Tongue-Tied over Speaking in Tongues

By Vyt Karazija

So I’m chatting in my execrable Bahasa to the staff at a little establishment I frequent, when the guy at the next table leans across and says in a conspiratorial voice: “You really should speak English to them, you know.” He actually says “Ya rooly should spoik Nglsh tooem ya know,” but as I modestly consider myself to be a UN-standard interpretatar of Strine, I understand him perfectly.

I pause momentarily, thinking that perhaps if I agree with him, he will just disappear. But of course, given my unerring tendency always to test the depth of the water with both feet, I walk willingly into the verbal snare and ask: “Why is that?”

“Well,” he says, lowering his voice still further, “they all speak a foreign language here, you know.” “But it’s not foreign to them,” I reply, bemused. He is taken aback. “Of course it’s foreign; it’s not English!” he declares vehemently.

He notes my look of puzzlement at this logical circularity, and continues patiently: “They’re not real good at English, ya know? They can’t remember what stuff is called; that crazy accent is weird; and – geez – they can’t even pronunciate words properly!” He actually says “pronunciate.” I bring my glass to my face to hide my mouth. Please, lips – don’t unpurse; don’t even think about smiling.

“So ya gotta speak English to them instead of their own lingo, see?” he continues, “so they can learn stuff … like, well, English…” He trails off, shaking his head at my inability to follow his reasoning, or perhaps just losing his train of thought. “Look,” he says, dropping his voice to a whisper. “They’re pretty dumb with languages, right? So you hafta give them more practice. You speak that Indo stuff to ‘em, they’ll never learn, see?” At this point, I can either walk away and cut my losses or try to guide this slightly deluded character gently back to reality. Never being one for making wise choices, I soldier on.

“See that guy over there?” I ask him, indicating one of the wait staff, “he speaks English, German, Indonesian, Balinese…” My new companion cuts me off: “Whoa, whoa! Come on! Don’t double up here! Indonesian, Balinese – it’s the same thing!”

So I try to explain that people from Bali speak Balinese, their first language, and they also speak Indonesian, which is the official language of the entire nation. I can see him trying to absorb this. “I don’t get it,” he says. “Why have two different languages for Bali?” So I explain that throughout the entire archipelago, there are more than 700 regional languages spoken, and that everybody speaks Indonesian as well as their first language so that they can all communicate with each other. He looks at me closely. “You some kind of perfessor or something?” he asks suspiciously. I don’t recall perfessing anything recently, so I suppose that makes me a “something” – but I let it pass.

He looks a little bit uncertain now, so I press on, waving towards one of the restaurant staff: “As I was saying, that guy over there speaks Indonesian, Balinese, German and English. The girl next to him can carry on a conversation in Japanese as well. Some of the people at the place next door can even speak enough Mandarin to get by with their Chinese customers. And almost all people here speak English, too.”

Then, because I have a cruel streak, I ask innocently: “By the way, how many languages do you speak?” ”Uh,” he says, “Well, English of course, and, uh … Australian,” he finishes gamely. I am humbled; I didn’t realise I was in the presence of a true polyglot. But wanting to wrap up the debate quickly, I tell him that I feel that he is being just a little unfair in his judgement that the locals are, in his words: “pretty dumb with languages.” Thinking about my own pathetic efforts to learn Indonesian (a supposedly “simple” language), I tell him that the linguistic ability of the people here is, in fact, quite extraordinary.

He turns to me triumphantly. “See? That’s what I mean! Why confuse ‘em all with 700 languages? All they have to do is learn English properly and they’re all sweet!” Faking genuine admiration in my voice, I admit to him that he has come up with an absolute pearler of an argument, and that he’s certainly got me there. I’m such a gutless wonder.

He leaves the restaurant a happy man. The staff who overheard our exchange look at me and roll their eyes as only Balinese can do. I leave thinking that some people will never, ever get it.

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