Obama's Indonesian redux

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Back in July, Bill Poser noted that "Barack Obama is reported to speak Indonesian as result of the four years, from age six to age ten, that he spent in Indonesia." Bill asked for any evidence about Obama's competence in Indonesian. Since then, we've gotten some anecdotal reports about Obama's Indonesian (including from the President of Indonesia!), but we still don't know if his language skills rise above the basic conversational level.

On November 24, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known in Indonesia simply as SBY) had a telephone conversation with Obama. The conversation occurred when SBY was on his way back to Indonesia from Lima, Peru (site of the 2008 APEC summit) and his plane stopped in Seattle to refuel. As SBY later explained to reporters, during the six-minute conversation he congratulated Obama on his electoral victory and suggested that he visit Indonesia after the '09 APEC summit in Singapore.

SBY also told reporters about talking to Obama in Indonesian. Here's how the English-language Jakarta Post reported the news:

"He addressed me with, 'Apa Kabar Bapak President?' (How are you Mr. President?), in fluent Indonesian," Yudhoyono said.
Obama said he missed several local delicacies such as nasi goreng (fried rice), rambutan and bakso (meatball soup), he added.

Kompas, Indonesia's paper of record, supplied a more direct quote about Obama's yearning for Indonesian food: "Saya kangen nasi goreng, bakso, dan rambutan." Saya is the first-person singular pronoun and kangen is a verb for missing someone or something in a heartfelt, nostalgic way. Kangen is a rather colloquial word derived from Javanese (rindu would be a more formal synonym), and it's certainly the type of word that Obama could have picked up growing up in Jakarta with a Javanese stepfather. (His younger half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has some proficiency in Indonesian, as I discussed here and here.) And having lived in Indonesia for a few years myself, I can speak from personal experience that nasi goreng, bakso, and rambutan are extremely credible food cravings.

We don't know anything else about the exchange between Obama and SBY, as the Indonesian president informed reporters about it via his plane's intercom (after touching down at Nagoya Airport in Japan) and there were presumably no follow-up questions. But if Obama takes SBY up on his offer, then we'll surely be hearing more stories about their Indonesian conversations. During the campaign, Obama had promised to "travel to a major Islamic forum" during his first 100 days in office, and some observers feel that Indonesia would be the logical destination. We'll have to wait and see.

We were tipped off about the Obama-SBY conversation by a helpful commenter on Bill's post (belying his handle, bloon, which is colloquial Indonesian for "stupid, crazy"). Another commenter, Peter Phwan, just left a note about his own personal interaction with Obama in Indonesian:

I met him during his early rally in San Francisco in September 7, 2007. Kemala Harris and women coalition were there to endorse him. This was the time where not all Americans knew who Obama was.
After delivering his speech, I came to the podium where many others flocked. I was very curious from early on after reading his books to try his Bahasa Indonesia. I speak Indonesian myself.
I just simply called "Mas Barry, apakabar?". Mas is a Indonesian word to use to call older brother. "Apakabar" is How are you?.
Sure enough, Mas Barry immediately looked at me with surprise (everybody spoke English and managed to shake hand with the superstar).
Then, almost no accent, Obama said, "Baik". (Baik means good, you say it like "bike").
I said, "Mas, saya dari Indonesia" (Mas, I am from Indonesia)
To my surprise, he asked me, "Dari mana?" (Where from).
And I said, "Saya dari Jakarta" (I am from Jakarta).
As you know, Obama could not stay too long around the podium. He had to go for another campaign.
It was indeed short conversatin. But I was happy and impressed after this conversation. Yes, the 44th President of United States speaks Bahasa Indonesia.

So now we know from two secondary sources that Obama has no problem giving and receiving the standard Indonesian greeting apa kabar? (lit., "what's the news?"). Obama's followup to Peter, dari mana? ("where are you from?") is also a routine pleasantry. I would characterize both of these conversations as "bus-stop Indonesian," and about what I would expect Obama to remember after all these years in the US.

