Learning Bahasa in a Year is Possible. Here’s How.

–By Kayla Stewart–

As ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) get adjusted to living in Indonesia, many are achieving their teaching and learning goals, from creating awesome lesson plans to working with innovative extracurricular clubs. Many ETAs are now extending that goal-setting to mastering Bahasa Indonesia.


Some ETAs are using Bahasa books to learn Bahasa Indonesia.

“I find myself using what I’ve learned with people in Indonesia like *GO-JEK drivers and people I meet in cafes,” said Edmund Pacleb, an ETA in Semarang.   

Learning Bahasa Indonesia can open innumerable doors for foreigners living in Indonesia. The benefits behind learning a language are pretty beneficial for the brain, too. According to the a Swedish MRI Study, learning a new language can actually increase the size of one’s brain. 

So exactly how does a newcomer to Indonesia learn Bahasa within a year? According to ETA Research Coordinator Grace Wivell, you just do it.

“Honestly, just doing it is the hardest part,” Wivell said. “Even if you only know a little, not being scared of going out and trying what you know can help tremendously.”  

Wivell, who is currently in the middle of her third year in Indonesia, studied the language prior to start of her first Fulbright grant in 2014. She credits developing her Bahasa skills to spending time with her students and being open to conversations with people in her community. According to many language studies, immersion is one of the keys to learning a new language. ETAs are surrounded by students, teachers, and friends who speak Bahasa and are often willing to help teach. Apps like Quizlet are great resources for practicing vocab and watching YouTube videos can also be extremely helpful for listening and pronunciation practice.   

“The only way to gain fluency is to go out and really use it,” Wivell said.     

While it can be really exciting to start learning a new language, it’s important for eager learners to understand that mistakes are totally a part of the process. Senior ETA Kelly Fitzgerald has a lot of experience with bungling Bahasa Indonesia. One of her most memorable mistakes occurred when she tried her hand at being the Pembina Apel, or meeting leader.   

“Every morning and afternoon at my school we had a teachers’ meeting. One teacher always led these meetings by barking commands military-style. One day I asked to try my hand at being the leader and I did pretty well until the final command: ‘Bubar, jalan!’ which means disband. Instead I said “Bubur, jalan!” Bubur is rice porridge. The other teachers made fun of me at every meeting for weeks afterward.”     

While Fitzgerald ultimately stopped giving announcements after the mishap, it didn’t stop her from continuing her learning journey. By using methods like watching YouTube channels such as SkinnyIndonesia24 and learning song lyrics to popular Indonesian songs, Kelly is now able to communicate with students, teachers, and people in the community with seeming confidence and ease.   

 “You just can’t give up entirely,” Wivell said. “You have to keep at it, and you definitely have to keep forgiving yourself when you make mistakes.”  

Grab your notes and start talking, ETAs! 

*GO-JEK is an Indonesian hyperlocal transportation service. It was founded in 2010.  

Kayla Stewart is currently teaching at SMK Negeri Jawa Tengah in Semarang. She was inspired to teach English in Indonesia because she was interested in learning more about the role of media in the country and how diversity in the nation affects intercultural relationships. She studied journalism, Global International Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Houston. Kayla loves reading, running, watching basketball, traveling, fighting white supremacy, and checking out new coffee shops around the world.

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