Obama's Indonesian pleasantries: now with food!

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In January 2009, soon after President Obama was sworn in, we had our first video evidence of his conversational skills in Indonesian, based on an exchange he had with a State Department staffer. (See "Obama's Indonesian pleasantries: the video.") As I said at the time, his experience of living in Indonesia from age six to ten had left him "if not bilingual, at least bi-courteous." Now Obama is on his long-delayed state visit to Indonesia, and he's been breaking out some more Indonesian pleasantries and showing off basic food-related etiquette.

Obama first used an Indonesian phrase when he began speaking at a joint press conference with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ("SBY" for short), greeting the assembled reporters with selamat sore, or "Good afternoon." He then shifted back into English for his remarks, until the very end:

I believe that our two nations have only begun to forge the cooperation that’s possible.  And I say that not simply as someone who knows firsthand what Indonesia can offer the world.  I say it as President — a President who knows what Indonesia and the United States can offer the world together if we work together in a spirit of mutual interest and mutual respect. So, terima kasih dan assalamualaikum [thank you and peace be upon you].

Terima kasih means "thank you," dan means "and," and assalamualaikum is the standard Arabic greeting of "peace be upon you," which has become a conventional formula in Indonesian oratory, not just in Islamic contexts. (The official White House transcript misspells terima kasih as terimah kasih.)

Later in the evening, Obama gave a toast at the state dinner that SBY held in his honor at the Presidential Palace. They made sure that some of Obama's favorite foods from his childhood were served for the occasion. (As I mentioned in January 2009, Obama had reminisced about Indonesian food when he first spoke to SBY by phone when he was still president-elect.) I haven't seen video of the toast, so I'm going by the White House transcript for this:

Now, I’m going to have the opportunity to speak tomorrow and so I will try to keep my remarks brief.  First of all, thank you for the bakso. (Laughter.)  The nasi goreng.  (Applause.)  The emping. (Laughter.)  The kerupuk.  (Laughter.)  Semuanya enak. (Laughter.)  Thank you very much.  (Applause.)

Bakso (meatballs), nasi goreng (fried rice), emping (melinjo fritters), and k(e)rupuk (tapioca fritters) are all common Indonesian foods that Obama would likely have encountered on the streets of Jakarta 40 years ago. (I've corrected the official transcript, which misspells goreng "fried" as goring.) As he lists the food, he injects the Indonesian words for them into his English speech (using the English determiner the), but then ends with a complete Indonesian sentence: Semuanya enak, "All of it is delicious." (Local Indonesian reports gave versions of the toast that were slightly different from the official transcript, generally converting the entire expression of thanks into Indonesian.)

As Obama mentioned, he'll have another opportunity to speak tomorrow, when he delivers an address at the University of Indonesia. He will no doubt work some more Indonesian into that speech, but it remains to be seen whether he will have a memorable Ich bin ein Berliner moment, as John McWhorter and I speculated in our Bloggingheads conversation a couple of months ago. Stay tuned.

[Update, Nov. 10: See my followup post for an analysis of Obama's speech at the University of Indonesia.]


  1. Kylopod said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    How's his pronunciation?

  2. stormboy said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    The BBC World Service is reporting this morning that he became 'fluent in the local language' when he lived in Indonesia as a child.

  3. Kylopod said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    Hmmmm…. A few weeks ago, John McWhorter here suggested Obama was downplaying his fluency to avoid giving fodder to his political enemies who try to paint him as foreign. With the press already declaring him fluent based on his knowledge of a handful of stock expressions (a standard by which a majority of Americans would probably be considered fluent in Spanish), I have my doubts about McWhorter's theory.

  4. marie-lucie said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 9:44 am

    If he lived in Indonesia from age six to ten and went to an Indonesian school, he probably became linguistically undistinguishable from an Indonesian child of that age, but he did not have the opportunity to acquire an adult command of the language (eg more complex sentences, more sophisticated vocabulary). So he might not be up to the demands of making a speech to be heard by millions of people (though he could be helped to do so by a translator), or of having a serious political discussion in the language with the Indonesian head of state.

  5. harif said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    There were some mispronunciation, for example he said "Pankasila", and I'm sure when he said the awkward "mengungkapkan" he meant "mengucapkan (which would have been far more normal). He also mispronounced several "e" and I think he forgot his memorization at the end of his speech where he abruptly said "assalamu'alaikum" and "terimakasih"
    conclusion: the indonesian words weren't natural. he got them scripted and memorised

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    The whole subject of bilingual children is interesting. My eldest son heard German and English used about 50/50. The idea that they were two entirely different coding systems took some time to develop. For a while he tried speaking German indoors and English outdoors, then speaking German to adults and English to other children, both of which matched his experience pretty well.

    Once he was in a 100% English environment, his German withered away. Now in his 50s, his occasional forays into German sound good, but he lacks an adult vocabulary and can't handle more than simple sentences. I can understand why President Obama would avoid getting into a situation where he has to think on his feet in Bahasa.

  7. Mr Punch said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    My father, born 1920 in Paris, had Alsatian nursemaids and wound up with a plausible accent in German but no extensive command of the language. This was sometimes a disadvantage, e.g., his simple question might elicit a response far beyond his comprehension.

    I find the same effect, with a different cause, among some Dutch people speaking English – what seems to be a native speaker's accent (though unidentifiable) but limited command.

  8. jan wohlgemuth said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    Calling Indonesian simply "Bahasa" (which means 'langauge') is what the colonial rulers did and is inaccurate.

  9. Kaviani said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    Calling Indonesian simply "Bahasa" (which means 'langauge')

    Isn't "bahasa" from a totally different language family from Riau-Malay? I know it's used in widely in Indo-Aryan languages. Yes, the Indo-Aryan influence is huge, I know.

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    For a long discussion of using Bahasa to refer to Indonesian (a misnomer, in my book), see the comments at the end of this post.

  11. Guadalupe R. Brubaker said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    Thanks for more info about bahasa… And BTw. Thanks to you Ben Zimmer.

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