Learning Javanese

It is a common understanding that the more we learn, the clearer it will become how much more there is to learn. To a naive spectator, the prospect of learning seems much less daunting. The realization of how long it takes to master a skill or topic is a sign of progress. A few weeks into learning Indonesian, however, I realized not only how much work it would take to master Indonesian, but that I was also mastering the wrong language.

Ryan with his host brother, host mom, and host dad, sitting on steps. The host brother gives a peace sign and Ryan gives a shaka/hang ten sign.

Ryan with his homestay family.

After moving in with my homestay family, I began to spend many nights in the angkringan (small, street-side restaurant) that they owned. I would eat dinner there—and still do—almost every night, staying up late, helping make drinks and wash dishes, talking, and playing cards with friends. It is a common meeting place for local political parties, Islamic boarding school students reading the Qur'an, reunions of old friends and families, or locals looking for a cheap snack and good conversation. As I became more proficient in Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language), I began to comfortably initiate conversations with family, friends, or any random local who was looking to talk. I felt my vocabulary growing, which gave me access to more information about the people around me. But as I listened in on the voices filling the angkringan, I couldn’t make out a single familiar word. Quickly, I realized the same thing was true about my family's conversations at home, between my coworkers, and among local friends. My Bahasa Indonesia was progressing, while my comprehension of the ambient noise stood still. 

I had been aware of Javanese since before departing for Indonesia, but I couldn’t have anticipated its prevalence. In our home neighborhood, Kotagede, most of the inhabitants are Jogja locals, meaning they speak Indonesian but their primary language is Javanese. The language dynamics immediately interested me, and I wanted to learn more about how locals view their two languages; which one is more comfortable, and how it feels to switch between languages, or even mix them. I was told by many that regardless of their clear fluency in both languages, it would feel awkward to speak Indonesian to other Jogja locals.

After some time, I began to finally feel fulfilled by the relationships I had made. I was spending more time with my homestay brother, making friends on my own by playing soccer and signing up for random activities, and started to see the other interns at my placement site outside of work. The stress of not being able to support one-on-one conversations with my vocabulary was replaced by a desire to use it to meet new people. They were more than willing to use Bahasa Indonesia with me. It was only when more people were added to the setting that I went from understanding the majority of what I heard to understanding nothing; so I decided that I would take on the challenge of learning—at least conversationally—the Javanese language.

Thanks to the history of Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese, some aspects turned out easier than I expected. While Javanese has existed for thousands of years, Bahasa Indonesia is a sort of manufactured language that was created and promoted in the early 1900s as a medium of unity leading up to Indonesian independence in 1945. Thus, Bahasa Indonesia is almost entirely drawn from Malay, Javanese, and other local languages that share much of their structure. Because of this, and in addition to Jogja locals’ tendency to mix the two languages, I was relieved to learn that I would still be using the same grammar rules and some of the same vocabulary as Bahasa Indonesia.

Various adults sit on the floor in an open-air classroom space, writing on and reading language books on low desks while the teacher stand against the wall
Ryan joining his homestay mother for a Javanese Language class that was put together for the neighborhood adults, many of whom do not know the most formal Krama Inggil. There, they also learned how to write in Javanese script, because Javanese is mostly communicated in Latin characters, but actually comes from an entirely unique alphabet.

It didn’t take long to understand that there would also be many challenging aspects of learning Javanese. The language has three predominantly different languages within itself—Ngoko, Krama Madya, and Krama Inggil—which are all intended for different situations, depending on how respectful the speaker needs to be. In most of the situations where I would be exposed to Javanese, whether it be with groups of friends, informally speaking with coworkers, or listening to my homestay parents and their friends, I was listening to Ngoko—the least formal. As a further challenge, the way Ngoko is spoken varies greatly depending on where you are in Java, who is being spoken to, and the age group of the person speaking it. For every word you learn, there is very likely a shortened or alternative slang version that is more commonly used.

My language teacher studied Javanese in university and now works for the government, writing stories in the more formal Krama Madya and Krama Inggil that are aimed at younger generations, which have largely rejected the languages in favor of the more simple Bahasa Indonesia. He has taught Javanese to non-locals looking to take on functional fluency. So he was a bit surprised when I said I wanted to learn Ngoko, but only speaking and in its least formal, most slang-saturated form. This knowledge would be conventionally useless, as pronunciation frequently varies from spelling and it would be considered rude for me to use the language in any remotely formal setting. But for me, it would serve just what I needed: to connect with friends and family who were already so close to me.

In short, the process of taking up Javanese has been rough, but fulfilling in its own way. In the face of slang that not even local adults understand, much of my daily learning has been word-by-word and particular to the culture, as opposed to the basics necessary for communication. In my lessons, I have learned how to speak like I am a foreigner learning Ngoko. With friends, I have learned just about every swear word and hilarious exclamation there is. From my parents, I am constantly receiving new vocabulary, as they never stop searching for something new to teach me. I am nowhere close to fluent in terms of speaking like a local, nor do I expect to be anytime soon. If anything, my attempt at learning Javanese has been most uniting solely because it’s an attempt; I am showing, even in jumbled words, that I want to learn just a little bit more of Javanese culture. And this incredible community that I have found is ecstatic to share it with me.


Ryan Moores