Thursday, February 09, 2006

Putting It Together (Part II)

Last time, we began laying the essential foundation for building solid Indonesian language skills by exploring some grammar basics. And the good news has been that Indonesian grammar is rather simple, as compared to other languages.

By learning the key components of Indonesian grammar, little by little, we can quickly build surprising proficiency in not only understanding, but also in speaking Indonesian well. Are you ready to learn a bit more?

When and how much. That is what we will discuss this time. So without further ado, let’s just jump into part II of our grammar adventure.

No Need to be Tense about Tense

In my efforts to convince you that Indonesian truly is an easy language, last time I told you that you will not have to worry about conjugating any verbs, which is usually one of the most confusing and biggest pains in the *%#$ for new language students. And I wasn’t lying! Indonesian verbs do not change their form based on when the action takes place (or who is doing it). You can actually use the same form of a verb when speaking about the past, present or future. Isn’t that a relief?

However, despite the fact that culturally, “rubber time” (jam karet) means that Indonesians are noticeably less tense (pun intended) about time than are most Westerners, in the Indonesian language, tense is still used to indicate timing. But it is not generally accomplished with verbs, but rather, indirectly by means of the context.

The timing, or tense, of an action is shown by auxiliary words that make it clear as to when an action takes place. We also do this in English. Notice the similarities in these side-by-side examples:

Saya pergi ke toko / I am going to the store. (present tense)

Saya sudah pergi ke toko / I already went to the store. (past tense)

Saya akan pergi ke toko / I will go to the store. (future tense)

Notice that in English, despite the “extra” words that obviously indicated past and future tenses, the verb has to change from “going” to “went” and finally to “go”. But the Indonesian equivalent, “pergi”, remained the same, and the tense was simply indicated by the helping words “sudah” (already) to indicate past tense and “akan” (will) to indicate future tense.

The way this works is so simple, you will find yourself doing it naturally, with very little effort. All you need to do is learn the most common timing words and how to use them. Here are some of the most common words that will get you going right away.

Present Tense Indicators

This is the easiest, since if no time-indicating words are used, it is assumed that the action is in the present tense.

Saya pergi ke toko. (I am going to the store.)

At times, however, you will want to make it absolutely clear that the action is being done in the present. These words will do the trick.

Sekarang = now
Example: Saya pergi ke toko sekarang.
(I am going to the store now.)

Sedang = in the process of
Example: Saya sedang pergi ke toko.
(I am in the process of going to the store.)

Masih =
Example: Saya masih pergi ke toko.
(I am still going to the store.)

Future Tense Indicators

Akan = will
Example: Saya akan pergi ke toko.
(I will go to the store.)

Belum =
not yet
Example: Saya belum pergi ke toko.
(I have not yet gone to the store.)

Nanti = later
Example: Saya pergi ke toko nanti.
(I will go to the store later.)

Mau = to want to
Example: Saya mau pergi ke toko.
(I want to go to the store.)

Besok = tomorrow
Example: Besok saya mau pergi ke toko.
(Tomorrow I want to go to the store.)

Past Tense Indicators

Sudah = already
Example: Saya sudah pergi ke toko.
(I already went to the store.)

Baru = new (just happened)
Example: Saya baru datang dari toko.
(I just came from the store.)

Kemarin = yesterday
Example: Kemarin saya pergi ke toko.
(Yesterday I went to the store.)

Ketika = when (indicating a past event)
Example: Ketika saya pergi ke toko, …
(When I went to the store, …)

How Many?

Something else blissfully easy about Indonesian grammar is the stark lack of plural nouns. They are rarely even necessary! Once again, context does most of the work for you. When you need to indicate a plural situation, there are a couple of ways to do it, and they are both easy!

1. As we just learned with tense, other words already included in a sentence generally make it obvious that you are talking about more than one of something.

For example:

Ada banyak mobil di lapangan parkir.
(There are many cars in the parking lot.)

Ada tiga mobil di lapangan parkir.
(There are three cars in the parking lot.)

As can be seen in the above two sentences, it is obvious that we are talking about more than one car (mobil) because we have used the words “banyak” (many) and “tiga” (three), respectively. There is no need to make the word “mobil” plural because it is obvious from the context and understood that we are talking about more than one.

There are occasionally times, however, when the other words, or the context, of a sentence do not indicate whether the noun is singular or plural (one or more than one). In that case, what can you do to indicate that there is more than one? You will laugh when you see how easy the answer is.

2. To indicate more than one when it is not clear by the context of a sentence, you simply use the word twice!

For example:

Mobil-mobil ada di lapangan parkir.
(There are cars in the parking lot.)

In informal writing, to shorten this a bit, the number “2” may be placed after the noun to indicate plural. So you could also see the above sentence written as follows:

Mobil2 ada di lapangan parkir.

You can even have fun with this little trick, as one Indonesian friend wrote me using:

Ha3 instead of writing out Hahaha!! :-)

Well, that’s all you need to know about plurals!! Wasn’t that easy?

Now you can congratulate yourself! You have just learned two invaluable building blocks of Indonesian grammar: How to indicate tense and how to indicate plural nouns. With these two, you can build sentences where you can talk about the present, past and future, as well as about one or many cars, dogs, children, books, or any other noun you can think of.

Why not take a few minutes right now and compose a few of your own sentences, using each of the tense-indicating words listed above. Throw in a few nouns too while you’re at it. Experiment with the sentences. Create a few where the nouns are obviously plural, as well as some where you will have to double the noun to make it clear that you are talking about more than one. We all learn best by doing, so go do some sentences!

With just these two rules of Indonesian grammar, you will be amazed at what you can say.

Next time, we’ll take a break from stuffy grammar. Instead, back by popular demand, I’m currently working on a follow-up article about everyday slang used by native Indonesian speakers.

Until then…

Selamat belajar,


Grammar in small doses can be extremely useful when you are first tackling a new language. These two books have proved invaluable to my own learning and are highly recommended.

Lonely Planet Indonesian Phrasebook

Everyday Indonesian