Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mistakes Indonesians make when trying to speak English

So, yesterday I am with my girlfriend and he want to buy a pair of earring, but I spend the money on some shirt for him instead.

Anyone who speaks a language that is not their first is going to make mistakes. It's a universal phenomenon. But if we look at particular cultural and linguistic groups, we can notice certain specific kinds of mistakes common to that group.

An obvious and well-known example is the Japanese difficulty in pronouncing the sound /l/, often rendering it as an /r/ instead. But these sorts of culturally-specific mistakes are not just in pronunciation. They may be in grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, or even in concepts that differ from culture to culture.

I'm using the Indonesian language here as an example. By extension, this also includes Malay, of which Indonesian is really a dialect. (Although given that Malaysians are normally exposed to English earlier on than Indonesians are, they might not make the same mistakes.)

People who speak English as a mother tongue often take for granted what a damn complicated language it is. By contrast, Indonesian is a very simple language in many ways, and it is in this contrast in approaches that some of the most common mistakes are made.

- INDONESIAN GENDER CONFUSION. (Nothing to do with transexuals here.)
Indonesian does not distinguish between “he”, “she” and “it”. When it comes to third-person singular pronouns, Indonesians just use the same word (dia) no matter whether it's a male, female or an animal without any specific gender. While that may sound confusing, it's not, because the context is key.
Here's an example:  If I start talking about “Mr Smith”, then I have established by my use of "Mr" that he is male. So subsequently when referring to Mr Smith, I can just refer to him as dia because whoever I'm talking to knows that it is a man. But if I then start talking about Mr Smith's daughter, or Mr Smith's dog, I also use dia.
But when Indonesians speak English, they commonly confuse "he", "she" and "it". Thus it is common to hear phrases like, "Yesterday I was talking to my father and she got a bit angry" or "Check out that girl, he has nice legs".

Indonesian has no separate markers for tenses (as in the English “had”/”has”/”will have”/”is having”).  Everything is said in the present tense.
If that sounds strange, it's not. Again, it’s all context – once I establish that I’m talking about something that happened yesterday, it is just assumed that I’m speaking in past tense, and I use the same verbs as I would if I was talking about the future or the present.
Obviously, when speaking English, Indonesians can forget to apply tense to their verbs, saying things like “yesterday I go to the shop”.

In English, the suffix "-s" on the end of a word indicates plurality. However, Indonesian doesn't really have plural suffixes. Sometimes, plurality is indicated by simply doubling the word. So teman means "friend", and teman-teman means "friends", which does not imply a specific number. But other times, a single teman is enough, accompanied by a contextual word to indicate whether it is plural or not. So if I add banyak ("many"), I have banyak teman ("many friends"). The use of "many" implies plurality, so it is not necessary to further indicate that there is more than one friend in this situation. Thus the use of the suffix "-s" in the English phrase "many friends" is redundant, as saying "many friend" would convey exactly the same message. Likewise, if I have 80 teman, the plurality is implied by the number.

Thus, many Indonesians when the speak English say things like “I own 2 house” or “We have enough player to make three team”, because it makes perfect sense in their own language.

Thus, comparison to a simple and utilitarian language like Indonesian reveals what an unneccesarily complicated language English is; it's full of grammar that doesn't really have to be there.
Take, for example, the phrase, "Yesterday I went to the cinema with Gary and he brought some friends."
The Indonesian equivalent translates as "Yesterday I go to cinema with Gary and he bring some friend." Which may sound strange and fobby to native English speakers, but it conveys all the same information, only stripping away all the fiddly grammar which makes English a hard language to learn.

It is worth bearing in mind that Indonesian is a lingua franca. It may be the official language of business, school and government, but less than half the country speak it as a first language. Instead at home they are more likely to speak their local language (Balinese, Acehnese, etc). Indonesia descends from the dialect of Malay that was spoken around the archipelago as a trade language. Perhaps one reason it was successful in this context, and thus able to spread all over the region, is because its simplicity made it easy to learn.

It is notable as well that "Manglish" (Malaysian English, basically a pidgin form of English spoken widely in Malaysia) is also far simpler than English in its sentence structure and grammar, and has taken on many of the characteristics of Malay/Indonesian. Here's an example:
A: "On the fan, can or cannot?"
B: "No, dowan [don't want]. Off it lah, it will blow my papers around."
A: "Ok lah. Aircon got, what?"
B: "Ya, got."

