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Face it--whether you are in Indonesia for one week or for 10 years, it is not only polite and useful to know a little of the language, in many cases, it is outright necessary. If you don't want to be trapped at the Hotel Borobudur or restricted to traveling with a translator, you need to be able to communicate with that cheerful, friendly, curious populace out there. This booklet provides one approach to learning a very basic level of the Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia, with no strain.

I have yet to encounter a structured, functional approach to learning Bahasa Indonesia. Phrase books confront the linguistic novice with a barrage of special purpose phrases ("Is the play a comedy or a tragedy?"). They are often badly organized into social situations (going to the market, at customs) where you are likely to have neither the time nor the inclination to be fumbling around with a silly little phrase book even if you did bring it with you, which is highly improbable. With these books, you can either memorize several hundred phrases that may or may not have an application. Or you can keep the book in your pocket and hope that your fingers are fast enough to find the phrase for "turn left here" before the taxi takes you completely out of town in a straight line.

Grammar books and dictionaries, although fine for a long-term study of the language, are even more of a hindrance in taxis and at the supermarket checkout. Language tapes also have their place in learning to communicate but this approach requires time and effort to achieve practical results.

What is required for the short-term visitor and even for the newly arrived longer-term expatriates is a list of common, useful and necessary words and phrases grouped into bite-sized quantities so the most important ones can be learned and used first.

The most useful phrase book I have found is Indonesian Words and Phrases by the American Women's Association. It provides some very important basic concepts and I recommend it highly but no one wants to memorize an entire book the first day in a new country. The following lists of words, organized by day, should help you to get through your first week while you are making plans for more extensive language training.

Optional words in the following vocabulary tables are provided in square brackets and correspond between columns (for example, [pagi | siang | sore | malam] = [morning | day | afternoon | evening]; pagi is morning, etc.). Fill-in-the-blank words (...) may be substituted from any handy phrase book.

The appendices include a guide to pronunciation, help with finding words in the dictionary and a short essential word list.

Day 1. Being Polite

Vocabulary Day 1.
Selamat [pagi | siang | sore | malam]. Good [morning | day | afternoon | evening].
Terima kasih. Thank-you.
Ya. Yes. (often means no)
Tidak. No.
Apa kabar? How are you? What's new?
Baik, dan [Bapak | Ibu]? Fine, and you? (to man | woman)
Saya tidak bisa bahasa Indonesia. I don't speak Indonesian. (This will be painfully obvious to any Indonesian, but it's a polite way to fill in those awkward moments.)
Selamat [jalan | tinggal]. Good-bye. (to person leaving | to person staying)
Kembali. You're welcome.
Silakan[ duduk | masuk]. Please [sit down | come in].

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.

The first priority in Indonesia, believe it or not, is being polite. Not getting the job done, getting to where you are going or getting the correct change. The general wisdom that even a few polite words will return much appreciation is usually true. On the other hand, unkind or loud words in any language will instantly turn you into an invisible being. 

Any conversation beyond the vocabulary here assumes that you know more about the language than you actually do. This may put you on the receiving end of a long monologue to which you are expected to nod and make the occasional non-committal response.

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Day 2. The Taxi

Vocabulary Day 2.
Ke [kiri | kanan]. To the [left | right].
[terus | lurus] straight ahead.
[Rumah | Gedung | Jalan] [ini | itu]. [This | That] [house | building | street].
Ke mana? Where are you going? (Also a common polite greeting.)
Saya mau ke Amerika I am going to United States
Saya tidak tahu. I don't know. (This will likely be obvious to the driver but may encourage him to find directions elsewhere.)
Di [sini | sana]. [Here | There]. (Not really useful, but it's something to say while you're pointing at the house.)
Kiri, kanan? Left or right? (Drivers often ask this when approaching a street they assured you they grew up on.)
[Berhenti! | Stop!] Stop! (Often necessary)
Salah. Wrong.
Saya mau pulang. I want to go home.

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.

By your second day, still fuzzy with jet-lag, your employers expect you to at least show up at the office to meet a few people. If you're not here to work, by now you should be bored enough with the hotel facilities (even if it is the Borobudur) to want to see a little of the town. The most effective way of getting around town is in the back of a shiny Mercedes with an English-speaking, hard-nosed, Jakarta-born driver. If you don't happen to have both of these handy, flag down the nearest taxi after you have memorized the accompanying vocabulary. 

Street names and addresses are rarely sufficient to get you where you are going in Jakarta unless you are going to a very well known building, hotel or shopping center. Remember to learn the local pronunciation of your hotel or street, you may need it to get back home. Many place and street names are derived from English or other languages, but sometimes they are not pronounced as you would expect. For example, the "Hotel Orchid" is pronounced Ortchid and "Golf" usually has two syllables (Gol-ef). 

