Today was our Language Proficiency Interview, or LPI for short. Every volunteer has an interview at the start and close of their service. The first interview happens near the end of PST and is to gauge each volunteer’s skill with using their primary language and to see if they are ready to start learning a secondary language. In order to be sworn in one must complete the interview with a level of at least intermediate low. The LPI that volunteers have at the close of their service is to gauge how much they have learned over the previous two years.
The LPI is commonly a significant source of stress during PST, but there has not yet been, in Indonesia at least, a trainee who was not sworn in because they couldn’t pass their LPI. The interview takes the form of a casual conversation and becomes progressively more complicated until the interviewee is unable to communicate effectively. After completing the LPI most trainees will go on to learn either Javanese or Sundanese, though some will learn other languages that aren’t as widely spoken. I am pleased to say that I was able to pass the minimum level of language proficiency and will start learning Sundanese at the end of this week.
Learning Indonesian has, by far, been my favorite part of PST. It is such a terrific way to connect with locals. Most Indonesians have a rudimentary understanding of English, but as English is not something they use often, they are hesitant to use it at all. Therefore, the knowledge I can speak Indonesian is greeted with much enthusiasm. Being able to immediately apply what I learn in language class is a great motivator. Sessions about TEFL, Peace Corps policy, safety and security, or logistics can be hit or miss in terms of how interesting they are, but language is always spot on.
Before coming to Indonesia I knew absolutely no Indonesian. The transition from not being able to say anything to being able to hold one’s own in a casual conversation with a native speaker is amazing. And the fact that such progress is possible within two months is astounding; albeit a grueling two months.
The one downside about learning Indonesian is that my ability to speak Spanish has suffered tremendously. I can’t form a sentence in Spanish without using a couple Indonesian words thrown into the mix. Not a particularly troubling development, but something to consider. Knowing Spanish has definitely been an asset as I learn Indonesian.
Indonesian is not a difficult language to learn, at least as far as learning any new language can be considered difficult or not. Indonesian grammar follows a subject-verb-object order just like in English or Spanish. Adjectives are placed behind nouns, like Spanish. And Indonesian is written with the Latin script, like this weblog. But those are the easy parts. Unlike English, there are no tenses. Verbs are not conjugated. So one must use context to determine when something happened or happens. Unlike Spanish, there is no use of grammatical gender. There is only one word for he and she. There is no plural -s suffix that English speakers love so much. There are formal and informal forms of “you” and “I” but no cases. So while English speakers need to differentiate between when they should use “he” or “him,” speakers of Indonesian do not. All these things can be difficult concepts for native English speakers to grasp immediately, but they really make the language relatively easy to pick up.
The hardest part for me to adjust to has been the lack of tenses. Instead of adding a suffix to adjust when a verb occurs one must pay attention to other indicators such as tomorrow or yesterday. Indonesian has no tenses but two different words for “us.” Despite how foreign Indonesian is, it is still much easier for an English speaker to learn Indonesian than it is for an Indonesian to learn English. To many Indonesians English is a language of opportunity.
Tourism is the fourth largest sector in the Indonesian economy and working with foreigners often requires knowing English. English is also a language of business. If an Indonesian individual wants to work with an international organization, then English is likely the language he or she would need to learn. In addition to employment opportunities there is also a significant amount of media available to English speakers. Nearly 13 percent of Wikipedia articles are written in English, with Swedish following at almost 8 percent. Knowing English opens many doors.
Americans are very lucky that theirs is the language in which much of the world chooses to meet. We often do not take the time to learn a new language because there is never any need for us to do so. There are advantages and disadvantages to America’s apathetic attitude towards learning foreign languages in the light of apparent linguistic hegemony. One such disadvantage: Americans often expect foreigners to speak terrific English. We expect great English even though we don’t know what trying to speak to someone in a language other than our first is like. But I can assure you, it’s stressful. My own Indonesian skills are severely lacking, but I have yet to encounter an Indonesian that has had anything other than wonderful things to say about my ability to speak bahasa Indonesia. I hope that from now on, when I speak to someone whose first language is not English, I do not describe their English as “broken” or “good for a foreigner.” The fact that someone took the time to learn English as a second language at all is amazing. We have 16 unique tenses. 16! English is tough.
Where English is tough, Indonesian is fun. One of the best things about the language is their use of doubled words. Jalan means road or path and jalan-jalan means a walk or stroll. In Indonesian, politeness and formality are very important. If someone asks about whether or not you have been somewhere, if you’re married, or if you’ve eaten it is likely not a good idea to say no. Tidak means no, but it is a firm no similar to never. It’s best to say belum which means not yet. Some of my favorite things from Indonesian:
- The word for socks is kaos kaki, which literally means shirt foot.
- The word for sun is matahari. Mata means eye and hari is day. Eye of the day.
- Beauty mark or mole is tahi lalat. Tahi means poop and lalat is fly, like the insect. So a mole is fly poop.
- Monggo. Monggo is Javanese but it’s one of the most important words someone in East Java can know. It literally means please, but they use it all the time for everything. Monggo.