How I Learned Indonesian With Babbel, 5 Days Before I Left For Bali
Editor’s note: When Chaweon told us that she was making the leap into the Bali digital nomad life, we knew it was the perfect opportunity to put Babbel to the test. Could someone really use the app and then apply what they’d learned to make real connections in a new language? Read on for her first-person account from Bali.
About 3 months ago, I walked out of a contentious, ad-hominem-filled meeting at work and decided, “I’m moving to Bali.”
Had I ever been to Bali before? No.
Never mind that I wear SPF50+++, even on Christmas, because I’m the color of an albino deer. Never mind that I once ran away from a chipmunk in Michigan because nature truly frightens me. For the past 10 years, I’ve envisioned myself swathed in a bright sarong, walking through swaying coconut trees, high-fiving jungle butterflies.
Coincidentally, an acquaintance of mine was about to move to Bali at the end of September, and he was open to being roommates. So, on a crest of optimism, I bought a one-way plane ticket.
Five days before I left for Bali, I downloaded the Babbel app onto my iPhone.
“Are you going on holiday?” asked Lucy, a lovely British girl at my workplace.
“No, I’m going to move there and do the digital nomad thing,” I said.
“Oh, how exciting!” said Lucy. “Bali is one of my favorite places on Earth. Perfectly lovely. Although the dogs roam around in gangs and terrorize people.”
I love doggies.
“And it’s quite hot,” she added. “The hottest place I’ve ever been to.”
I have a portable fan.
“Also, the monkeys are a bit rude. They took my boyfriend’s water bottle, opened up the cap, and poured it all out in front of him. Then just hopped away. Hmm,” said Lucy.
“Do you know any Indonesian?” she asked.
No, I did not know a single word. But unlike the dogs, sun, and Hades-spawn monkeys — I have control over learning the language.
Bali is one of the many islands in Indonesia. And, coincidentally, Babbel offers one Asian language: bahasa Indonesia. (By lesson 2 on Babbel, I learned that Indonesian is bahasa Indonesia…English is bahasa Ingriss…German is bahasa Jerman. Guess what bahasa means!)
Five days before I left for Bali, I downloaded the Babbel app onto my iPhone. You can also do lessons on Babbel.com if you’re in front of your computer, but my schedule was so packed with pre-moving errands that I knew I’d only be able to manage 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there.
So first of all — there were so many lessons. I was impressed. There were two (not just one) beginner’s courses. Course one has 19 lessons and is for the total newbie. Course two has 27 lessons and goes more into bahasa Indonesia for tourist-y activities (like shopping at the market and getting directions). And there are also a lot of one-off lessons about stuff like technology and media, as well as tips about grammar. But one step at a time…
I started with course one, lesson 1.
“Selamat pagi,” I said to my coworkers in the morning.
“Selamat siang,” I said during mid-day.
“Selamat sore” (rhymes with olé and you roll the r), I said in late afternoon.
“Selamat malam,” I said in the evening.
My coworkers were curious. “What are you saying?”
“I’m greeting you according to the time of day…in Indonesian!” I said.
Soon, it was a common thing for me to be using the Babbel app during coffee breaks, my coworkers just chillin’ around me. I put my phone on speaker and stirred my coffee while recording my voice into the app.
The app didn’t just have an audio file telling you how to say the word. All the audio is of native speakers, both male and female, speaking at a natural speed. The app then has you record yourself afterward, and then it judges you to filth.
Selamat malam, said the app. I’d repeat into my phone: “Selamat malam.”
If I said the word right, then it would turn green, make an approving noise, and I could move on. If I didn’t pronounce it right, it made the unhappy noise and turn red. After a string of unhappy noises after I couldn’t pronounce “bapak” correctly (the k is silent), my coworkers would start laughing: “that app is hardcore!”
All Babbel’s audio is of native speakers, both male and female, speaking at a natural speed. The app then has you record yourself afterward, and then it judges you to filth.
By the day I left for Bali, I was at lesson 3. “Sampai jumpa lagi,” I told my coworkers, my friends. See you later.
The first time I spoke Indonesian in Bali was when I spoke to my Airbnb host.
“Selamat pagi,” I said when I went to the kitchen for breakfast.
“Selamat pagi,” said Ibu. “Apa kabar?”
Apa kabar…apa kabar. My brain scanned through all the lessons I’d done on Babbel, until I remembered. Apa kabar = “How are you?”
Ibu is a tall, regal woman with sad brown eyes, who has a couple teenage children and an adorable toddler named Bella. And, by the way, Ibu is not her name. The literal translation means “Mother,” but Ibu is a polite word to call a woman, much like we would use “ma’am” or “Ms.” This is one of the many cultural lessons I read about in the app, and she looked pleasantly surprised when I started calling her Ibu, instead of her first name. Ibu is just more respectful.
This is one of the many cultural lessons I read about in the app, and she looked pleasantly surprised when I started calling her Ibu, instead of her first name. Ibu is just more respectful.
I would come into the house in the evening and pass by the family on the way to my room. “Selamat malam!” I would say, giddy that I could say something, anything, in bahasa Indonesia.
Of course, most everyone in the family could speak some English, because tourism is a huge industry on the island. Also, they speak Balinese (the local dialect) as well as official Indonesian.
“But I find American English easier to understand,” said Putu, my taxi driver. “Sometimes, Australian accents confuse me.” (Most of the English-speaking tourists in Bali are Aussies.) Putu’s English, of course, was far superior to my Indonesian. But I was still determined to practice.
“Jalan means street. So this is Jalan Hanoman. Or Jl. Hanoman, for short,” he said. There was a big yellow banner on Jl. Hanoman.
I picked out only the words I already knew from the app. “Tidak…parkir…terimah kasih…no…parking…thank you.”
“Good, good,” Putu said.
“But…there are so many motorbikes and cars parked here,” I said.
Putu laughed and shrugged. “Well…”
Driving and parking in Bali is controlled chaos. The roads are filled with scooters and motorbikes, weaving through traffic and even going on the sidewalks. Because I lived in Seoul, South Korea, for three years, I’m used to seeing motorbikes flagrantly ignore traffic laws. But I’m doubly impressed by the Balinese riders, and slightly alarmed. People will pack what looks like an aisle of Walmart onto the back of their scooters and somehow safely make it to their destinations.
“The word for ‘coconut’ and ‘head’ sounds almost the same in bahasa Indonesia,” said Putu. “So be careful! You might want to say ‘Can I have coconut to drink’ and you might say ‘Can I have head to drink.’” Putu laughed, and then I thought about that scene in the movie Hannibal where Dr. Lecter cooks the brain, so I laughed.
“Your name, Chaweon (pronounced Ja Wun), means ‘little cup,’ like a little cup you use to drink wine,” he said.
Before I could ask him whether this was in Balinese or bahasa Indonesia, he laughed again. And I thought about those small sake glasses.
“Cute!” I said, fully charmed by big ol’ heads, coconuts, and little cups flowing with laughter and mirth.
Me, I am a kinesthetic learner, so I remember things by taking and re-copying notes. The Babbel app actually does this — it makes you spell out the sentences, not just the individual vocabulary words. When Putu dropped me off, I had to go on Google Translate and look up the words.
Head = kepala
Coconut = kelapa
And I wondered if maybe in a few weeks, I’ll have learned enough Indonesian on Babbel to start making jokes. Jokes that will make Ibu’s sad eyes happy, for a few seconds at least.