by Catriona Mitchell

Stephen DeMeulenaere is Canadian, but has been living in Indonesia since 2000. Ochie is from Padang in West Sumatra. Together they set up and run Cinta Bahasa, where they teach Indonesian, and they’ve just started up Balinese classes for both foreigners and Indonesians.

I chatted to them about their experiences as a mixed couple, and what they hope to achieve for Ubud by encouraging fluency in the local languages.

Stephen: We started to teach Bahasa Indonesia because we’re a mixed couple – we both speak Indonesian and English – and with most of the other couples that we know, Indonesian wives with Western husbands (often, but not always like that), usually the husband doesn’t speak Indonesian. So we saw a lot of very odd relationship styles between couples. We understood that there weren’t any good schools or courses in Bali, so we didn’t blame them; it’s just that there were no good learning options for them.

Ochie: Both of us have teaching backgrounds. In Jakarta I was a lecturer for two years at one of the biggest private universities. The first time Stephen talked about the school to me – originally it was his idea – I thought yeah, many foreigners here speak Indonesian language like a robot, very formal…

Stephen: We’re very communications focused. When I learned in Yogyakarta – and all the schools are basically the same – they pride themselves on teaching a very correct, highly formalized Indonesian. And once you’ve learned that, especially if you’re going to work in the field, which is mostly the case, you start talking to regular Indonesians like Prince Charles. It’s really like that – a very anal retentive, high-falutin’ kind of language. I was a rural field worker for three years and I had to really unlearn that Indonesian. It taught me a lot about how Indonesian language schools should be set up.

At first we got laughed at a lot when we opened here; foreigners thought it was ridiculous that they should learn to speak Indonesian. I’m talking about people who were living here – they were very comfortable with posing as tourists, speaking English everywhere, only having English-speaking friends, only going to businesses that would provide them with services in English, not shopping locally or going to the local market. I’m from that generation of expats, but I spoke Indonesian. I think it’s because I came here from Java. People who live in Java learn to speak Indonesian.

Ochie: Some Balinese think it’s strange for expats to speak in English to them, to serve expat food, expat drink, but they don’t have the guts to say it out loud. All our teachers are trying to do a soft campaign: they say “it’s our country and we have to be the first ones to respect the culture and the language”. If we don’t respect that, then everyone who comes here will think “it’s ok, everyone speaks English here”.

Stephen: People who don’t speak Indonesian miss out on so much. They can only grasp about 20% of what’s going on in the town. So I can understand that people who don’t speak Indonesian think the Balinese don’t care about the radical ecological and social changes that are going on right now. They think the Balinese aren’t concerned about it, but they really are. And that’s what we’re concerned about because, as we’ve been told by a number of Balinese, there could be a flash-point – a cultural conflict between foreigners and Indonesians – and I think only by being able to communicate with Balinese directly can we improve those kinds of relations in the future, and maybe actually build a better society in Bali as well.

Ochie: I’m lucky in a way, because I’m married to an expat. It’s easy for me to mix in an expat community. But I can also see, as an Indonesian, that we might really want to go to an event but we’re scared, because we don’t speak English that well. Usually we feel that the treatment we will get is as a second-rate citizen in our own country, which in some cases is not true, but that’s the assumption because there’s a lot of gaps, a lot of miscommunication. That’s why, other than teaching Indonesian, we really want to have a very mixed community where we understand each other, where we make friends, and it’s not just “this is an expat café, this is warung lokal”. That’s such a shame.

Stephen: We also teach basic culture – etiquette – so the students don’t make any major faux pas. As they start learning the language, they might start making friends more easily with Indonesians, but then not have the etiquette or social skills to behave properly in terms of Indonesian culture, like walking into a house with shoes on, or giving or receiving with the left hand – big no-nos which we won’t know about unless we’re told.

Ochie: The first thing we do is try to make the student think in Indonesian, without translating, because that makes a big difference. Once you learn to translate first, you’ll get used to it and you’re wasting a lot of mental energy. It’s the same with grammar – we teach the right way to speak the language, we don’t use the grammatical terminology. A lot of people don’t know the grammatical terms in English or in their native language, so it’s better to avoid it – they’ll be confused.

Stephen: That’s why we use a lot of heart logos – we want people to learn to love the language – that’s the idea. Rather than torture them like I was tortured! In my classes there was zero English; the teachers in Yogyakarta would be punished if they used English. It was very, very disciplined. They would throw you into the new language and then help you find your way around it. We use a lot of that methodology, like guessing the language rather than having the language explained to you. You’re only going to become really fluent and think like an Indonesian if you learn in that way.

Ochie: From the point of view of an Indonesian, even if it’s just a tiny bit of effort that a foreigner makes, I’m really happy. You feel a big difference in how they see you and treat you. We really appreciate it.

Stephen: In Bali, compared to Japan or Korea or even Thailand, it’s really easy to integrate. In Japan, you can live there for 30 years, be married, have kids and you’re still a foreigner, still an outsider. Whereas here it’s really cool when you can talk to the Balinese, look them in the eye, and their hearts just open up. That’s really great – it’s what makes living here so special.

Courses:   If you don’t speak Indonesian yet, you can join the small group beginner Indonesian language course that starts the first Monday of every month. This course is full every month, so be sure to book well in advance.  Other beginner groups can be started if there are at least four students confirmed.

And, if you do speak Indonesian already, why not aim to take the Indonesian language proficiency test? It’s a great way to see exactly where you’re at.  Or, take the next step and learn to speak Basa Bali, the mother language of the Island of the Gods! Cinta Bahasa has group courses in Basa Bali starting the first Monday of every month. The language of instruction is Bahasa Indonesia, so you will need to be a comfortable speaker of Bahasa Indonesia to be able to join this group.

For more information on Cinta Bahasa’s courses, see or email