Asking For What You Want In Indonesian

Whether you’re living in Indonesia or just on holiday there, some of your most useful phrases will be formulas to ask for things – goods, services and information. You have to pick your words carefully for this. With the right verbal toolbox it can be simpler than you think. Here are a few formulas which together make an excellent set of tools for this purpose.

1. Polite ‘commands’

In English we tend to avoid issuing commands (e.g. ‘Wash this’, ‘Turn that down’). But in Indonesian, in situations where the other person is more or less obliged by their position to give us what we’re asking for, we often do give commands. However, we make our commands adequately polite by adding little softeners to them. Look at typical commands below.

You say: Literally:
[to maid outside your hotel room]
Mbak, kamarnya tolong dibersihkan nanti ya.
[to maid outside your hotel room]
Mbak, the room please be cleaned later, yes.
[to conductor in a city bus]
Pak, tolong dikasihtahu ya kalau sudah sampai di Jalan Kartini.
[to conductor in a city bus]
Pak, please I be told, yes, when we get to Jalan Kartini.
[to servant in your losmen who is about to leave your room without closing the door]
Pintunya ditutup ya.
[to servant in your losmen who is about to leave your room without closing the door]
The door be closed, yes.
[to your taxi driver who is playing the radio loudly]
Pak, tolong dikecilkan dikit ya.
[to your taxi driver who is playing the radio loudly]
Pak, please it be turned down a little, yes.

Most use Tolong ‘please’.

  • They all use the passive (di-). Instead of saying ‘Do this’, we said more obliquely, ‘This be done.’ (e.g. Pintunya ditutup.)
  • They all use ya. This ya appeals to the other person for their cooperation, and so acts as a softener.

This combination of “Tolong … di- … ya” is a very common and useful three-part formula for giving polite commands. Also, of course, most of these commands include an address term (e.g. Pak or
Mbak). Address terms are very important for politeness, but are not special to making requests. They are used much more widely than that (e.g. in formulas of greeting, farewell, thanking and apology as well.)

2. Asking for permission

We can use bisa and boleh for this purpose in much the same way as we use ‘Can I’ or ‘May I’ in English. Although
bisa/boleh requests are not as common as those English formulas are, they are still very common indeed. They
tend to be used for requests where the other person is not obliged to comply, e.g. asking favours.

Typical ones:

You say: Meaning:
[to a student next to you in class]
Bisa pinjam bolpoin?
[to a student next to you in class]
Can I borrow a pen?
[to a customer who is hogging the bench space in a crowded warung]
Bisa duduk di sini Pak?
[to a customer who is hogging the bench space in a crowded warung]
Can I sit here, Pak?
[to an official behind a counter]
Permisi Bu, bisa minta formulir untuk perpanjangan visa?
[to an official behind a counter]
Excuse me Bu,can I ask for a form for a visa extension?
[to security officer in guardpost outside govt building]
Boleh masuk sini Pak?
[to security officer in guardpost outside govt building]
May I come in here, Pak?

Notice two things about these requests:

  • Most use bisa. Bisa is more common than boleh to ask for permission. But if you want to sound more deferential you can use boleh instead, as in the last example above.
  • We left out ‘I’ (saya). So we just said e.g. “Bisa duduk…?”. (‘Can sit …?’). It sounds a bit pedantic to include the saya when it’s obvious you mean saya, although of course you can include it if you want.

3. “I ask for X.”

Minta is a simple and handy formula for asking for objects in routine situations.

Examples:

You say: Literally:
[to a nearby waiter in a rumah makan]
Mas, minta menunya.
[to a nearby waiter in a rumah makan]
‘Mas, I ask for a menu.’
[to shop assistant]
Minta yang biru Mbak.
[to shop assistant]
‘I ask for the blue one, Mbak.’
[at hotel reception when filling in registration form]
Minta bolpoin Mbak.
[at hotel reception when filling in registration form]
‘I ask for a pen, Mbak.’

This is neutrally polite, roughly like saying “Have you got a menu?”, or “I’ll have the blue one” or “Can I have a pen?” in the same situations in English.

4. Asking for information.

This is a little different from other requests. It’s not hard to do but it has a special feature. Look below:

You say: Literally:
[in street to stranger]
Permisi Bu, bisa nanya, kantor pos di mana ya?
[in street to stranger]
‘Excuse me Bu, can I ask, where’s the post office,yes?
[at bus terminal, to an employee]
Pak, mau tanya, bis yang ke Solo itu yang mana ya?
[at bus terminal, to an employee]
‘Pak, I want to ask, the bus that goes to Solo is which one, yes?

The main thing to notice here is the “pre-question.” Before demanding information from a stranger you prepare them for it by saying ‘Can I ask (a question)?” or “I want to ask (a question).” This might strike you as over elaborate, but without it you will often sound abrupt.

This pre-question has many variants, from boleh (saya) bertanya to the less formal and more common numpang tanya, bisa tanya, bisa nanya, mau tanya, or mau nanya.

Notice also how we added ya to the real question to soften it (so e.g. “… di mana ya?”) This also helps to make the question more polite.

I hope this helps you to get what you want in Indonesian – well, some of the time. Of course now and then even your most beautifully phrased requests will meet a refusal, or, in the case of requests for information, meet a wrong answer invented for pure convenience or to save face. But that’s another story, and at least you’ll have done your best.

Postscript – just a little puzzle: how do you ask a waiter for the bill in a rumah makan?

That vexed me for a long time during my first trip to Indonesia. I asked Indonesians what the word for the ‘bill’ is, and they told me bon, but waiters still didn’t understand what I wanted. Solution? You don’t ask for the bill at all. You just say ‘Mau bayar.’ (I want to pay.’)

Read also  “To Thank Or Not To Thank in Indonesian”, written by Dr. Timothy Hassall, Lecturer in Indonesian, Australian National University, Canberra.

About author
Tim Hassall has a PhD in Applied Linguistics, an MA in TESOL, and a Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education. He coordinates and teaches courses on Indonesian language and aspects of Indonesian linguistics at the Australian National University, Canberra. His main research interests are the acquisition of second language pragmatics and the influence of English on Indonesian. He has published a number of articles in refereed journals and book chapters.

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