in terms of economic cooperation or cultural immersion are available either.
Learning Bahasa Indonesia not only allows you to communicate and enhance people-to-people or business connections, but it also compels you to dive deeper into the architecture of this dynamic language itself and reflect on it. The Indonesian language is rich in metaphors and idioms, and the meaning of words changes depending on affixes. It also contains many loan words from other languages.
As a non-native speaker who has been studying Bahasa Indonesia for several years now, the factors mentioned above have helped me expand my vocabulary in other languages and learn how to break down and analyze grammar and parts of speech. Learning Bahasa Indonesia eventually allowed me to analyse the language, looking at syntax and semantics as well as words and sounds. And analytical insight is a skill that is both useful in everyday life and highly valued by employers.
The Indonesian language as we know it today has its origins in Old Malay, an Austronesian language, and was given the name ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ in 1928 in order to unite the country. In 1945, it was confirmed as the official national language. Besides, the Indonesian language has borrowed and subsequently absorbed words from other languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Latin, Portuguese, and Dutch, and local languages such as Javanese and Sundanese. Different periods in Indonesian history, such as the Srivijaya period, the arrival of Islam, Portuguese traders and Dutch colonisation coincided with a developing and dynamic linguistic history, resulting in the following examples:
Bahaya (danger) is derived from the Sanskrit bhaya (fear), and belanja (shopping) is derived from the Pali velañja (that which is spent). Curi (steal) has its origin in the Hindi word corī (steal), and topi (hat) comes from the Tamil word toppi (cap).
Kabar (news) is derived from the Arabic khabar (news), and bakmie (meat noodle) is derived from the Chinese bah-mī (meat noodle). Some words are also derived from Portugese, such as sepatu (sapato, shoe), palsu (falso, false), and bendera (bandeira, flag).
A visual representation of the many factors that make the Indonesian language so dynamic and interesting. Source: alphaomegatranslations.com
Bistik (beefsteak) originates from the Dutch word biefstuk, and pidato (speech) is derived from the Latin pedātō and indirectly from the Sanskrit word padārtha (meaning of a word). Many words are also derived from English, such as bisnis (business), target (target), and stroberi (strawberry).
Nowadays, Bahasa Indonesia is still a dynamic and evolving language, with most words now being absorbed from English and local languages. According to Jakarta’s governor Anies Baswedan, Bahasa Indonesia consisted of 23.000 words in 1953 and expanded to 91.000 words in 2015. It is expected that this number continues to grow. With a solid background in Bahasa Indonesia, many other languages, or at least a part, can thus be mastered.
Apart from loanwords, learning Bahasa Indonesia will also enhance soft skills such as creativity due to its affixes. With only one root word, it is possible to create at least eight new words by adding affixes.
For example, the root word jalan (street) can have various prefixes (at the beginning), suffixes (at the end) or circumfixes (at the beginning and at the end), creating various meanings such as berjalan (walking), menjalankan (to do, to make something happening), jalanan (road), pelajan (pedestrian) menjalani (going through time or circumstances), perjalanan (journey), sejalanan (in line), kesejalanan (congruence).
Often during my Indonesian language class, my lecturer challenged me to create as many words as possible using only one root word, which felt like I was decorating a plain pie (called the root word) with numerous candles and sweets (called the affixes) to make it complete. Such word games undoubtedly boosted my creativity and problem-solving abilities.
Metaphors and idioms
Language and culture are inextricably linked, and this is perhaps most visible through metaphors and idioms. In addition to expressing sentiments without explicitly saying so, metaphors and idioms provide cultural insights into a society’s principles and beliefs. And you’re lucky, because idioms and metaphors prevail in great numbers in the Indonesian language. Have a look at the following examples:
Polisi tidur literally translates as ‘sleeping police’, but it refers to ‘speed bumps’. Rather than living police officers who slow you down when you drive too fast, these static (sleeping) road bumps will keep you from exceeding speed limits.
Hangat-hangat tai ayam translates as ‘warm like chicken poo’ and refers to people who are only excited at first but quickly lose interest, like chicken poop that is only warm at first and quickly cools down.
Cuci mata does not literally mean ‘to wash your eyes’ but rather implies that you refresh yourself by looking at things you like, such as in window shopping. The verb cuci (to wash) is used because it is believed that this act will refresh and awaken you.
Buaya darat translates as ‘land crocodile’. Crocodiles are predators that lurk around in secret, looking for fresh prey to devour. A playboy or womaniser is referred to as a buaya darat in a similar context.
Bahasa Indonesia language proficiency is an important skill in itself. But due to its dynamic, linguistically fascinating, and ever-developing character, learning the Indonesian language will indirectly yield skills such as creativity, analytical insight and problem-solving capacity, which you can take benefit from in your personal and professional life. It takes, of course, many hours of theory and language practice to enjoy its indirect benefits. So let’s hope that learning Bahasa Indonesia will continue to be possible at the universities.