I don’t think it’s uncommon, just smiling and nodding when you don’t know what’s going on. In fact, I know it’s not. They told us as much during orientation—“Your students will just nod if you ask, ‘Do you understand?’ So don’t ask it.”
I try not to, and I frequently manage not to use those words. Instead I’ll ask in another way, usually, “This is what I want you to do, okay?” And it’s just as easy for them to say Okay as it is for them to say I understand. And so I add on, “Does anyone have any questions?”
Frequently no one does, or sometimes the bravest among them will ask for a repeat of the explanation I just gave and so I’ll say it again, trying to use different words, trying to be clearer.
I don’t blame my students for not telling me when they don’t understand. I imagine that it’s scary being in a class with a foreign teacher who has a funny accent and talks faster and mumbles more than she should. In their situation, I’d be scared to speak, too. I’d probably say even less than they do, given my penchant for being quiet and hanging back.
And, indeed, I basically am in their situation, every time I step outside of the house. Every time I speak with someone in Indonesian, I’m faced with a choice: whether to constantly ask for repetitions and definitions or to just smile and nod. And most of the time I pick the latter.
With my teachers at language school of course it’s different. I’m not embarrassed to ramble on and on in my poor, overly-formal Indonesian in front of them. I appreciate the chance to talk to people who (probably) aren’t judging me. And usually I’ll say when I’m confused or ask about words, even if that means I may get a scolding for forgetting material that I learned in Book 1. But even with my teachers, if we happen to be chatting outside of class, sometimes I’ll default to the nod and smile. It helps to keep the conversation moving, and more than that, sometimes my brain just doesn’t want to have to deal with processing more Indonesian.
But then I go back to my house and go over the notes that I’ve taken on Indonesian for the day and I think that I should be doing more. Some days I don’t have anything written down in my notebook at all. This is okay, because some days all I’ve done is ask where a bus is going and how much to pay for my dinner. But other days I’ve gone to dance class and had conversations and had words explained to me and I just didn’t bother to write them down because, once again, stopping in the middle of the conversation to write would have stopped the whole conversation
But I’m realizing that I need to make a choice because, when there are so many words that I don’t understand, is a conversation even happening anymore? So this is what I need to decide: am I going to tell my teachers1 when I don’t understand or am I just going to keep quiet and nod when they do? I know what the right choice is, but the follow-through is harder than just knowing.
1And at this point anyone who deigns to speak with me in Indonesian is a teacher.