English Syntax Problems for Indonesians

English Syntax Problems for

Speakers of Indonesian

Elyas Bin Yahya Abdul-Ghaffar Rucker

Hawai‘i Pacific University


This paper explores English syntax problems which may be encountered by L1 speakers of Indonesian, also known by its indigenous name, Bahasa Indonesia. Indonesian is considered to be a dialect of Malay, but as Malaysians are generally introduced to English at an earlier age than Indonesians, the syntax problems encountered could be more pronounced among Indonesians. The typical syntax problems are explained, followed by suggested strategies for helping Indonesian learners overcome said problems.

English Syntax Problems for

Speakers of Indonesian

 Indonesian has no gender distinction when referring to people in the third person. The English pronouns he, she, and it are represented with a single third person singular pronoun, dia. Indonesians are accustomed to determining the gender of the pronoun based on information which the speaker has previously given. The speaker can, for example, establish gender by saying Ibuku, “my mother”, or ayahmu, “your father”, before using dia. I found that in speaking and listening to Indonesian, the lack of built-in gender distinction did not cause confusion. Besides, a listener can simply ask Siapa? “Who?”, and in that way determine gender. However, because of this lack of gender distinction, the Indonesian may produce non-grammatical sentences like “I love my father because she is so brave and strong”, or “My niece said he would be here before 7 o’clock”. These errors can be reduced and eliminated by giving the learners opportunities to speak and write English that requires the correct usage of the third person in English. According to a blog on the Indonesian language, “The use of “Ia” or “dia” are gender neutral personal pronouns. Both can be used for male or female as “he” or “she.” However, in business settings or formal scenarios, it is considered impolite when you use “dia”; use “beliau” instead. It is used to express regard to someone with a higher status, a higher position, or someone with authority. The personal pronoun “beliau” is essential to building good rapport with business or social contacts.”

 Indonesian uses reduplication in order to form plurals. The word for “child” is anak, so “children” is anak-anak. Many Indonesians, when writing, represent the plural with the numeral 2. For example, Saya benci nyamuk2 means “I hate mosquitoes”. The Indonesian beginning learner of English can make the mistake of assuming the same reduplication rule applies in both languages. This assumption can produce errors like “Why do you have three computer-computer?” or in writing, “Why do you have three computer2?” This problem can be overcome by teaching Indonesian learners that English does not use reduplication to form plurals, that it uses “s” or “es” as well as many irregular forms such as oxen, geese, mice, etcetera. According to the Journal of Semantics, “Patterns of plural marking and numeral modification in Indonesian provide an interesting test bed for theories of the semantics of numeral classifiers and plurality. Cross-linguistically, the presence of numeral classifiers in a language is strongly connected with the absence or optionality of plural marking; this generalization is the basis of Chierchia’s (1998a, 1998b) nominal mapping parameter and also accords with established typological generalizations (Greenberg, 1972), (Aikhenvald, 2000), (Corbett, 2000). In Indonesian, pluralmarking as both reduplication and classifiers in numeral modification constructions are optional, and bare (non-reduplicated) Indonesian nouns are best analysed as exhibiting general number (Greenberg, 1972), (Carson, 2000), (Corbett, 2000), rather than corresponding to the unmarked member of a singular–plural opposition. Unlike many languages with general number, Indonesian exhibits no mass–count distinction: notionally ‘mass’ and notionally ‘count’ nouns do not differ in their grammatical behaviour and participate equally in reduplication and numeral modification constructions. We provide an analysis of the semantics of reduplication, classifiers, and numeral modification in Indonesian which rests on the lack of a mass–count distinction and explains the strong dispreference for numeral modification of reduplicated nouns. [ABSTRACT FROM PUBLISHER]”

 In reading and talking with others about Indonesian when I lived in Indonesia in 2007-08, I learned that Indonesian is intentionally easy to learn. The language is sometimes called Bahasa Nasional, “National Language”, because it is the lingua franca of an archipelago which historically and to this day is home to many distinct regional languages. Children learn their regional language (such as Javanese) at home, and then learn “national language” and English at school. The national language is based on a form of Malay spoken on Sumatra and western Java (wherein lies the capital and largest city, Jakarta). One way that Indonesian linguists found to help unite the country post-Independence from The Netherlands in 1948 was to ensure the national language is void of verbs which must be conjugated. This is a strange concept to speakers of our language and of others such as Spanish, but it really does simplify the learning and production of a language. For example, instead of having various ways of modifying verbs to refer to the future or the past, in Indonesian one simply makes mention of a point in time. Besok saya pergi sekolah untuk belajar Bahasa Inggris translates word-for-word as “Tomorrow I go school for study Language English”, and Saya tidak ciuman Orang Spanyol sebelumnya as “I not kiss People Spanish before this (moment in time).” Indonesian learners should be introduced to the way in which we make reference to points in time by being given examples of English sentences next to or above their Indonesian equivalents. So instead of “Tomorrow I go”, the English-speaker has the option of using will and leaving out a reference to a specific day by saying “I’ll go”. And of course of changing the verb go to its irregular past form went to refer to an unspecified point in the past.

 Indonesian has two ways of expressing the concept of “we”. One, the word kami, is used when the speaker wishes to refer to a group of people which is not inclusive of the person being addressed (the second person), but which is inclusive of one or more third persons (whether or not they are present). The second word is kita and is used when the speaker wishes to refer to “we” including the person being addressed as well as (possibly) third persons. This distinction between the two “types of we” is a novel concept for the English-speaker. As such, it is important for an EL teacher to be aware of this concept when teaching Indonesians. The teacher can draw attention to the fact that both kita and kami are represented by “we” in the EL. According to a Wikibooks web site, an example of this is:

“Budi: “Wati, ini buku kita.” (=Wati, this is our book.). Here, Budi speaks to Wati that this book is both Budi’s and Wati’s book. However, if Budi said “Wati, ini buku kami”, it means that this book is Budi’s (and probably his other friend’s) but not Wati’s.”

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