Do you speak Indonesian? Ya?

(Catherine Brist/Indonesiaful)

Learning to speak a foreign language like Indonesian is one thing. Understanding natives when they talk is another. (Catherine Brist/Indonesiaful)

I sort of speak Indonesian. Unlike many Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, I knew a little of the language when I came here. I studied Indonesian for two years in college, and did an intensive language program in East Java during summer 2011. I know enough to get by, but I’m far from fluent, as I’ve quickly learned while living in Medan. Despite my hours of study and lists of vocabulary, my daily interactions are often a struggle.

Trying to speak Indonesian in Medan has been a humbling experience. I learned Indonesian from Javanese people, but in Medan the people I spend time with are mostly Chinese and Batak, and their accents are totally different. Indonesian is most people’s second language, so it varies a lot from region to region as it blends with local languages. I’m having to relearn words I’ve known for years. On a good day, I’d say I understand about 60 percent of what people say.

Still, I manage to survive, using a couple easy tricks I’ve developed. The first capitalizes on the double meaning of the Indonesian word “ya.” “Ya” has two meanings. It can mean yes in the traditional sense, as in “Yes, I agree with what you’ve just said.” It can also mean “I acknowledge that you have completed a sentence.” I use this second meaning to my full advantage, throwing in a good “ya” any time I’m not sure what to say. Typical conversations might go like this:

Driver: “Road ——- traffic ——- you ——- traffic ——- much.”
Me: Oh, ya.
Driver: You ——- traffic ——- there ——- ready ——- now?
Me: Ya.
Teacher: Miss ——- United States ——- politics ——- president?
Me: Ya!

I use my second technique when someone asks a question. If I don’t understand what they’ve said, I just answer a question that I think they might have asked. Perhaps it would be smarter to pause and clarify, but doing it this way keeps the conversation going. If I get the question wrong, the person will repeat it, and I get another chance to understand. This works most of the time, but occasionally people get exasperated:

Teacher (pointing to my schedule): Miss ——- Tuesday ——- break ——- lunch?
Me: Yes, I have a lunch break on Tuesday from 11:30 until 2.
Teacher: No, no. Miss ——- lunch ——- Tuesday ——- vegetarian?
Me: Yes, that’s true. I am a vegetarian.
Teacher: No, no. Miss ——- lunch ——- Tuesday ——- restaurant ——- vegetarian ——- lunch ——- yes?
Me: Usually I eat lunch at the canteen here at school. They have lots of vegetarian food.
Teacher: NO. Miss ——- lunch ——- Tuesday ——- restaurant —— vegetarian ——- car ——- school board —– restaurant —— lunch —— yes?
Me: Oh. You want me to have lunch with some school board members on Tuesday at a vegetarian restaurant?
Teacher: Yes!
Me: Sure.

I suspect that my language failures make people think I’m stupid, but I’ve accepted this as a normal part of living life abroad. Slowly, my Indonesian is improving. In the meantime, I’m learning to see my failures as another chance to bond with my students. Now, when they stare at me with blank stares and say, “…Yeah?” I understand exactly how they feel.

About the author: Catherine Brist is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Medan, North Sumatra. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with a degree in English literature. Before joining the Fulbright program, she participated in the Critical Languages Scholarship program in Malang, East Java, during the summer of 2011.

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