That’s What She Said

I’ve now officially had my first conversation completely in Bahasa Indonesian.  It was with the cashier at the convenience store around the corner that I frequent.  It went like this:

Me (Holding up a pack of buiskit susu – milk biscuits): Berapa ini? (How much is this?)

Cashier (Smiling approvingly at me): Lima ribu (Five thousand)


I know it was just 2 lines, but still…I’m proud of myself because I knew what to ask, I pronounced it not too terribly, and I understood her response on the first go.

I’m not gonna lie, after part 2 of the Imigrasi debacle, I didn’t feel like learning anything about this place; I was feeling so put off by the attitude of the authorities.  I allowed that feeling to linger for an afternoon then I got myself back in hand because I would be a giant idiot if I let the opportunity to learn a new language slip through my fingers.  Additionally, I found myself depending on my colleague A to be my translator and language buffer because, after being here for 7 months, she speaks the language very well.  She will be leaving here in June and I won’t have her as my translator and buffer anymore so I need to be reasonably conversational in the language before she goes.

On the suggestion of my colleague B, I decided to enlist the help of 1 of the local volunteers who wants to improve her conversational English.  We decided to get together twice weekly for 45 minutes to an hour before classes begin.  She teaches me beginner level Bahasa Indonesian, while I select a topic for us to talk about in English, correcting her grammar and teaching her new expressions and phrases.  By the end of week 4, I was having mini conversations like the one with the cashier, or like this 1 with our roofer:

Roofer: Selamat pagi, Krrreeeeeeestin! (Good morning, Kristine!)

Me: Selamat pagi!  Apa kabar? (Good morning!  How are you?)

Roofer: Baik! Bagaimana dengan kamu?  (OK!  How about you?)

Me: Baik juga. (I’m OK too.)

Now, that’s what I’m talking about!

I also find myself using a phrase or 2 while I teach.  When my students look at me confusedly, not understanding what I’m asking them in English, I throw out, “Apa ini?” (“What’s this?”) while pointing to whatever I want them to think about, or when I try to teach them time and they have no idea what ‘o’clock’ means, I say, “Jam enam” (“It’s 6 o’ clock”).

The next thing I’m going to tackle is ordering food at a restaurant; I already recognise a bunch of menu items (like jeruk, pisang and apokat in the juice section and ayam, ikan and telur in the food section) but I need to be able to speak, not just read the language.

I’ve also started to recognise signs.  While we’re riding down the road on the bike, I’ll see a sign that says “Hati-Hati” and I know it’s a Caution sign; or a food stall with “Nasi Goreng” painted on it and I know they are selling fried rice; or “Rumah Makan” (literally translated to eating house) and I know it’s a restaurant.  By mid-May, I want my conversational skills to be passable and by mid-June when A leaves here, I want to be having whole conversations in nothing but Indonesian.

Of course I could get by without becoming fluent in the language, but what a waste that would be!  Yes, English is the language of the world; in every non-English speaking country I’ve been to, I haven’t had a problem getting along because somebody has even a basic grasp of English.  But I’ve also found that in those countries, people are multi-lingual and I admire that.  Those people speak 2 or 3 languages (like the Dutch, many of whom speak Dutch, English and German) and switch between them easily.  It’s we in the English-speaking world who are mentally lazy when it comes to languages.  So rather than learning to communicate with others in their native tongue, we insist that they learn to communicate in ours.  I think we’re short-changing ourselves.  I look forward to the mental flexibility that knowing another language will give me.

Bahasa Indonesian is not a language that’s common or particularly useful in the West, like Spanish or French, but that’s not the point of me learning it.  The point is that learning any other language, especially one that’s totally unfamiliar, stretches and challenges me and therefore causes me to grow.  In fact, I’m toying with the idea of learning a third language – Swahili – so that when I hit Africa again, I’ll be able to speak with my kakas and dadas (Swahili for ‘brothers and sisters’) in their own language, even if only in a rudimentary way.

Until next time, sampai jumpa!


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s