learining bahasa bali
learining bahasa bali

Learning Bahasa Indonesia: “Aku tidak mengerti” (I don’t understand)

When you make the decision to embark on a new adventure to the island of Bali, it might not be enough to run to the local bookstore. Grabbing a Bali Lonely Planet guide to read on the flight over and hoping you pick up the rest through osmosis probably won’t work

Grappling the Indonesian language is sometimes anything but natural and organic – expect a noxious mess of misunderstandings, dirty black-sand encrusted foot-in-mouth syndrome and some rather embarrassing grammatical blunders.

You can find yourself lost in a language where words are repeated in succession and stitched together with a hyphen to mean something entirely different.


  • ‘Hati’ means ‘heart’, ‘hati-hati’, means ‘be careful’.
  • Sama’ means ‘same’, ‘sama-sama’ means ‘you’re welcome’.

It’s a dizzying dialect where an extra syllable elongating a word changes it to the act of having or doing that thing.


  • Berjalan’ is ‘walking’ and ‘jalan’ is ‘street’. So the act of going down the street would be ‘berjalan’ on the ‘jalan’. (Streeting down the street?)
  • Makan’ is eating and ‘makanan’ is food. So having a meal would be ‘makan’ some ‘makanan’. (Fooding your food?)

Got your head wrapped around that yet? Try this on for size.

  • Tidur’ is ‘sleep’. Therefore the act of sleep itself, ‘asleep’ or ‘sleeping’ should be ‘tiduran’.
  • But alas, ‘tiduran’ means ‘to be on your back’, to rest your body and chill out with a lie down. But then ‘sleeping’ or being asleep is ‘sedang tidur’.

Early difficulties in learning Bahasa Indonesia are often related to the need to understand the structure of Indonesian words. Once you can eliminate ter-, meng-, pem– and other suffixes to find the root word, it’s much easier to look things up in a dictionary. For example to find ‘membuka’ you look up ‘buka’.

To make things more challenging, in English we have one word to cover numerous options in Bahasa. Confusion central.


  • The word ‘like’ can refer to ‘suka’ if you think something good, or ‘sayang’ if you care for someone/something; one English word, two completely different words in Bahasa.

Regional languages like Bahasa Bali or Bahasa Lombok and the increasing use of slang in the digital age make things more difficult. SMS abbreviations and social media chat is taking over the keypads of the Indonesian youth, so it can be a regular ‘badai sialan’ (shit storm) to try and wrap your head around it.

Now to share with you the basics of Bahasa Indonesia and some tips and tricks to help you learn the language.

Language school & private classes

Offering a range of classes and courses from their schools based in Ubud, Sanur, Kuta, and Canggu – Cinta Bahasa are leading the way in the Bahasa Indonesia market. Their methodology is modern and progressive; rather than drowning you in grammar and formal speech, which is rarely used, they will teach you the language that you will hear where ever you go in Indonesia.

In a basic course you will learn to converse on a wide range of day-to-day subjects in simple and polite Indonesian. Lessons cover how to bargain and negotiate, cultural subjects – from why it is wrong to give something using your left hand, to how to cross between two people politely and how to use a typical Indonesian squat toilet. You will learn how to meet, introduce yourself to and make friends with the Indonesian people around you. Lessons are offered in a range of structures, from basic to advanced, in private and group settings for visitors and expats.

Online courses

ClassDo connects teachers and students online for one-on-one virtual lessons. Once you enter the online community, you can select a local teacher and pay per lesson (price set by each individual teacher).

This flexible method is great for learners based outside of Indonesia and encourages the fostering of a relationship between yourself (foreigner) and your teacher (national), which may be your first contact before visiting the country and invaluable in understanding the Indonesian people.

Smart phone apps

There are a few on offer but the favourite by far is WordPower. It features different courses with flashcards, which you can load onto your screen and click on it to reveal the answer. You then get rated for your progress and won’t advance to higher levels until you answer all correctly. It’s a fun quiz game whenever you find yourself with time to burn.

Word association

A system developed by Bali Expat, James Harvey – Indoglyphs is a playful, easy and fun way of learning the language through word association – linking to words you already know through pictures and rhymes.

The left side of our brain is primarily involved with logic and language (unless you are left handed). This side on its own can learn new words, but it’s a little bit like trying to glue new words onto a piece of paper on a windy day – not many stick! The right side of the brain is involved in emotions, creativity and intuition. This side can imagine, invent and visualise which is great for learning new experiences, but doesn’t do language. When we bring these two parts together, magic happens. By getting emotionally involved and imagining or visualising we create strong experiences, which stimulate learning.

Harvey’s Indoglyph system is available online as an e-book or via Amazon on paperback for those of you who get a kick out of the smell of books rather than staring at a screen.

Word of the day & flashcards

Canggu Chronicles have designed fun and super cute ‘word of the day’ flashcards, which they post daily. This digital method allows you to save the picture as a smartphone screensaver for the day, so you automatically look at it every time you pick up your phone.


See the #indowordoftheday album by Canggu Chronicles.

