Learning Javanese

I looked up through the chain link fence to the shop on the other side. It was closed for the night, one of those blue garage-like doors pulled down over the whole store front. My gaze shifted up further to the sky. What with the light pollution and the clouds, I couldn’t see any stars, but I looked anyway. The barbed wire on the top of the fence stood out black against the sky.

“Ya, Sri, ya?” my friend said, pulling me out of my potential contemplations.

“Ya,” I agreed. I actually had no idea what he was talking about. It was all in Javanese and I’d zoned out long before, letting the words fade into the background along with the rumble of the motorcycles driving by.

My friend grinned at me and went back to his conversation.

I took another sip of my drink, warm milk flavored with honey and ginger, and looked back at the sky.

My relationship with Javanese is a funny thing. On one hand, I try not to be bothered by the fact that—given the choice—most of the people around me would rather speak Javanese than Indonesian. After all, I’m not expected to know Javanese since I’m still working on the Indonesian. But on the other hand, I’m bothered by the fact that I still don’t know what’s going on, that I can follow half of a conversation and then get lost because everyone decided to switch to Javanese.

And so I finally gave in and started taking Javanese lessons. It’s funny being back at the beginning of learning a language, slowly working my way through the how-are-you’s and food names and ways to tell time. That said, having some structure is amazingly helpful. I can by no means follow conversations, but I’ve started to recognize a lot more words.

Which, in some ways, makes things even more frustrating. Javanese, once a language that I could tune out because I had no hope of understanding it, has now turned into one of those languages that my brain won’t let me look away from. It keeps saying, Oh, I recognize that word! Oh, I recognize that word! which is all well and good but doesn’t really help with overall understanding. Instead, I’m still going with the pick-out-a-few-words-and-then-guess-at-the-meaning method.

After the latest Ramayana performance, one of the male dancers—in a routine that never seems to get old—started talking at me in Javanese.

“What?” I said, also in Javanese.

He said something else. From that statement I caught the word for long and the word Indonesia. Best guess: “But you’ve already been in Indonesia for a long time.”

“Okay, yes,” I said, reverting to Indonesian, “But I can’t speak Javanese yet.”

Undeterred, he said something else ending by asking—still in Javanese—what my name was.

Extremely pleased that I was getting to practice the exact dialogue that I’d practiced in language school, I replied in Javanese, tacking on the Javanese name that my friends gave me several months ago.

This distracted from the talk-Javanese-to-the-foreigner game as everyone instead amused themselves with the fact that I can’t properly pronounce r’s.

Actually, I feel like I can’t properly pronounce most of the sounds in Javanese. I sit in language class, parroting back what my teacher says until she finally tells me that I’ve said it properly. Then we go to the teachers’ room so that I can conduct an interview and practice speaking Javanese with someone else. Often these interviews turn into another round of me repeating sounds until I finally say, “I can’t hear the difference!” It feels like I’m learning Chinese all over again, a language where I similarly spent a good deal of time baffled by differences in sound that I could not hear.

And it doesn’t stop in language class. The other night, while driving to a soccer game, my friend and I spent at least a block repeating the word for already in polite Javanese back and forth.

“More of an o,” he’d say.

I’d try again.

He’d repeat it.

I still wouldn’t hear the difference, but I’d try again anyway. Eventually I did manage to pronounce the word to his liking, but I’m skeptical as to my abilities to reproduce it.

Which brings me back to the side of the road, drinking milk after the soccer game and listening to Javanese conversations that I didn’t understand at all. I wasn’t bothered. I’d relaxed into the sounds of the language and it didn’t matter anymore what I understood and what I didn’t.

When we left, I let my friend say what I ordered, but I paid.

We drove back to the university, down quiet roads, across small bridges, past darkened irrigation streams.

“Have you been this way before?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But I wasn’t driving. I don’t know where we are.”

He said I needed to buy a map of Jogja and then I needed to go out and start learning streets. “That’s what I did,” he said. He’s a geography major.

“Yeah, but you like maps,” I said.

“You don’t like maps?”

“I like making a map…” I trailed off, tapping at the side of my motorcycle helmet even though he couldn’t see the gesture.

“You like making a map in your head.”


“Well, that’s okay too.”


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