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Writing in English vs. Indonesian

As a casual writer living in Indonesia, with a high amount of English content consumed daily, this issue has bugged me for the last couple of months.

Should I write my blog using English or Indonesian?

The funny thing is that I don’t think I wrote that often to be “deserved” to ponder about this kind of inquiry. Yet, here we are.

This question has an underlying persistent anxiety of mine: I’m afraid of losing skills in both languages.

Me standing in front of PPLS building As an alumna of a language sciences department, it’s natural to have that fear, right? Right?!


With the flood of global information since the internet bloomed in Indonesia — I was lucky to witness it in the 2010s, even enjoyed the blogger era — this society was not satisfied enough with mixing the lingua franca with a local language; we embraced English in our daily life. Code-mixing become a habit of my generation and I’m not an exception. Some of us fuse languages between phrases while also butchering grammar. It’s quick, it gets to the point, it’s expressive. It might sound cool and clever for a while, but it’s not quite pretty and can be tiring to hear, especially with spoken communication — in my honest opinion.

In the “world of ideas” of mine, English is pervasive. I use English expressions in my Indonesian writing but rarely do the opposite. I often find it easier to elucidate a certain nuance using a particular English vocabulary, thus making me lazy to find an equivalent phrase/word in Indonesian — potentially hindering further skill improvement in this language. Recognising this habit, for a couple of years I’ve been trying to compensate by strictly uttering Indonesian in conversation unless my speaking partner demands otherwise. Pausing and slowing my speech down are not rare choices as the mind often races to find a replacement to the English thought being held in my short-term memory. This is not a very easy practice. I often fell short since I came back from the UK last year.

Albeit the hard-to-tear-down habit, working on this issue with spoken communication is fairly straightforward for me. But when we shift to writing — when expression tends to be more complex, the disparity becomes clearer. English, by its very nature, often packs more information and nuance into fewer words than Indonesian. Take a common phrase like “It dawned on me.” A literal translation in Indonesian might be “tersadar kepada saya” (became aware to me). While grammatically correct, it feels clunky and lacks the elegance of the English version. Otherwise, it might be inappropriately too poetic to phrase it like “tersadar kepada diri ini.

This efficiency can be particularly impactful in specific contexts. Imagine writing a concise blog post like this one. In English, I can convey a clear message without excessive verbosity. An Indonesian version might require additional sentences to achieve the same level of detail. This isn’t to say that Bahasa Indonesian can’t be expressive, but conciseness can be a challenge. For instance, the concept of “multitasking” becomes “mengerjakan banyak tugas secara bersamaan” (doing many tasks simultaneously) in Indonesian, a mouthful compared to the single, powerful word in English. (Don’t tell me to use “multi-penugasan” here like I would use in my speech)

Another reason to continue writing in English is that, frankly, IELTS deemed that my writing skill was quite a bare minimum and not well-poised enough for the kind of future situation I imagine myself to be in. Indeed, that test was two years ago and I can affirm that my fluency has increased since writing my master’s dissertation on a very much relatable discussion on writing English effectively. But, well, that’s an unproven claim!

Pride and prejudice

Besides, I know who you folks are, mostly: Indonesian. So my post might be more enjoyable when we share local jokes and cultural references in its original expression. Should I serve you better or should I keep being selfish? :) Should my primary focus be on constantly sharpening my English for a potential future audience, or should I prioritize connecting with my existing Indonesian readers in a way that more resonates with them?

There’s pride (and prejudice of what my readers want) in writing Indonesian. There’s also this nationalistic notion of “conserving our native language” attached to the decision. I even used the very same motivation for getting a funding for my higher ed - which worked well, with God’s will. That must mean something relevant and important to the people and its culture.

Furthermore, (to add more spice to this discussion) the scarcity of Indonesian language content on the internet, which serves as the primary source for training large language models (LLMs), presents a challenge. While English has a vast corpus of data to draw from, enabling the development of sophisticated language models, Indonesian and other local languages like Sundanese and Minangkabaunese often struggle to find a comparable wealth of resources. This disparity highlights the importance of actively contributing to the growth and preservation of our native tongues through writing. Each piece I create in Indonesian not only enriches the reader’s experience but also serves as a valuable data point, helping to build a more robust and representative language model for future generations. (Hold on. Do I feel OK having someone uses my writings for LLM training? A thought in progress..)

(You also might want to ask, “Why bother about the LLM kind of stuff?” Oh, boy, let’s not get tangent here, that’ll need a proper discussion.)

A screenshot of a graphic with text "2037-2041" and "Quality-knowledge mass translations to Indonesians languages" under it. Written in one of my PK LPDP posts. Oh, poor soul, all will be asked in the Hereafter. I hope my grammatical mistakes are not included.

In short, for me:

  • English is efficient.

  • Indonesian is personal.

As I’m thinking about how to end this post that gets longer and longer than I expected, I’ve come to realize that the decision between English and Indonesian extends far beyond the vs. query. The more salient issue is the “funny thing” I mentioned exactly after I threw the question to your attention in the early portion of this post.

Strategy makes perfect.

To retain and even improve my skills in a particular language, especially in writing (and speaking), I mainly need to freaking practice the skill more often!

It’s not high time to seek validation from a hypothetical future audience or try to cater to some perceived preferences of my current readership. I decided a long time ago that this writing space is mainly about exploration and self-expression. I’ll allow myself the freedom to write in whichever language best captures the essence of my thoughts and emotions at any given moment. Nevertheless, the “strive to be monolingual at a time” hat is still being worn to a certain level, for the sake of appreciating the beauty and order of the language.

All in all, just to be strategic, I have a hypothesis that I tend to write persuasive pieces using Indonesian, while the analytical/contemplative ones end up delivered in English. Let’s test that hypothesis in several upcoming posts, insya Allah. The ideas have been piling up!

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.