I still share Bill Poser's doubt, however, that Obama would be able "to carry out political negotiations with Indonesian leaders in Indonesian, or even to understand discussions of topics like politics and technology in an Indonesian newspaper." But as far as I know he's never made any claims to that level of proficiency. When Obama does eventually make a trip to Indonesia, I'm sure that simply throwing out his conversational pleasantries will go a long way in the eyes of many Indonesians.

[Update, Jan. 23: We now have video evidence of Obama's proficiency in Indonesian small talk. See this post for details.]


  1. Gabor said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Given the important admixture of Javanese to Indonesian among the political elite of the country, it may not be wise for someone who does not know Javanese to attempt a sensitive negotiation in Indonesian!

  2. Z. D. Smith said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    Frankly, I think the ability to exchange routine pleasantries in a given foreign language is much more important for a leader than the ability to engage in political negotiations. There are going to be few occasions where both members of a diplomatic exchange will be fluent enough in the same language that they would both be comfortable engaging in high-level negotiations, rather than through trained professional translators. But an American president actually engaging in an exchange of greetings in a foreign language could be a good first start to rehabilitating this country's image as a nation that is entirely unconcerned with other cultures, and one where it is always simply assumed that anything you do with us, you do on our terms.

  3. John Cowan said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    Not only that, but it suggests that Obama will have more grasp than the average American of just what "pleasantries" means in another language/culture: in this case, the apparently obligatory sequence of, to an American, highly personal questions.

  4. dr pepper said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    No doubt Obama will brush up on the language. If nothing else, his sister will probably stop by.

  5. mollymooly said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    I remember a few allusions c.2000 to GW Bush's "fluent" Spanish.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    I'm surprised nobody is reported asking "mau ke mana?" ("where are you going?"). It's what I remember hearing most frequently. A sometime traveling companion found that "ini sendok" answered many queries; it means "this is a spoon", and indeed it was.

    Indonesian is interesting in lacking the verb "to be" along with most of the cases, moods, tenses, genders, plurals, articles and whatnot that we are used to, substituting a variety of prefixes and suffixes to indicate other things. I had read of semanticists who insisted that omitting "to be" from a language would improve communication because, they seemed to be saying, it always expressed a falsehood. Instead, I found that in Indonesian it was simply implied, any place a verb seemed lacking. Also interesting was that instead of plural forms to indicating number, they use redoubling to add vagueness: "orang": person or persons; "orang-orang": people. This worked for verbs and adjectives too.

  7. Lee said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    It is so cool to have a president that can speak baso basi.

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    (For those unfamiliar with Indonesian, basa-basi means "polite conversation" — precisely what Obama was engaging in.)

  9. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 6:30 am

    I was once informed that Indonesian is very easy because it has "no grammar" — which seemed a remarkable claim. Years later I took the trouble to learn a bit of the language in preparation for a business trip to Java lasting about a month. It turns out that there is, after all, some grammar. Perhaps the trickiest feature for foreign learners is the Object Focus construction, which someone more proficient than I can probably explain here.

  10. Dougal Stanton said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    Indonesian is interesting in lacking the verb "to be" …

    Presumably, this means Shakespeare translates fluidly from the original Klingon.

  11. Karen said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 10:04 am

    "Has no grammar" seems to mean "does not inflect".

  12. Merri said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    A bit more than that. Isolating languages don't inflect. Isolating languages have specfic markers for tense and mood (and that's grammar), but Indonesian use them sparsely,

    The fact that the stative construction is non-verbal isn't specific to Indonesian ; compare phrases for 'I'm a teacher' :

    saya guru (Indonesian)
    ya profesor (Russian)
    ani more (Hebrew)

    and others (please correct me if I'm wrong about one of those three)

    But Hamlet's 'to be' isn't a stative ; in that sense, all abovementioned languages use some verb.

    In a sense, we are the outliers ; having to use a verb to state something that's basically non-verbal is strange.

  13. Faith said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    Idea for another post: all the languages that people claim "have no grammar," and why. I have heard it said about Turkish and Yiddish. I have no idea as to Turkish, but Yiddish most certainly has grammar (including inflection). There are historical and political reasons why many people refuse to believe it. I could do with a bracing Pullum-style rant on the topic. Any takers?