Environment and experience

This is probably the longest way around learning a language, but a choice that will enrich your time in Indonesia. You will overhear conversations at the local market and you will start to recognise which bank notes are called what, as friendly locals greet you, you will start to understand times of day and names of frequently used items. Consistency is the key. Regular visits with locals = regular practice. Playing learning games and telling stories with the local children is a fantastic way to become immersed in the language.

Once awkward misunderstandings are out of the way, new relationships with people from very different walks of life, sharing a common desire to learn can be established. It is as equally challenging as it is rewarding. If you have any Balinese friends, work colleagues, staff – try to make your written correspondence in Bahasa and suggest that they try English. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity for a mutual exchange of corrections. A great way to learn!


Bali lingo every visitor needs to know

Not found in your regular phrasebook; these terms are important in avoiding unnecessary blunders.

  • Bali burn’ or ‘Bali tattooThe nasty repercussions of getting your ankle too close to your motorbike exhaust.
  • ‘Bali belly’ – The reason you don’t drink the tap water. Bali is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it is still a developing country. Be smart. Bottled water is readily available. Rest, rehydration and charcoal tablets are the answer if you unfortunately get an upset tummy.
  • ‘Bali time’An incredible phenomenon that chews up your travel itinerary, sees you sleeping in past 10am and has your driver constantly apologising.
  • ‘Bule’ -white or pale skinned. You. This is said in the kindest of manners. Just as you might call them Balinese or ‘balos’, you will be referred to as a ‘bule‘. Embrace it.
  • Banana massage’ – Use your imagination.
  • ‘Jiggy-jig’ – A casual dalliance.

Bahasa Bloopers

  • ‘Rambut’ (hair) & ‘Jembut’ (pubic hair) – A little too close for comfort on the pronunciation.
  • ‘Angin’ (wind) & ‘Anjing’ (dog) – Don’t get caught out in the dog. That’s just plain awkward.
  • ‘Ibu’ (mother) & ‘Ubi’ (sweet potato) – Nobody likes fried mothers.
  • ‘Kedelai’ (soy) & ‘Keledai’ (donkey) – Try not to order your coffee with donkey milk.
  • ‘Kasihku’ (my love) & ‘Kuchingku’ (my cat) – Not to be confused, unless you really, really love your cat.
  • Cawat’ (g-string) & ‘Cewek ‘(girl) – No female will take lightly to being called a loincloth.

Bahasa Basics

  • Hello – Halo
  • Good bye – Selamat Tinggal (you are leaving)/ Selamat Jalan (they are leaving)
  • Yes – Ya
  • No – Tidak
  • Please – Silakhan
  • Thank you – Terima Kasih
  • You’re welcome – Sama-sama
  • Good morning – Selamat pagi
  • Good afternoon – Selamat siang
  • Good Evening – Selamat sore
  • Good night – Selamat malam
  • Welcome – Selamat datang
  • Happy Birthday – Selamat Ulang Tahun
  • Congratulations! – Selamat!
  • How are you? – Apa Kabar?
  • I’m fine/good – Baik-baik saja
  • Have a nice day – Hari baik!
  • Enjoy your meal – Selamat makan
  • What is your name? – Siapa nama Anda?
  • My name is – Nama saya
  • Where are you from? – Anda berasal dari mana?
  • I am from – Saya dari
  • I want to go go– Saya mau pergi ke
  • Excuse me – Maaf/ Permisi (to get past)
  • I understand – Saya mengerti
  • I do not understand – Saya tidak mengerti
  • I’m sorry – Maafkan saya
  • I love you – Aku cinta kamu/ Saya cinta kamu/ Saya mencintaimu
  • Good – Bagus
  • Bad – Buruk
  • Happy – Senang/ Bahagia
  • Sad – Sedih
  • Beautiful – Cantik
  • Ugly – Jelek
  • Like – Sayang
  • Love – Cinta
  • What is this/ that? – Apa ini/ itu?
  • What is the time? – Jam Berapa?
  • How much/ many? – Berapa?
  • How much is this/ that? – Berapa ini/ itu?
  • Expensive! – Mahal!
  • Cheap – Murah
  • One – Satu
  • Two – Dua
  • Three – Tiga
  • Four – Empat
  • Five – Lima
  • Six – Enam
  • Seven – Tujuh
  • Eight – Delapan
  • Nine – Sembilan
  • Ten – Sepuluh

Handy grammar tips

These will be helpful in understanding the structure of sentences as you begin to be able to string them together.

  • Adjectives always follow the noun eg. ‘Beautiful woman’ – ‘wanita cantik’.
  • Word order is usually subject-verb-object eg. ‘Saya (I) mau (want) makan (to eat) nasi (rice)’.
  • The personal pronoun goes after the noun eg. ‘my car’ – ‘mobil saya’.

Remember this

Whatever your method, it’s most important to find the mix that works for you. Your experience of ‘Bali time’ mightn’t necessarily be conducive to you attending scheduled courses and lesson appointments. You might rather a quick crash-course with Cinta Bahasa, mixed with a daily play on your smart phone app and a few sunsets swapping language with locals on the stairs at the nearest beach.

Finally, a sweet rhyme for you to recite in Bahasa

Ingat-ingat itu

‘Ingat-ingat itu 

Jangan lupa itu 

Aku cinta kamu 

Hanya engkau /

‘Remember it,

Don’t forget it,

I love you,

Only you.’