Friday, January 13, 2006

Putting It Together (Part I)

A student can have a great set of vocabulary, and even use on-the-mark pronunciation, but let’s face it. A vital element of learning any new language well is getting a bit of solid grammar under one’s belt. But before you start groaning, there’s something you should know. Indonesian is refreshingly easy when it comes to grammar! In fact, one accomplished student of many languages (at last count, he’s up to 26!) once wrote regarding the Indonesian language:

“…let me hasten to point out that Indonesian is the easiest language in the world – no hedging, no ‘almost,’ no ‘among the easiest.’ In my experience, Indonesian is the easiest. The grammar is minimal, regular and simple.” – How To Learn Any Language Quickly, Easily, Inexpensively, Enjoyably, and On Your Own by Barry Farber
So how easy is Indonesian grammar really? With the next few articles, we will learn the essential grammar basics so you can begin building your own fully functional sentences immediately. Of course, we’ll not attempt to explore every nuance of Indonesian grammar at this stage. After all, this is a full-fledged language, and we are talking grammar here. Realistically though, it does take a fair amount of commitment, study and practice to truly master Indonesian (or any new language). However, learning grammar need not be a painfully complicated experience. To the contrary, learning Indonesian basics is refreshingly simple and truly quite easy to master, compared to other languages. So are you ready? Let’s go!


Verbs are action words or “working words” (kata kerja). They are central to each sentence, and really, probably the most important part of the Indonesian language. They are also literally in the middle of sentence structure. A good general formula for building basic sentences is, subject + verb + object. This is quite similar to English. Here are some examples:

Saya suka kamu. (I like you.)
subject + verb + object

Kita ingin berbicara bahasa Indonesia dengan baik. (We wish to speak Indonesian well.)
Subject + verb + verb + object + adverb

Anak kecil itu punya senyum besar. (That small child has a big smile.)
Subject + adjective + verb + object + adjective

The most notable difference in syntax (word order) from English is that words that describe, such as adjectives (which describe people, places or things) or adverbs (which describe actions) are generally added after the words they complement.

To Be or Not To Be

In almost all situations, what we call in English the verb “to be” (is, am, are) is completely absent in Indonesian. It is not needed since it is simply understood by the context of the sentence.

Saya senang (I [am] happy.)

Dia cantik. (She [is] pretty.)

Mereka pergi ke toko. (They [are] going to [the] store.)

Indonesian does, however, have a word that means is/are. The word is adalah. It is commonly used simply for emphasis and is usually optional.

Djoko adalah guru yang pintar (Djoko is a skilled teacher.)

Allah adalah kasih. (God is love.)

Please note that when it is used, adalah only joins two nouns and is never used to join a noun with an adjective.

The Good News and The Bad News

Here’s some good news. You will never have to conjugate a verb in Indonesian! That is, the verbs do not need to be adjusted based on who is taking an action or when.

Example in English: root verb = write
Conjugations: write, writes, wrote, written, writing

This is truly good news for anyone who has even attempted to wrestle with trying to remember the many conjugations necessary for verbs in most European languages.

The bad news is that there are multiple affixes (letters added to the front, back, or both front and back of words) that are used to create different verb forms. November’s article, Oh My, What Big Words You Have! provides a basic explanation of how affixes work with both verbs and nouns. We will explore the most common affixes for Indonesian verbs and how to use them in future articles.

Now for some more good news! In everyday spoken Indonesian, these affixes are commonly dropped altogether. So as previously advised on this blog, learning root word verbs is a great way to start speaking Indonesian quickly (and correctly).

More bad news? We’ve arrived at the end of this article. So you’ll have to wait until next time to learn how easy it is to indicate timing (tense) and how to make words plural (more than one) in Indonesian.

In the meantime, why not put your current vocabulary to good use and practice using what we’ve learned together in this article. Begin making your own sentences with the basic subject + verb + object formula. By taking action now and putting it all together, you’ll be speaking Indonesian now. You will also be well on your way to building a strong foundation for true fluency with Indonesian, the easiest language to study! :-)

Until next time…..selamat belajar!


What? Can't wait to learn more grammar? Here is THE most comprehensive grammar book around for all your burning questions about Indonesian! ;-)