Learn Indonesian Week 5 Installment: ‘Apa’ Versus ‘What’

For English speakers, asking simple questions in Indonesian can be more difficult than you would think. One of the problems here is the common but mistaken assumption that the Indonesian word ‘apa‘ is directly equivalent to the English ‘what’. However, if you go about translating English sentences into Indonesian by substituting ‘apa‘ for ‘what’ willy-nilly, you will be wrong a great deal of the time. This explores five of the most common mistakes that are made by confusing ‘apa’ for ‘what’. It will also provide better alternatives.

1. What is your name?               Siapa nama kamu?   Siapa namanya?

In English we can ask for a person’s name with the word ‘what’. However, this is incorrect in Indonesian. In Indonesian you have to use ‘siapa‘ to ask for someone’s name. ‘Siapa‘ is often translated as ‘who’. If you remember that we use ‘siapa‘ not ‘apa‘ to ask people’s names in Indonesian, you will be fine.

2. What’s her real age?            Berapa umur asli dia?

In English we usually use ‘how old + be + pronoun?’ to ask the age of someone. Indonesian students often get this wrong and ask, “What’s your age?”, which is a much less common structure than, “How old are you?”

English speakers are also prone to make mistakes when trying to ask someone’s age in Indonesian. In Engish we sometimes use ‘what’ to ask someone’s age, as in the construction, “What’s her real age?” However, if you try and translate this using ‘apa‘, you will once again go astray. Indonesians use ‘berapa‘ (how many / how much) to ask someone’s age.

3. What’s the date?                Sekarang tanggal berapa?

English speakers also make mistakes by over-applying the ‘what’ = ‘apa‘ equation to dates. In the Indonesian language you don’t ask the date by using the word ‘apa‘ but rather ‘berapa‘, which is usually translated as ‘how many’.

4. What grade? (in school)       Kelas berapa?

Using ‘apa‘ for questions (especially if the expected answer is a number) is fertile ground for grammar mistakes in Indonesian. If the expected answer involves a number (when asking for addresses or the time of day, for example), stick with ‘berapa‘ rather than ‘apa‘. Clearly, ‘what’ is not the equivalent of ‘apa‘ in many different contexts.

5. What? (as in, What did you say?)        Kenapa?

If we didn’t catch something which someone said in English and want them to repeat it, we may just say, “What?” To do this in Indonesian, however, can seem rude. To politely ask for someone to repeat an utterance, Indonesians say, “Kenapa?”, which most dictionaries translate as, ”Why?”

The five examples given above probably account for a large percentage of the mistakes which Native English speakers make when translating ‘what’ into Indonesian. If you remember that ‘siapa‘, ‘berapa‘ or ‘kenapa‘ are a more appropriate choice at times, you will communicate more effectively in Indonesia.

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