There are some things you will never learn inside the classroom.
Firstly, when speaking your native language you never realise how language acts as a limit on self-expression. Not only can you express any feeling or thought you like, you can express each in multiple ways to suit context. Speaking a language you’re learning in-country however brings the power of language into sharp focus. Suddenly, you can’t freely express your thoughts or desires and have to moderate them to fit what you can and cannot say. It forces you to change your opinions, change your tone of voice and even some behaviours. In a way, you feel like a completely different person. A bit like a child, struggling to be understood. Nothing is as motivating as this. The desire to be free from the constraints of your language spurs you on to learn with more determination than ever. You just want free reign over your identity again.
Additionally, in the classroom you never really learn how to engage in conversation with a total stranger from a completely different culture to yourself. No amount of learning about culture or politics or religion can ever prepare you for talking to a real local fluent speaker. Your mannerisms are wrong, your turn of phrase is awkward and you can’t help but be acutely aware of it the whole time. You notice people have to pause to decode you, and it embarrasses you. You try to change your habits but decades of repetition is hard to shake. Slowly things start to change a little, and that feels great. You notice you’re no longer putting your hands on your hips or maybe using the correct pronouns, and despite it being a small change it feels like a big victory. Despite all the difficulties, in-country study is rewarding like nothing else.
Moreover, pronunciation seems like a pretty minor thing at first but in-country that changes. Specifically, you realise that a slight change in sound can entirely change the meaning. Any one word of a modern language with a large lexicon is likely to have several phonetically similar cousins, which you could easily pronounce instead. As such, imperfect pronunciation causes some hassles. For instance, “Kentang” (Potato) and “Kenyang” (full) can lead to you enthusiastically informing a family dinner that you are a potato. However, like most aspects of language it only gets better in-country, through constant exposure to Indonesian in an Indonesian accent.
These struggles are amplified by the expectations of your in-country peers. Working in groups of four, we had to conduct sectoral analyses on manufacture, retail, construction, shipbuilding and tourism in Batam. The other group members (who were from different faculties) rely on you (the Indonesian speaker) to become a cultural and linguistic bridge, in a country that you’ve only heard about in writing. Batam really does push you, to step out of your comfort zone and fill those expectations. It forces you to be creative, courageous and confident. Somehow, you have to find a way to apply the things you’ve learnt in class, with a group you hardly know, in a place that you wouldn’t have necessarily been aware of.
We would like to express our appreciation to the Australian government and SSEAC for providing this opportunity. We have been able to apply the theory that we have learnt in class in practice, which has further allowed us to be certain that we made the right decision to learn Indonesian at a tertiary level.
Written by Owen James and Carol Kim.