  14. Merri said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:04 am

    Oops, I meant 'strange to need a verb' ;-)

  15. wally said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Turkish certainly has grammar, I think it was the Lonely Planet guide book which described it as a "fiendish grammar".

    What it doesn't have is grammatical gender. No der die or das, no his or her. Thus, women have always had full equality in Turkish society.

  16. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Re perceptions of grammarlessness: In his classic 1959 article on diglossia, Charles Ferguson noted that speakers in diglossic communities will often tell you that L varieties "have no grammar" (or aren't even "language" at all).

  17. Allison said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Merri – "we are the outliers"? Who are we?

    Spanish uses a verb to express "to be" – "ser" and it's fully conjugated like a verb. I'd guess the other Romance languages do, too. And German. Is it an Indo-European thing? I don't know any Indic or Indo-Iranian languages.

    Arabic has "kana" (which an Arab will tell you is not a verb, but an American student will say, "If it's got tense like a duck, mood like a duck, conjugates like a duck, and has number and gender markers like a duck….") although it's not required in present tense sentences. Kind of a medial point between the two ideas.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

    Persons who claim that a language (sometimes their own) "has no grammar" usually mean that they have never been subjected to "grammar" as a school subject for it, in comparison with the more or less painful learning of "grammar" for a second language (or prestige dialect) which may have been that of the school they attended. One's own language (or dialect) always seems easier, more natural etc than any other one that we have learned consciously: "i just think and the words come out of my mouth", or from the other side: "they just speak any old way, they have no grammar".

    I taught my own language (French) to anglophones and others for many years. Time and again (until I had enough experience under my belt) students asked me "why didn't you explain such and such a point ?" – "It didn't occur to me that you would have trouble with it" (because it came to me naturally). Some of my colleagues (non-linguists) and even some textbook authors found some topics too easy to bother explaining (especially if they could not explain them), in spite of the fact that even the best students found them very difficult and regularly made mistakes.
    On the other hand, a language with more complexities than one's own in some areas may put off people who don't understand why those "frills" should be necessary, yet who don't necessarily recognize those frills as an integral part of grammar: "Who cares whether a word is masculine or feminine?" This distinction is not part of "English grammar", so (some) students don't see why they should bother with it.

  19. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    A professor visiting the U.S., whose English was quite poor, once told me that English has no grammar, only syntax. I was tempted to reply that he shouldn't make generalizations about a language he didn't speak, but I managed to hold my tongue.

  20. D.O. said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:46 am

    not to critisize, but "I am a teacher" in Russian is "Ya uchitel'"
    (apostrophe here means soft sound). And yes, Russian does not use explicit form of "to be" in the present tense.

  21. Terry Hunt said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    As an aside, the post's reference to "his handle, bloon, which is colloquial Indonesian for "stupid, crazy" struck me. I recall from living in Scotland during the 70's and 80's that balloon[sp?] was Glaswegian[?] slang for someone who did a clownishly foolish thing. Is this merely one of the inevitable coincidences of the sort sometimes used erroneously to claim language relationships, or could there actually have been a borrowing one way or the other, what with Glasgow being a major port?

  22. Lugubert said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    I'm glad that I had swallowed before reading your ducks quote. I like my keyboard.

    On the limited conversations, I think it's impressive when a person immediately responds correctly to a cue. When I'm addressed in a language that I "know" (including those from which I translate professionally) but havent used actively for some time, there's often a noticeable delay before I find even standard phrases.

  23. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

    @Terry: I don't think we're dealing with a secret Glasgow/Jakarta connection here. The word bloon is pronounced with a glottal stop, /bloʔon/ (and indeed is often spelled blo'on), so it doesn't sound much like balloon.

  24. richard said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Terry, "bloon" is pronounced more like "blown" than, shall I say, "blune." Most likely the word is either borrowed from Dutch or has been modified under the assumption that it was borrowed from Dutch…not an uncommon occurrence in Indonesia or local Malay dialects from the eastern third of the country. Manadonese Malay and Ambonese Malay speakers, in my experience, seem to assume that borrowed words must have been borrowed from Dutch, and pronounce them accordingly.