The best way of giving directions in a taxi is to mention the neighborhood (Kebayoran Baru, Blok M, Jalan Thamrin, Kemang, Pondok Indah etc.) and the street. If there are any tricky turns before you get there, you may want to mention that, too. Don't fall asleep on the ride. Lacking specific instructions, drivers often take you in circles.

Day 3. More Politeness

On your third day, you are beginning to get used to the new time-zone, the smells and the food. This is about the time that you realize you're not in Kansas any more and you left Toto back home. 

Indonesians are very good at helping you get over culture shock. They like to chat and find out about people and to tell you about themselves. 

You will be stopped on the street and asked your age, name and address. Don't take it too seriously and you don't have to give a straight answer. These are simply polite questions, to answer "Where are you going?", "Over there.", "Ke sana" is good enough.

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Vocabulary Day 3.
Dari mana? Where are you from? (For some reason, Indonesians are very good at spotting foreigners.)
Saya dari Amerika. I am from United States.
Sudah lama di [Indonesia | sini]? Have you been [in Indonesia | here] very long? (Again, a polite question, but you are really being asked how long you have been here.)
Saya sudah dua [hari | minggu] di [Indonesia | sini]. I have been [in Indonesia | here] for two [days | months] already.
Sudah kawin? Are you already married? (Another polite question, not often a pick-up line.)
Sudah punya anak? Do you have any children? (a popular topic)
[Sudah | Belum]. [Already | Not yet].
Di mana dompetku ? Where is my wallet ?
Berapa umurnya? How old are you? (Another common, polite question.)
Tinggal dimana? Where do you live?

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.

Day 4. Numbers

Numbers are handy to know, but most often prices are written on paper or shown on a cash-register or on a calculator. On your fourth day you are not ready to bargain for antiques on Jalan Surabaya! 

When spoken, prices are usually in thousands and hundreds (for example Rp. 10,500 is ten thousand, five hundred). Understanding numbers when spoken takes some practice. Another perplexity is that when discussing prices, often the units are omitted. If a figurine is quoted to you as "Enam (six)" and you don't know for certain whether they are talking about six thousand or six million, you probably shouldn't be shopping there. 

The basic one-to-nine numbers are handy for spelling out addresses and giving shoe sizes. These are usually spelled out as in 147 (satu-empat-tujuh for one-four-seven). Don't worry about the hundreds and thousands, it's only your fourth day. 

An Australian mate of ours managed to successfully bargain for goods in Bali using only the numbers from one to five. This approach is not recommended.

Vocabulary Day 4.
[nol | kosong] zero
satu one
dua two
tiga three
empat four
lima five
enam six
tujuh seven
delapan eight
sembilan nine
sepuluh ten
sebelas, duabelas tigabelas, ... eleven, twelve, thirteen, ...
dua puluh, tiga puluh, ... twenty, thirty, ...
dua puluh lima twenty five
seratus, dua ratus, ... one hundred, two hundred, ...
seribu, dua ribu, ... one thousand, two thousand...
sejuta, dua juta, ... one million, two million, ...
... setengah ... and a half

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.

Day 5. Simple Sentences

For the next three days, you should build a vocabulary that is important to your daily existence. If you spend a lot of time in restaurants, learn the names of food. If you like shopping for local handicrafts, learn their names and substitute into the sentences here. 

Learn at least five new nouns and five new verbs that are useful to you. These phrases aren't guaranteed get you a better room at the Wisma Delima, for that you need a teacher or more time with a phrase book. These phrases, though will ensure that you won't go hungry on your fifth day. 

Before heading out for the day, memorize a couple of new words you will need to know for the day's activities. Write them down and give youself a quiz. Bring the paper you wrote them down on. 

You should have noticed by now that many foreign, especially English, words are commonly used by Indonesians: hotel, taxi, film, bank, photocopy, photo, beer, restaurant, McDonald's and toilet will likely be understood. Be on the lookout for these words in advertisements and other signs. It's an easy way to add to your vocabulary. A more extensive list of these similar words is provided on the next page.

Vocabulary Day 5.
Saya mau ...(insert noun or verb, for example: Saya mau kue. Saya mau minum.) I want ... (noun | "to" verb) for example, I want cookies. I want to drink.
Saya minta (kopi) I would like some |coffee| (noun | "to" verb)
Ada (rokok) ? Do you have any cigarettes (noun)?
Di mana saya bisa beli (baju) ? (insert noun) Where can I buy shirt (noun)?
Saya suka (buku ini).(insert noun or verb) I like (this book) (noun or verb).
Saya mau beli (sepatu). (insert noun) I want to buy shoes (noun)
Berapa [ini | itu]? How much is [this | that]?
Berapa? How [much | many]?

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.


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Day 6. Asking Questions

You can learn words much faster if you make use of the 190 million eager and willing bahasa Indonesia teachers at your disposal. Finding out the word for "shoe" is a lot easier than more abstract concepts such as "good" and "evil" but at this stage you are still trying to become functional. 

