A Reflection on Pre-Service Training: Part 3, Language Acquisition
What languages are spoken in Indonesia? What has it been like acquire the necessary communication skills for survival?
Language acquisition is the most crucial part of Pre-Service Training. The ability to speak and communicate, as you might expect, is the governing factor for everything else I do in Indonesia. There is a wide variety of English language capability among each trainee’s host family, but mine speaks almost none. One of my host family members knows enough to translate certain words when I’m in a real jam, but all of my household communication is conducted in Bahasa Indonesia (lit. ‘the language of Indonesia’). It has been this way since I arrived. You can imagine the frustrations and miscommunications this had led to over the course of the past ten weeks.
Communicating with my host family is the test to see what remember from my classes. For the first six weeks, all of the trainees were instructed by teachers from a language institution in Jogjakarta. Each of the villages had their own teacher so class sizes were small. The small class size, a focus on conversational Indonesian, and the custom made textbooks for Peace Corps really made the curriculum effective. During Week 10, the villages were rearranged and a different teacher from the same Jogja language institute taught is local languages for our permanent site. I learned Javanese.
The interesting thing is that Bahasa Indonesia is actually not a first language for my host family either. Indonesian, in fact, is almost nobody in the world’s first language. It was recently created (perhaps early 20th century or so) and is supposed to unify the vast archipelago that is now nationally known as ‘Indonesia.’ Just about everyone in the country speaks it, but people in Java grow up speaking Basa Jawa (or, Javanese). From my observation, Indonesian is primarily a written language used in newspapers, advertisements, and publically visible signage. It is also the language of education after the age of seven as well as the language of government. At my permanent site (where I have been for three days now), there is a wide variety of local languages spoken. There is, of course, Indonesian and Javanese. The level of Javanese (there are five levels) that I studied for one week in class, however, is not the level that is used by people in my new village, so I’ve essentially had to relearn Javanese. I am also close to the islands of Madura and Bali, which also each have a different language. People who are from those islands eagerly try to teach me translations in their native tongue. Then there is the local language of Banyuwangi that mashes all of the aforementioned languages into one. And then, because I teach at an Islamic school, certain teachers have been throwing in Arabic vocabulary whenever they get a chance. So let’s see. That makes one (Indonesian), two (Jawa Ngoko), three (Jawa Krama), four (Madura), five (Bali), six (Banyuwangi, seven (Arabic) languages that are thrown at me. Thankfully I’ve steered clear from the school’s Japanese teacher so far.
Right now, I am trying to stick to Bahasa Indonesia. My Javanese is very limited. I really only know the phrases for the very beginning of the conversation—things anyone could learn to say after a day. I can feel my Indonesian getting better and better now that I am at my permanent site. Listening and using the language reminds me of a river. This metaphorical river passes under a bridge and branches in two directions. The first branch runs into a dam and must wade in a pool before continuing downstream. The other branch flows along unobstructed and is eventually met by the branch that was dammed up. In accordance with this description, the dam is my brain translating (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly) words as I use or hear them in a conversation. Sometimes water spills out over the banks and doesn’t make it downstream (parts of sentences are lost to me). At the beginning of my time in Indonesia, all of the water was going through the dam. Now, however, more and more of the water is taking the other branch and passing unimpeded. I’ve found myself having conversations where I didn’t even have to really process what was being said. The words just come out and in, and the meaning registers effortlessly somewhere in my mind.
Unfortunately, the water level in this stream is still pretty low; .i.e., my vocabulary is still fairly limited. After finishing the six weeks of language class, I felt like my ability to communicate kind of stalled. I was retaining the things I had already learned, but I was stuck in what I knew. I wasn’t acquiring new words, and thus my conversations tended to be continuous loops of things I could easily say. The acquisition of vocabulary has picked back up at permanent site however. Learning a new word reminds me of the scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when Jim Carey is running through his memories but objects, places, people, and entire concepts are disappearing as a doctor deletes them from his brain (sorry if you don’t get the reference). New words, of course, have the opposite effect. They add new possibilities to my Indonesian world. For example, today I could finally “miss” things in Indonesia. Before, I could only “like Mexican food” or “at home, I eat a lot of Mexican food;” now I can actually “miss Mexican food.” The word “miss” is simple, but I didn’t know it before today, and therefore, the whole concept of “missing” something didn’t exist between me and Indonesian people.