Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Native Sounds

In my October article I suggested that you just jump in and get used to speaking Indonesian at every opportunity, even if that elicits giggles or a confused facial expression from your audience. Rapid progress is certainly the reward of those who don't take themselves too seriously.

But what I didn't tell you is, the real fun begins when you are able to turn the tables on your Indonesian listeners by concealing your (American, Australian, British, etc.) accent and speak as the natives do. Then you will be the one laughing at their reactions!

Learning to Play

Just as it can be difficult to understand someone attempting to speak English with a heavy foreign accent, it can be just as difficult for your Indonesian listeners to figure out what you are saying if your pronunciation is off the mark. To sound like a native you must make your mouth mimic Indonesian sounds. It's part physical and part mental.

Your mouth is in the habit of playing by the rules of English pronunciation. But Indonesian is a different game. Kind of like the difference between playing poker and whist. You use the same cards (letters), but the rules are different. Like any new game, it will take a bit of practice to pick up the new combinations. But the good news is, Indonesian has more consistency and fewer pronunciation rules than English does.

Let's review some of the most common accent giveaways for the English-speaking learner. Once you master these sounds, your Indonesian friends will have no trouble understanding you, and you may even fool them into thinking you are a full-fledged Indonesian when speaking over the phone!

Accent Busters

Vowels are often the chief trouble-makers when it comes to accent -- in ANY language. Indonesian is no exception. The following three vowels need your special attention since they don't play by the same rules as in English:

"a" ALWAYS has an "ah" sound as in "father" and NEVER a long "a" as in "pay".

Apa kabar?
Selamat malam.
Siapa nama paman anda?
Dia akan datang kapan?

"e" usually has a short, almost grunt-like sound that is similar to the "a" in "along." If this is awkward or difficult for you to pronounce smoothly, there is a way that is kind of a cheat that will produce a close-to-authentic sound. Try pronouncing the word as though the "e" didn't exist at all!


Selamat can be pronounced: "Slamat"
Gelap can be pronounced: "Glap"
Semua can be pronounced: "Smooa"

Now, I said this is usually the way an "e" is pronounced, but not always. (Hey, you can speak English, so you should be used to exceptions to the rule!)

The "e" is at times also pronounced like the short "e" in "peck" or even like the long "a" sound in "say". Sometimes this shows up at the end of a word, or whenever the syllable is slightly emphasized. There is no real rule about this, so you'll have to play it by ear and notice when it seems the natural way to go in conversation.


Gereja dia yang di desa, itu berbeda dengan gereja saya.
Sore ini, mereka boleh minum teh jahe yang enak.

"i" is always pronounced as a long "ee" as in "meet." This is the same as in many other languages. Though it may seem like a slight difference, if you get it right, it will go a long way in giving you an authentic sound.


Dia tidak mau ikut ke bioskop dengan kita.

Pasti mereka bahagia pada hari pernikahan, sebab akhirnya mereka menjadi suami istri.

Laki-lakinya sedih karena dia sendirian.

Consonants Anyone?

There are a few non-vowels that can present a formidable challenge to hiding a glaring accent. Be on the lookout for these two because they show up everywhere.

"c" is always pronounced like the "ch" in "chip".


Cewek cantik itu capek karena dia sudah lama cari cowok cakap.

"ng" is a combined sound such as in "lung." Use the back of your throat WITHOUT the hard "g" sound, such as in "singing."


Dewi sering kali senang mengunjungi neneknya karena dia bisa berenang di sungai dekat rumah neneknya.

Once you have mastered these key Indonesian pronunciation skills, you might want to tackle the rest of the troublemakers found in Pronunciation Pointers, my free pronunciation guide which can be viewed online or saved on your computer as a PDF file for future reference.

Of course, the best way to perfect your pronunciation is to have regular exposure to native speakers. You can get such exposure with language recordings, radio broadcasts or live conversations with an Indonesian person.

When listening to spoken language, pay close attention to how they say what they say, and imitate what you hear. Whenever possible, continually repeat, dissect and exaggerate the sounds that you find especially difficult. Even if you are shy, you can record yourself in private and listen to how you sound, comparing your pronunciation with the way native Indonesian is spoken. Practice over and over until your words begin to "sound right."

With a little consistent effort and practice, you will be amazed at your progress. But the real pay-off comes when you can just smile as surprised Indonesian people begin asking you, "How long did you live in Indonesia?"

Selamat belajar!