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Essay: Native tongue

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, October 23, 2017  /  09:49 am
Essay: Native tongue

When did Indonesians who spoke English become such snobs, or had it always been this way? (Shutterstock/File)

Memang lidah tidak bertulang (the tongue knows no restraint), is an Indonesian proverb that conveys how human beings can be mean through their words, using tulang (bone) as a metaphor for restraint.

The proverb embodies a loud-mouthed couple I used to know. They were gossips who always highlighted other people’s weaknesses and embarrassing experiences. I once got angry at them when they called my friend fat. There was a little incident with them in 2011 — around the time when I started to speak English actively because I was working with expatriates for the first time — which got me thinking about language acquisition.

As an Indonesian anglophile couple, they loved to speak English all the time, even when their conversational counterparts spoke Indonesian perfectly. The lady had lived in London for a few years (therefore I would like to refer to her as the London gal) and I am pretty sure that her significant other studied in the United States. Once in 2011, this London gal made fun of my accented English in front of other diners.

Then her gentleman friend thundered in: “Do you speak Eeeeng-leiish, Ogi?” followed by boisterous laughter from their dinner table guests, Indonesians with their fake and fancy American accents.

When I told my friend, a copy editor and native English speaker about this recently, she said the following about the London gal: “Wuell, zoes she spake laikh zis (Well, does she speak like this)?” imitating a British accent perfectly. This made me laugh. It got me thinking, though. When did Indonesians who spoke English become such snobs, or had it always been this way? And who are we to claim ownership of a language that isn’t ours?

The positive thing from the incident has been this: to refine my pronunciation and help me think faster when I am speaking the foreign language, I’ve been listening endlessly to interview transcripts and talks in English available on YouTube (gone are the English course cassette days thanks to the internet). TED Talks have been my favorite. I only began to use my English actively at the age of 21, which meant I still had to refine my linguistic proficiency.

When you talk about language acquisition, age, time and space matter a lot. There are two types of bilingualism: coordinate and compound. Coordinate bilingualism happens to individuals who learn the languages separately — for instance they acquire and speak English at work and Indonesian at home as well as while socializing with friends.

Alternately, compound bilingualism is a condition whereby you acquire and speak the languages in the same environment. This is true for children of interracial marriages: you talk to your Mother in Japanese and speak to your Father in Indonesian in the same house.

Scientifically speaking, the compound bilinguals who acquire a second language at an early age are more adept at speaking two languages fluently without an accent. The coordinate bilinguals, who learn at a later age and acquire the languages in two separate social contexts, will have to work harder to achieve proficiency and polish their pronunciations while trying to deal with the accent and dialect in which they speak their first language.

In this case, because I grew up in Jakarta, and most of my friends have been Javanese, many Indonesians think that I’m either a Javanese or Betawi because I carry these accents a lot when speaking Indonesian, confounding with my English pronunciation as well.

Hours upon hours of listening to these YouTube English talks and interviews do help. I can think in English faster when I have to talk to people from different countries. However, I’ve been frustrated with my tongue’s stiffness when pronouncing certain words. Indeed, when speaking English, contrary to that Indonesian proverb, lidah saya memang memiliki tulang (my tongue is indeed restrained).

Sometimes, my pronunciation of the first word is confounded with that of the second word. For instance, when I asked my friend from Brunei whether she would “take a taxi” to her hotel, instead of pronouncing it as tāk tak-sē, as it supposed to be, I pronounced it as tak ‘tak- sē (thanks to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary for the pronunciation guide). Whoopsie, I made the wrong punctuation when saying “take.” That’s just one example.

Aside from my language acquisition method, what are the other factors causing this wide pronunciation gap? Why is it difficult to speak in a foreign tongue? Yesterday, I was speaking to University of Indonesia (UI) Cultural School linguistics department lecturer, Mohammad Umar Muslim, who is an expert on geographical linguistics, for a different article on the evolution of the Indonesian language, literacy as well as literary tradition. And, bam, all of a sudden I got an insight.

He said Indonesian and English languages were different in a sense that in the refined spelling of the Indonesian language, finalized in 1972, linguists made an effort to synchronize the spelling and pronunciation of our words. In the English language, however, the spelling of a word does not correspond with its pronunciation. Like, you don’t pronounce the word make as má-ké (as in the slang usage of Indonesian word memakai; to use, pronounced as it is written), or the London gal and her husband will laugh at you. You pronounce it as  \ māk \, which is very different from how it is written on a page.

This is why a lot of people find it difficult to pronounce certain words in English correctly, with the right punctuation and nasal breath control.

“As long as people can comprehend what you say, don’t worry too much about accents,” my copy editor friend advised. Indeed, linguist Ronald Macaulay writes in his 1994 book The Social Art: Language and its Uses that the human ear is an amazing organ as it is capable of differentiating an infinite variation of sounds and tones, accommodating different dialects and accents. In the melting pot global world we live in today, it is beautiful to be exposed to the same language being spoken in many different dialects and variations.

Here, I would also like to encourage people to acquire a foreign language, no matter their age, and not to be discouraged by the snobbish grammar and accent police officers out there. Learning takes process and acquiring a foreign language can be a fun thing.

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