"Hep you pinis? I hep pinis. So now you won to go to de bits to kets de pis, or you won to wats the pilm instead?"

Certain sounds don't exist naturally in Indonesian, such as /sh/, which is usually mispronounced as /s/. /th/ is pronounced either as /d/ or /t/ depending on the word. /ch/ exists in Indonesian, but never at the end of the word; Indonesians struggle to pronounce this in that context, and it usually comes out as /ts/. Regarding vowels, /a/ as in the English "cat" doesn't exist in Indonesian and is pronounced /e/ as it "pet" instead.
Not all Indonesians can pronounce /f/ and /v/, pronouncing them as /p/ and /b/ instead. This is common but hardly universal, whereas it is ubiquitous next door in The Philippines.

So the phrase above would properly read, "Have you finished? I have finished. So now you want to go to the beach to catch the fish, or you want to watch the film instead?"

See also:

How language tells the history of Malaysia and Indonesia

Is English threatening the future of the Indonesian language?

Communication challenges in Malaysia

Koreans, you too can curse like an American

English words of Indian origin

"Pulp Fiction" in Italian, German, French, Turkish and Spanish


  1. Living and working in Indonesia. One secretary of mine had me in stitches when she asked me to go to a "parewell farty". Another told me an operator was not available as he was "farking the car (in the car fark)". And lastly, as /a/ in Indonesia is pronounced /ah/, the word "vacant" (when pronounced with a v or f sound) sounds positively disgusting (and funny).

  2. @ Anon: Nice one. LOL at "vacant".
    Some of the funniest mispronunciations I've heard:
    fapalo (buffalo)
    diflof (develop) and diflofmen (development)
    sikret (cigarette)

    Interestingly, I've met people from Sudan who also confuse /f/ and /p/. I was discussing with this Sudanese guy about how he was going learning English, and he told me he struggled to "fronounce" certain words.

  3. One girl asked me to pick up some farfum in Australia. I checked the dictionary but no joy. It was not until she said "farfum, you know, smell good" that I realised she wanted perfume. And don't get me started on trying to order new "fens" for the "flotter" (pens for the plotter if you're wondering).

    Sorry, only put Anon because I don't have Google etc.

    KT Diver

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  6. haha that's the real fact that happens in Indonesia. some people just try and keep learning English as our second language. but yah. .because of our accent and maybe our knowledge it's not enough in practicing it. .we are so sorry. .we hope all of you can understand it :)
    anyway, I'm one of students in Indonesia. I love Indonesia :)

  7. Hi, I find that your post interesting. I'm Indonesian and working in Singapore. I'm currently trying to reduce my Indonesian accent in order to speak more clearly and more understandable.

    I have noticed a few items. We pronounce "sh" as "s", "TH" as T", strong "R". I also notice that there is word and sentence stressing in English, which we can't find it in Indonesian language. But knowing all these, I still find that my accent strong.

    Can you make another post on the difference of the American/ British accent with Indonesian accent. And how to improve.Thanks.

  8. Dude I'm Indonesian and I'm not that bad -_-"

  9. I don't like speak english because I don't speak english. Thank you

  10. Personally, i would say it's because of our substandard education that causes those misunderstandings. Education is not one of Indonesia's strongest traits imo, it frustrates me knowing that majority (literally 99.9%) of "english teachers/tutors" on local subsidized schools are not even qualified enough to be an english tutor in the first place. Their lack of knowledge about the English language itself are then transferred to these students, thus majority of Indonesian students may have thought that they are good enough even though their knowledge are way far off from being "decent". Harsh truth but hey, this comment was written based on my experience living as a college student in Indonesia.

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  12. Darren Delbert I think you've nailed it there. I was born in Indonesia but emigrated when I was 7 and went through the British school system. The only Indonesians I've known to speak English fluently and competently tend to be those who've studied abroad. From diplomats to military officers, the ones who stand out had some form of schooling here or in the US. It's disheartening to still see senior officials in Indonesia appearing on the world stage representing the country, with just a basic grasp of the English language. I am now starting to see improvements with the current generation of young students in terms of their grammar and while it is encouraging, more needs to be done to achieve an acceptable standard. Perhaps a provision of better qualified, preferably native English speakers as teachers would contribute towards this goal.