Learn five more useful nouns and five more verbs from a reliable phrase book, dictionary, or the word lists in the Appendix. 

You should be at the stage now where you can teach someone a little English. Try it!

Vocabulary Day 6
Apa [ini | itu]? What is [this | that]?
Apa (horse)   dalam bahasa Indonesia?(substitute English word, which is handy only if the person to whom you are speaking knows more English than you know Indonesian.) What is (horse) in Indonesian?
Inggeris [English | England]

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The words in the following table are similar in both English and bahasa Indonesia. They may not be the most precise pronunciation and spelling but they will be understood by most people.

Similar Words in Both Languages


























dry cleaning









ice cream













paper clip










roast beef

















to park





Day 7. Leftovers

On your day of rest, you can learn some more handy words and phrases that don't fit into any of the other categories. 

If you can keep up with the pace, within one week you will be more functional than the average expat is after two months of slaving over phrase and grammar books. Have fun and don't forget to practice.


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Vocabulary Day 7
Tidak apa-apa. It doesn't matter. (Literally means "nothing". Handy when someone is apologizing profusely.)
Maaf. I am sorry. (If you want to apologize profusely.)
Permisi. Excuse me. (To get someone to move out of the way or to get someone's attention.)
Hati-hati! Careful
Awas! Watch out!
[Jam | pukul] berapa? [What time is it? | At what time?]
[Jam | Pukul] dua [At (two) o'clock. | It is (two) o'clock] (insert number)
Tolong, bawa (teh). Please bring me the (tea) (insert noun).
Satu lagi. One more. (works well for beers.)
Tambah lagi? Do you want more?
Habis. Finished.
Minta bon. Bill, please.

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.


Appendix 1. Guide to Pronunciation  (click here for extra reference)

It's not very difficult to pronounce bahasa Indonesia in a way that it's understood by even those who never come into contact with foreigners. Remember to keep it simple. Certain sounds we use in English and European languages do not occur in Indonesian at all. Unfortunately, those of us who have grappled with French, Spanish and German are often tempted to pronounce the word as it may sound in another language. For example, selamat datang ("welcome") does not rhyme with the well-known orange-like juice that accompanied astronauts into space. It also is pronounced with only about four discernible syllables, not five.

With this simple guide, the novice speaker of Indonesian should be able to avoid most of the traps of basic communication.



Spelling Example Description
a apa always a long a as in "father" (never "bad"or "bang")
e bécak like a in "make"
e ke,empat like a in "sofa"
i pagi,itu like ee in "see" but shorter (never like "hit" or "hike")
o kopi like aw in "law", but shorter
u susu like oo in "food", but shorter

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.

Spelling Example Description
ai pandai somewhere between "pay" and "pie"
au tembakau like ow in "now"
oi amboi like oy in "boy"
oe Soeharto old spelling, still used in names, pronounced as oo in "food"
ua uang like "wa" in "Walla-walla, Washington"

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.

Consonants (the easy part)
Spelling Example Description
b bawah same as b in "bungle" but spoken more softly. At the end of a word may be more of a soft p.
c bicara similar to ch in "church"
d duduk like d in "bed". At the end of a word may sound more like a soft t
dj djarum old spelling still used in names, pronounced like j in "jump"
f foto like f in "fan"
g garpu like g in "dog"
h hari similar to h in "hope"
j jalan like j in "jump"
j djaja old spelling still used in names, like y in "yard";look for other old spelling clues in the name (like oe, dj)
k kabar like k in "kite" when not at the end of a word. At the end of a word, pronounced like a soft g or glottal stop.
kh akhir like clearing your throat or German "ach"
l lima similar to l in "like"
m minta like m in "main"
n nama like n in "noon"
ny nyamuk like ny in "canyon"
ng dengan like ng in "singer" (not "finger", that requires ngg)
ngg tunggu like ng in "finger" (not "singer")
p pukul similar to p in "pool" but without the puff of air
q        is not used much in Indonesian words but does come up in Arabic words used in Indonesia (for example, Istiqlal). When it occurs, qu is pronounced as qu in "queen".
r kiri like a softly trilled Scottish or German r. Never a hard American, Australian or Canadian r.
s selamat similar to s in "seven"
t tujuh like t in "let" but without the plosive quality (it's sometimes difficult to differentiate between spoken t, p and d)
tj Tjoakroaminoto old spelling still used in names, pronounced like ch in "church"
v visa rarely used, like v in "visa" but softer
w awas between w in "wane" and v in "vane"
x         not used. In foreign words, often replaced with ks as in taksi.
y yang like y in you
z zat like z in "zone", often replaced with, and pronounced like s

speaker.gif (931 bytes) Click on the word to hear it pronounced.


last updated: 04/04/10


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