I have to admit: 4 years into living in another country, and I think I stopped learning new bits of the language about 9 months in. There are a lot of reasons for that – a main one being that the only way to be immersed in the language here is to find a village that is willing to take you in, but the only way to find said village is to be able to speak the language. Catch-22. Plus, people mainly want to talk to me in English. They want to learn, too!
Then there were the discouragers. “When you speak the local language, it takes people so much energy to understand what you mean,” one hotelier told me. “It is selfish of you to act like that.” Then there was the ESL teacher who said, “Do not speak to children. You will stunt their language growth with your incorrect Bahasa.” Yet children are often the ones who are willing to try to teach me!
There is also the oddity that there are no language schools here for foreigners to learn Bahasa. Isn’t that bizarre? But if you want to learn, you go to schools either in west Malaysia (I’ve done that for 2 weeks, but can’t get away for the 3 months I’d need) or Indonesia
A few weeks ago, I decided that I would try to learn a new sentence every day. I saw the cleaning lady emptying office dustbins and I was holding some trash, so I asked her, “Bagaimana kata…” (how does one say…) and I motioned throwing trash in the bag. She translated for me, and I repeated it, and in went my trash. The next day I asked a student who is primarily Chinese/English speaking, but who knows Bahasa, the same question – “How do I say, can I throw this garbage in your bin?” I told him what I’d learned, but he said I was actually asking, “can I enter your trash bin?” He tried to translate my question for me but he clearly didn’t like his own translation either.
Eric and I were talking about this yesterday, and he pointed out that my question was, itself, a foreign one. Here, if you have trash, honestly? You throw it on the ground. You don’t search for a place to put it, and you certainly don’t involve someone else in your trash issue. It’s a developing nation, and littering is still pretty standard. So when I went to teach myself the language, I had started with something that culturally didn’t translate. So of course the words weren’t there.
I have to ask myself: how much do I want this? If I want it, I have to find a way. And first, I have to find courage. Courage, motivation, and then assistance, in that order. I love languages, and I love people. But I have to let go of “it shouldn’t be that hard.” It IS that hard. I don’t fit any of the patterns (like, the 2 times I took beginner classes, I ended up helping teach! I know just enough to be dangerous…)
I write this article to lay out both the challenges of the past, so I can look at them, and to find courage for the future. There is good work to be done here, and here is my hope and prayer that God can use me to build community and care for it. The first word I learned in Bahasa was “Boleh” which means “Can!!!” So here goes… I just have to choose my sentence for today. Any recommendations?