Speaking in Tongues
There’s this wonderful myth that you have to have some ‘special facility’ to learn a language. Or that you have to be particularly intelligent. I disagree. After all, how well do you speak your native tongue? Articulate, intelligent friends in the UK, unnecessarily impressed by the number of languages I speak, tell me, “I’m useless at languages. I’ve tried, but it doesn’t sink in.”
I would argue that they haven’t really ‘tried’ to learn. They’ve ‘dabbled’. If you want to learn a new language, you only need two things: motivation and opportunity.
When I first went out to India in 2001, I quickly picked up a bunch of useful greetings and polite phrases. One of my Indian friends observed, “You say please and thank you quite a lot, don’t you?” “No,” I replied. “I’m English. I say them all the time!” Normally they’re the first two words I try to learn in a new country, and during my life I’ve probably learned them in about 36 languages. That doesn’t mean I can still use them all! The most obscure would be Mongolian, Tibetan and Uigyur. I also learn how to say yes, no, hello and goodbye. Occasionally I have a few other useful or really important tourist phrases, like “no cucumber, please,” which I’ve learned in about 14.
When the British left their colonies, they left behind transport and infrastructure. When the French left theirs, they left behind coffee and baguettes. The baguettes in places like Lao and Cambodia are wonderful, but they will insist on including at least half a cucumber. I really don’t like cucumber.
While I was in India, I spent a couple of weeks learning the devanagari script, and bought a ‘teach yourself’ book with CDs, but everywhere I went, many people spoke quite good English. It is, after all, the official second language of the country. So I didn’t really ‘need’ to learn Hindi, and my studies petered out.
Later that same trip, I completely fell in love with Indonesia. Again, I picked up some greetings and pleasantries, but discovered that, away from the tourist centres, very little English was spoken. So I decided that I should learn the language. Once my two month visa expired, I flew back to Malaysia, and then took the boat to Sumatra where I spent a month with a family. It’s a really easy language to learn, almost completely phonetic, using the familiar Roman alphabet. Unlike Spanish with el and la, or French with le and la, there are no genders. No complicated plural endings. You can say ‘satu anak’ (one child), and ‘dua anak’ (two children). There are just a few idiosyncrasies you have to remember. For example, ‘c’ is always pronounced ‘ch’, and there are no silent letters on the ends of words. Chocolate is therefore coklat. Adjectives are generally placed after the noun. But the ‘piece de resistance’ is the verbs.
Conjugating verbs in English is not fun. You can say I eat, I am eating, I have eaten, I have been eating, I used to eat, I used to be eating, I ate, I had eaten, I had been eating, I will eat, I will be eating, I will have eaten, I will have been eating, I would eat, I would have eaten, I would have been eating… That’s sixteen different tenses. In Spanish it’s even worse, since the ending of the verb changes depending on the personal pronoun.
But in Indonesian, every single one on the list translates as ‘saya makan’, literally, ‘I, to eat.’ So if you say, “Kemarin, saya makan,” and you know that kemarin means yesterday, then you know that the verb is in the past tense. If you use the word for tomorrow, besok, then it becomes the future tense.
The language can also be quite poetic when it combines two existing words to produce a new, sometimes obvious, sometimes quite unexpected meaning. Mata means eye and kaca means glass. Kacamata means spectacles. Hari is day, and matahari is sun ‘the eye of the day’, not spy; that’s mata-mata. The usual greeting in Indonesia is ‘ke mana’ or ‘mau ke mana’, literally, ‘want to where?’, or ‘where are you going?’ The usual reply is ‘jalan, jalan,’ which means ‘walking,’ but you can also say, ‘makan angin’ literally, ‘eating the wind’ or ‘cuci mata’, meaning ‘washing the eyes.’