Speaking

I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can have conversations with my teachers in Indonesian. Not complicated conversations, by any means, but conversations. They do mostly involve me asking for questions to be repeated and sometimes things break down completely when I start trying to explain a concept like “pretend,” but still, I’m talking.

And I can talk to my host mother, too. We usually switch into English when clarity is necessary, but now all our simple, day-to-day communications are in Indonesian. Which is not to say that I understand everything she says. I still sometimes resort to the polite but blank face of engagement, and when she starts talking to someone else and stops dumbing down her language for me, I quickly lose track of the conversation and only have a faint idea of what’s going on.

Even putting aside
my innate fear of
telephones in general,
the whole event was
absolutely terrifying.

One of the really difficult things is that verbs have the troubling tendency to start with the same sound, some combination of “me” or “mem.” While this is nice in that it’s standardized (All the verbs start the same way!), it also makes it very hard to distinguish between them (All the verbs start the same way!).

And, of course, I still really can’t understand what people on the street say. If it’s in a predictable situation, like ordering food, I can usually catch the word for drink and then parrot back my habitual order of iced tea or mango juice (depending on the establishment).

But things quickly break down when I can’t predict what the next question will be. Saturday, my lesson was on how to have a phone conversation. My teacher made me call the operator and ask for the phone numbers to the train station, UGM, KFC, and McDonald’s. Even putting aside my innate fear of telephones in general, the whole event was absolutely terrifying. And, of course, the person at the other end of the phone spoke very softly, very rapidly, and asked me a lot of clarifying questions, none of which I understood.

Nevertheless, I can talk to my teachers, which is a distinct improvement over two weeks ago.

I’ve also noticed something interesting about the way my brain has decided to process all this new information. Previously when I learned a foreign language, most of the instruction was in English, so my brain categorized words the same way a dictionary does: French word, English translation.

Now, though, most of my language instruction is in Indonesian, so my brain doesn’t try so hard to come up with English equivalents. Instead, it’s learning the meanings behind the words, almost like I’m just adding to my English vocabulary.

I don’t mean to say that I do this with all the words I learn. I probably don’t even do this with the majority of the words. But I do it with enough that I’m at least partially thinking in Indonesian, not just performing rapid translations in my head.

Maybe in a few more weeks I’ll actually be able to understand people, and this little trick of my brain will actually come in useful.

One thought on “Speaking

  1. Language acquisition is amazing, isn’t it? I remember feeling this way when I started to learn Ukrainian last fall. Little victories and baby steps. And being immersed in a language definitely helps take out the translate-to-English step.

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