Travelogue: Language Learning – Useful Endeavor or Waste of Time?

Balinese Adventure Part 2

As Michael Taylor makes his 5th trip to Bali, he ponders the usefulness of learning Indonesian – and what about Balinese? A good idea or a ridiculous waste of time?

One of the nice things about learning Indonesian is that – unlike other Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, or Thai, which have their own writing systems – Indonesian uses the Latin alphabet.

Because of this, you can start picking up the language, which is known as Bahasa, without having to actively study it. Seeing the same sign in certain situations time after time, you start to intuitively know what it means.

And there’s another advantage to learning Indonesian.

Because Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch, many Dutch words crept into the language, and some of these words can be immediately recognizable to an English speaker. Some examples include imigrasi, polisi, and restoran for immigration, police, and restaurant, respectively.

But is really necessary to learn Indonesian in order to enjoy your stay?

Probably not – unless you plan on settling in Bali. I’ve never had any difficulty doing what I wanted to do when I was there. The people I needed to deal with usually spoke English.

And many people that speak English don’t have patience to listen to foreigners trying to practise their language. So learning their language can often be an exercise in frustration. Ask any foreign student of Chinese that has traveled in China.

But language learning is one of my hobbies.

Language Textbooks

On my first trip to Bali, I purchased Bahasa Indonesia Book 1: Introduction to Indonesian Language and Culture (Bk.1). I enjoyed the few lessons that I attempted.

They were lively and fun – not your typical buying stamps at the post office type of stuff. They were actually quite interesting. But the language textbook did have a key flaw. Not all of the vocabulary was glossed, so if you buy this book make sure to get a bilingual dictionary to go with it.

Most language textbooks start with a chapter on pronunciation, and this one is no exception. I usually find these explanations a bit difficult to understand, however. It’s best to read the explanations and then listen to a native speaker.

I would therefore recommend getting a book with CDs or DVDs. It’s very important to hear native speakers pronouncing words because the same letters are not usually pronounced exactly the same way in different languages. Sometimes the differences can be quite pronounced (excuse the pun)!

Indonesian vs Balinese

Indonesian is the official language in Bali, but the Balinese have a language all their own so on my last trip to Bali I picked up a copy of Everyday Balinese: Your Guide to Speaking Balinese Quickly and Effortlessly in a Few Hours.

One of the things I liked about this book was that dialogues and vocabulary were translated not only into English but into Indonesian, as well. So you could learn both languages simultaneously. 

One of the things that frightened me when I started reading this book, however, was the complexity of the Balinese language. Unlike Indonesian, which is one of the world’s easiest languages to learn – the grammar is rather simple – Balinese could well be one of the most difficult.

Because Balinese is a caste culture there are different registers depending on your caste. And the way you speak can vary depending on your own caste and the caste of the person your are speaking to.

The book tries to simplify things by offering dialogues in both ‘common’ and ‘refined’ speech.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

So far both textbooks have sat on my bookshelf collecting dust. Perhaps I’ll dust them off and see if I can make some inroads into the languages on this trip. 


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