Learning Indonesian? Which one? - Bahasa Kupang

By Chris Hall

To really get to know people, and make meaningful connections with them, it is a great idea to speak their language. People feel more comfortable speaking languages that they are proficient in, especially if they grew up with those languages. In West Timor, the language Kupang Malay (Bahasa Kupang) is very handy to have. While in Java, Javanese is a good language to know.

Local language for a local hangout - UNDANA Campus in Kupang, Timor, Indonesia

In Australia, it is generally the norm that people grow up with proficiency in only one language, English. This is even true of Australians that have overseas-born parents (Khoo p. 125). So for Indonesians who are trying to interact and make friends with Australians, English is a pretty good bet, especially if they extend their English slightly and become familiar with some common Australian slang.

For Australians, or anyone really, learning Indonesian as a second language, things are not so easy, as Indonesia has over 700 spoken languages. The go-to language is Standard Indonesian, Bahasa Indonesia, which is taught at schools and universities all across Australia. This is the official language of government, education and business in Indonesia. Yet only around 10% of the population speak it as a first language. Proficiency in the lingua franca of the archipelago is critical if you want to speak to people from all across Indonesia, or to do business or study in the country. However, in order to build long term business networks and friendships with people, it is important to speak their languages (Piekkari, Welch & Welch pp. 94-102).

In Indonesia, local first-languages include Balinese and Javanese. If you speak these languages, in addition to Standard Indonesian, then you will be better equipped to engage with people in Bali and Java on a meaningful level. In Lombok and West Java, Sasak and Sundanese are more useful and Bahasa Gaul is good to know if you speak to anyone from around Jakarta. Kupang Malay, or Bahasa Kupang, is an interesting case as it is a creole which evolved from Trade Malay and was established as a language well before Standard Indonesian became the national language of Indonesia (Lefebvre p. 339). Bahasa Kupang has around 220,000 native speakers and tens of thousands of people speak it as a second language (Jacob & Grimes p. 1).

When travelling around the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, and its capital Kupang, it is a good idea to be familiar with Bahasa Kupang. Unlike languages like Balinese, Javanese or even Bahasa Gaul, there isn't much in the way of learning material for Bahasa Kupang. Luckily, it's possible to get speaking, and understanding, Bahasa Kupang quickly by learning a few key words and leveraging off a good understanding of Standard Indonesian. 

Some Bahasa Kupang to get you started

Dong son pi ke Kupang, Bali dan Jawa sa!

Studying vocabulary and grammar can help give you a start with a language. However, it is amazing how valuable regular contact and interaction with native speakers is. Such interaction allows you to absorb local vocabulary and idiomatic phrases. Believe it or not, there are plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with Indonesians. Holidays or business trips are options. It's also possible to study in Indonesia for whole university semesters through organisations such as ACICIS. With modern technology it is also possible to have daily conversations in Standard Indonesian or local languages from the comfort of your Australian home through UniBRIDGE Project.

What is your experience learning languages? Leave a comment below

Local language local hangouts - "Bukit Bintang" a place to watch the sunset with your date, or explore historical WW2 Japanese fortifications which were also used by Dutch forces from 1945 till around 1950. Kupang, Timor, Indonesia

Local languages, local hangouts - mulching and recycling demonstrations at a POSYANDU in Mataram, Lombok, Indonesia