    On the subject of grammar, I think one of the factors encouraging the repetition of the idea that Indonesian has no grammar is that informal, spoken Indonesian can be frustratingly laconic, even to native speakers, and this seems to be particularly true when you really need the missing information, such as who or what is the agent of an action referred to in a conversation. Perhaps as a consequence, there is a joke among Indonesian language learners that Indonesian has only three voices: passive, extremely passive, and passive-aggressive.

  25. Sili said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    Just out of curiousity, how fluent is Kerry's French?

    Obama may or may not be fluent, but it does sound like he has a talent for codeswitching.

    I consider myself fairly conversant in English, but if I find it nearly impossible to, say, use both English and Danish on instant messaging at the same time.

  26. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    Back in 2004 we talked about Kerry's French here and here. There wasn't a whole lot of evidence to go on, since his campaign was apparently trying to keep his Francophonie under wraps.

    Bill Poser gave us a roundup of the foreign language abilities of the '08 candidates here.

  27. richard said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Frankly, it's a relief having a President who can speak English. The rest is gravy at this point….

  28. Dominic said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    Re: the presence or absence of "to be", and English as an outlier–we were discussing copula deletion in an Indo-European class I took, when the professor pointed out that it isn't that other languages have a lot of copula deletion, so much as English has a lot of copula insertion.

  29. Nathan Myers said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 3:35 am

    Even I would say "baik, baik" instantly on hearing "apa kabar", despite only four months' practice almost twenty years back. I wouldn't count that as code-switching.

    That said, I use vi mode in emacs ("viper-mode").

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 6:21 am

    The thread about whether you can omit a copula ("to be") in sentences like "I am a teacher" is not really relevant to whether President Obama can get by in Indonesian, but it provides an opportunity to draw readers' attention to the existence of the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS), which as far as I can tell has never been mentioned on LL. This is a terrific work by Martin Haspelmath and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Antrhopology in Leipzig, published in book form by Oxford University Press four or five years ago. It is now available for free online. If you want to know whether it's English or Russian that is the "outlier", you go to the relevant map and you quickly see that neither is: both omission of the copula and non-omission are quite common in the world's languages, with omission especially common in Central and SE Asia and Oceania, East Africa and (indigenous) South America, and non-omission especially common in Europe, West Africa, and (indigenous) North America. The home page for WALS online is http://wals.info/. Don't start browsing if you have an imminent deadline!

  31. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    I find "copula-deletion" and "copula-insertion" both misleading as they assume (following "universal grammar") that there has to be a copula somewhere. The concept of deletion makes sense if there is something to delete, for instance ne-deletion in colloquial French, or that-deletion in English subordinate clauses. Most languages which do not use the "copula" at all can use more words than just verbs as a predicative, eg a word which can be the predicate in a sentence, so the lack of a copula does not mean that anything is missing. "Copula-deletion" can make sense in Russian, an Indo-European language that does use a copula in the past tense, but it does not necessarily make sense in languages of a different type.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 8:31 am

    About Obama's Indonesian:

    Whatever Obama's current level of fluency, since he lived in Indonesia as a child his command of phonology was probably equal to that of his classmates, so that he must sound Indonesian to Indonesians. Pronunciation is a big part of being perceived as a speaker or not. Persons who have native-like grammar and a large vocabulary might still be considered poor speakers if a thick foreign accent makes their speech difficult to understand, and even a slight trace of accent will mark them as outsiders. Conversely, a person with native command of phonology will be accepted as a speaker in spite of limited vocabulary and grammatical resources. For instance, we do not expect a six-year old child to have the linguistic resources of an educated adult, but we can definitely recognize whether this child is a normal speaker of our language.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

    We can also recognize other native speakers of our own language on the basis of a very limited sample of their conversation, for instance from hearing people who pass us in an international airport lounge or corridor. Obama's conversation with the president of Indonesia may have been limited in terms of time, topic and style, but the president obviously did not have any linguistic reason to think of Obama as anything other than a normal speaker of the language.

  34. Terry Hunt said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Thanks to Bob for the WALS link, immediately added to my favourites list, and to Benjamin and Richard for painlessly puncturing my balloon!

