Going Quackers Over the Lingo

By Richard Boughton

In my continuing effort to demonstrate conclusively and for all practical purposes that I cannot possibly learn to speak the Indonesian language I will occasionally, under the influence of some ill-founded optimism, buy a new lesson book and set to work with renewed, though short-lived enthusiasm, having decided that the fault is not with my brain but with the quality of the learning material available. In two years I have managed to progress from class 6 to class 1, and succeeded, rather spectacularly I think, in learning less with each effort.

My latest purchase was of a book entitled Pendidikan Kewarganegaraan. I had at first no idea what these words meant, but the volume attracted me for two reasons – one being the singularly tongue-twisting title itself and the other the fact that the contents of the book are presented bilingually, in English and Indonesian. The latter case made reading the material in Indonesian rather easy – really one does not have to read it at all – and the former afforded me with the opportunity to employ the tongue-twisting title, once my wife taught me how to pronounce it, for every occasion and in any manner – in song, in chant, as a blessing or as a curse, in kindness or in anger, while cooking, while showering, while sleeping. It simply rolls off the tongue for every purpose imaginable.

“Good morning, how are you?”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan.”

“Did you remember to buy the potatoes?”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan.”

“You’re an idiot!”

“Pendidikan kewarganegaraan!”

You see? Here are two words which, as long as kept isolated from the whole of language and meaning, provide a most wonderfully complete, not to mention stylish, response for every occasion. Or they did so until my wife told me what they actually mean and thereby spoiled the fun. What pendidikan kewarganegaraan means, as it turns out, is “education in citizenship.” This makes the phrase, sadly enough, of little use in Indonesia, and of no use at all in America or Europe. I’ve begun, therefore, to cast about for an equally attractive, yet more functional phrase for chanting and singing, and I invite the reader to send suggestions.

One will often hear it said that Indonesian is a simple language. It has no past tense or present tense or future tense, they will say. It’s all inferred according to context. It’s a child’s language, a primitive construct – an idiot’s language, as my English friend says (who, curiously, cannot speak a word of it). But I disagree, and do so on the grounds that any language that operates on the basis of inference, without proper verb tenses or denotation of time, is a mystery of the purest kind, a thing to be sorted out by sages and mystics rather than a mind as common as mine.

Deepening the inscrutability is that fact that Indonesian as taught in the schoolbooks is never in actual practice spoken. In other words, the language that the common Indonesian people speak is not Indonesian at all. You can test it for yourself. Just try saying something out of a lesson book. They will stare at you blankly, as if you had spoken Swahili. And then will set to chattering and blabbering in whatever language it is they are really speaking – which, according to them, is Indonesian, but according to your schoolbook is certainly not. Herein is my exasperation made perfect – for my studies are rendered not only frustrating, but entirely pointless.

Take the word “buat,” for instance (from the verb “membuat”). Your schoolbook will tell you that the word means “make” or “made.” But your schoolbook has lied – for the word in everyday practice means almost anything and can be employed for almost any purpose. I have heard it firsthand from my wife, and when I tell her she is wrong, she merely laughs. On the positive side, however, the novice in language may feel with fair assurance that if he says “buat,” he has uttered something pertinent to whatever subject is at hand.

Throughout my studies my most useful tutor has been Donald Duck. Donald’s comics are available at Gramedia and I buy one once or twice a month. Donald, you see, has read his schoolbooks, and speaks proper and appropriate Indonesian, in the best Disney tradition. What he says may be stupid, but the important point is that he says it correctly and with an appreciation for the reader who has learned correctly. I come to him for clarity and for comfort.

It may be, in the long run, that Donald Duck is the only Indonesian speaker I will ever understand; nonetheless, I take heart in the accomplishment, however meagre, of having forged a functioning connection in the language, if only with a cartoon duck.

Filed under: Practical Paradise

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