Saturday, October 31, 2009

On (not) learning Indonesian

I had hoped that by this point in my stay I would be able to write about how quickly I’m picking up Indonesian, how confidently I interact with shopkeepers and bentor drivers, and what fun I am having learning new words and phrases. Unfortunately, things have turned out a bit differently than I expected and, alarmingly, I find that my attitude towards learning Indonesian is somewhat indifferent.

Oh, I had high hopes in the beginning. I downloaded free learning Indonesian podcasts. I ordered the Bahasa Indonesia version of Rosetta Stone months before I even left for Indonesia. I looked forward to the evenings when I could escape the normalcy of my everyday life to click on my Rosetta Stone boxes and daydream about my upcoming adventures in Indonesia.

But since arriving in country, I have not used Rosetta Stone even once. And this is not because I spend my spare time chatting with the locals instead of sitting in front of a computer. Nope, it’s because I feel utterly and totally unmotivated to learn the language. It’s not a heritage language for me (like French), it’s not related to English (like German), it’s not a major world language (like Chinese or Spanish), nor is it top on the list of “critical languages” we need to learn in order to intercept terrorist messages (like Arabic). Furthermore, I’m not dating an Indonesian, living with an Indonesian family or working in an Indonesian-only language environment. So, what, really, is the point of learning it?

And this is where I get disappointed. For years, I have imagined myself to be a “language person”. I majored in French in college. I learned to speak German fluently while in Switzerland and loved learning Swiss German as well. I studied applied linguistics and second language acquisition in grad school. And to top it off, I’ve been a language teacher for the past seven years and know a ton of language learning strategies. I thought I would pick up Indonesian automatically. I thought it would be a mental challenge I would delight in.

But somewhere along the way I lost the desire to learn the language. Maybe it was after walking by piles of smelly garbage, or dealing with bathrooms at work with no soap, paper or light bulbs. Or maybe it was living in a house that needs constant repairs. Or maybe it was avoiding bentor drivers who declare their love for me. Maybe I heard the phrase, “Hello, Mrs.!” one time too many. Or maybe it was having people change plans at the last minute all the time. Maybe the fried food, the nausea, and the diarrhea played a role. Or maybe it was getting ripped off by the same bentor drivers that previously declared their love for me. Maybe it was the frustration at not finding clothes in my size or being able to walk around town by myself. Maybe it was the lack of an explanation about how the academic schedule is supposed to work. Maybe it was the nights spent listening to the rats above my head. Maybe it was witnessing my neighbor beat his 8 year-old son with a plastic bat for crying too much when his mother took off with me for dinner one night. Maybe it was all of these things.

There has been no “honeymoon” period for me here. I didn’t get off the plane and think everything was oh so wonderful and beautiful and exotic. It has been tough here from the start and I pretty much instantly decided that this is not a country I will be spending a long time in. Perhaps distancing myself from the language is some sort of unconscious protest; I will not be drawn in. I will not acclimate. I don’t belong here. I don’t want to belong here.

So where does that leave me? I am becoming the person I always hated; I am becoming the foreign expat who doesn’t speak the local language and becomes frustrated when others can’t speak English. I hope this will change, but right now I’m just not feeling very motivated to learn Indonesian.


  1. Honeymoon or not, you have done an amazing job in a very tough post, Julianne. I still can't believe you endured those rats. Have of Banjarmasin has now heard that story!

    Yeah, no Australia, as amazingly temping as it sounds. Your friend will have enough to deal with just with you and Courtney! Can't wait to see you in a few weeks.

  2. Persevere! It gets better.

    By the by, I'll be back in your neck of the woods for New Years and about a week after that, so if your school doesn't have stuff, it sounds like a great time to take a break from G-town.

  3. This had to have been a hard blog for you to write, but in cases like this, where you're feeling blocked in a corner, I think it's good to do just what you've done and share your thoughts, anxieties, conflicts, and frustrations. Certainly, the best way to learn a language is to be in a place where you're happy and to have the chance to study a language that appeals to you in many ways. But things often don't turn out that way.

    With at least two languages that I've studied--Tamil and Korean--I found myself in a situation similar to the one you're in: the language had lost its appeal and in the situation I was in, learning more seemed almost pointless. Why go to all that bother (and it's more than a thousand hours of bother) to learn a language to talk with people you don't want to talk to?

    I don't know if this will be true for you, but I found in these two cases that switching my focus from learning-to-speak to learning-to-read helped a lot. I concentrated on reading kids' books and kind of pulled back from the oral-aural skills for a time. And in the case of Tamil, I found that once I was able to leave Madurai (a very provincial city) and relocated to Madras / Cennai (a much bigger and more interesting city), I got a lot more interested in working on the speaking-listening. You, however, don't have that luxury. You're stuck in a city that sounds frustrating like Madurai was. But don't give up. Also, don't bang your head against a wall. Maybe pull back a bit from learning Indonesian, try to take a break to concentrate on doing things that you like (not always easy to find if you're in the boonies), and perhaps in a few weeks, you'll get a second wind.

    If you would like, I've got a DYI parallel-text graded reader in English-Indonesian that I was working on earlier this year. I think that if you wanted to work on the reading skills, this reader could help. Let me know if you're interested in seeing it and I'll email it to you.

  4. Hi everyone, thanks for your support and understanding! I'm definitely feeling alienated from the langugae here. William, I would like to see the graded reader you mentioned.

  5. Honeymoon shmunymoon. It doesn't exist, at least not in Gorontalo. :) I didn't have a honeymoon period either. I had more confusion after confusion with intermittent glimpses of hope or bliss. I also gave up learning the language once I was able to converse with bentor drivers and shopkeepers. That's where I left it...and where my pathetic excuse for "Indonesian" shall stay. ;)