  35. Johanne D said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    marie-lucie said:
    "I taught my own language (French) to anglophones and others for many years. (…) Students asked me "why didn't you explain such and such a point ?" – "It didn't occur to me that you would have trouble with it" (because it came to me naturally)."

    I've often heard that whan you start learning a second language, it's better to work with a teacher whose native language is the same as yours — and hence knows where the pitfalls are. It certainly worked for me (with Spanish).

  36. marie-lucie said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

    I spoke about this once with a man who had grown up in Chile, where he had had several English teachers: the ones he remembered as least effective were Britishers, the best ones were native Chileans, for the same reason I mentioned. Native speakers are good as models, but they need good training in language teaching. Having been exposed to language teaching themselves also helps.

    In school (many decades ago) I took German from an Alsatian teacher, whose native language was not French but the Alsatian dialect of German. He had no idea of the problems faced by French-speaking children, and as a result our command of German was way below what it should have been. I think he was teaching us German as he had been taught Standard German in school, as another dialect rather than another, quite different language.

  37. Elisheva Wiriaatmadja said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 12:54 am

    Obama's Indonesian is too simple. You can easily learn that without having to live here in Indo for 4 years. And Indo's should stop falling in love with Obama just because of the "personal connection" they have with Obama's step father being Indonesian… duh!


  38. Al Ham said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    "Bloon" is actually pronounced "blo 'on." Other good insults are "bego" and "goblok" or "geblek." It's a great language, very fluid, lets you handle it roughly.

  39. hamdanil said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    I think Obama's fluency may be limited only to pleasantries and simple conversations. He spent only 4 years as a kid in Indonesia and it was almost 40 years ago. He talked to SBY for 6 minutes and all we know he said was that he missed rambutan. But I am looking forward to him visiting Indonesia, maybe he will draw more crowd than Ahmadinejad did in 2006

    By the way Professor Zimmer, your Indonesian is very good. How long were you staying there?

  40. Han Widya said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 1:33 am

    Have you guys read this article (and seen the video)?


    During Obama's visit to the State Dept., one of the staffs who'd once been stationed at the US Embassy in Jakarta greeted him in Bahasa Indonesia ("Selamat Siang, Bapak!" or "Good Afternoon, Sir!"); in which the President responded with a pretty decent Indonesian accent (saying "Terima Kasih" or "Thank You" and asked "Apa Kabar?" or "How Are You?")..

    Obama went on explaining that back then in Jakarta, he lived at an area called "Menteng Dalam" (Inner Menteng), which he translated as "Below Menteng".. interesting..

  41. Greg Morrow said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 11:43 am


    President Obama's at home in Indonesia, Hawaii, Harvard, and working-class Chicago, and he's mixed-race and a politician. Being really good at code-switching is a major life skill for him!

  42. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    @hamdanil: I lived in Indonesia for about four years in total, mostly in Bandung.

    @Han Widya: I've posted about Obama's latest exchange here.

  43. Sue Roberts said,

    February 5, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    Just wondering why they have the sentence in English and then at the end of the sentence they switched to Indonesian.

    It was indeed short conversatin. But I was happy and impressed after this conversation. Yes, the 44th President of United States speaks Bahasa Indonesia.

    Bahasa Indonesia means Indonesia language. It is not a place.

  44. Paul Townend said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    Only recently found LL – it's fantastic.

    It's certainly true as Marie-Lucie says that a command of the phonology leads to much more/easier acceptance by speakers of the relevant language, especially a language whose speakers are not used to foreign learners.

    I saw Roger Moore (James Bond in the 70s and 80s), appearing before a football match in Ljubljana as a UN goodwill ambassador, attempt to address a crowd with a few words of Slovene and they were utterly bewildered. The PA was very poor, but I did hear people next to me saying they couldn't understand his English.

    Also @marie-lucie – Certainly not offended by it and the point about SL teacher is a fair one, but as an English/British person I find the term "Britisher" to be absolutely awful. Not sure why.

  45. Lyly said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 3:02 pm


    Being a non-native Arabic speaker, I certainly think of "kana" as a verb, or at least something that acts like a verb.

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