Hi from Singapore! I arrived here four days ago for a work trip straight from the Greek city of Thessaloniki, where I was attending the fourth Polyglot Conference. Look out for my review and videos from that wonderful event later. I’ve got a vlog on the languages of Singapore in the pipelines too. Now though, I want to tell you about the new project I hinted at in the last post: tomorrow, I’m taking a two-hour flight to Indonesia for a week’s mini-immersion, or “minimmersion” in Indonesian.
An unexpected opportunity
If you’d told me three weeks ago that this would be happening, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was supposed to be going straight on from Singapore to Macau and Hong Kong on the second leg of a work trip. When that was cancelled at short notice, I was going to be on the (for me, as somebody who’s London based) “other” side of the world with some time on my hands. That could only mean one thing: languages!
Apart from a six-day visit to Singapore last year, most of which was spent at the office of the company I work for, or in my hotel room, I have no direct experience of South East Asia, to say nothing of its languages.
Yet I’ve been aware though for many years of the linguistic and cultural richness of the area, both the indigenous tongues and the post-imperial English, French and Dutch heritage and, of course, the presence of Chinese, Arabic influences though Islam and Indian languages (for example, Tami has official status here in Singapore).
Indonesian: what and why?
Indonesian, like Malaysian, is a form of what used to be more generally called “Malay”. I’m told that if you learn either the standard forms used in Malaysia (“Bahasa Malaysia”) and Indonesia (“Bahasa Indonesia”) you can understand the other. All it takes is a certain amount of re-tuning of the ear and to get used to the differences in vocab (often due to the influence of English and Dutch respectively).
This, in its various forms, is a “big” language, spoken by some 270 million people (it ranks ninth in the world by number of native and second-language speakers, just behind Portuguese and ahead of French, German or Japanese). It has official status in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore.
The language has been on my radar since I found an old “Malay” dictionary in a second-hand bookshop, years ago, and started flicking through it, the way one would, obviously.
I remember that the introduction to the dictionary said something to the effect that Malay was the easiest language in the world to start learning but that, the further you got, the more you appreciated its richness and realised you’d never know it properly!
Something must have been bubbling in my sub-conscience all these years because after the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin this May, Teach Yourself offered all participants a free language course of their choice. I went for “Teach Yourself Indonesian”, even though I had no idea when, if ever, I’d turn my attention to the language.
A week is only, well, a week, but if there’s a language in which you can start communicating quickly, this should indeed be it. There’s no new alphabet to learn, spelling is logical and, unlike in Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai, there are no challenging tones to master. Like Chinese, there are no verb tenses, cases or gender. This structural simplicity is one reason the language was given official status in the linguistic patchwork that is Indonesia.
Where will I be based?
I’m off to the city of Yogyakarta which is an important historical and cultural centre for the whole country. There’s lots to see and I’m hoping that daily life will be less of a struggle than in a massive metropolis like the capital, Jakarta. I don’t want to lose valuable time getting set up. That, too, is why I’m staying in a hotel rather than trying a home-stay or renting an appartment, as, given more time, I’d normally want to do.
In Yogyakarta, the dominant mother-tongue language isn’t actually Indonesian at all, but Javanese. That’s a very different language and much more difficult to get started in for a native English speaker. IN “Yogya” Indonesian is supposed to be widely understood and used too (for this project, I certainly hope so)! As someone interested in how languages interact on the ground and the status and fate of “minoritised” languages, I’m keen to find out more about the local linguistic balance and mix. With 110 million speakers, Javanese is the most-spoken language which has no official status.
What will I be doing?
I’ll be starting almost from scratch. I’ve got three small books for beginners, which I’ll review once I’m further into them. I’ve done about five hours work over the last few days on basic vocab and one of my first tasks on arrival will be familiarising with pronunciation and a narrative description of how the language works.
My normal advice to anyone wanting to use time abroad efficiently would be to get much further than this before a longer language-learning visit to another country but hey, the opportunity has presented itself and I’m going to grab it regardless.
My plan is to do an hour’s self-study each morning, then to hot-foot it to one of the local language schools, a ten minute walk away. I’m booked in for a one-to-one face-to-face lesson between 10:15 and 12:00 each day from Monday to Friday. I’ve heard good reports about the school and, even if I’m disappointed, I figure this will get me out of my hotel room and give me some ready-made interaction with native speakers. As with my recent month in the Basque country, it’ll also be a chance to meet some other students and to experience the teaching methods used.
On Tuesday to Thursday, I’ve also booked 45 minute afternoon sessions over skype with a teacher on italki.com. The teacher is in town on Monday, so on that day, we’re hoping to meet informally for a coffee.
That’s it. The rest of the afternoons, I’ll be out and about exploring and trying to use the language.
I’ll set some of the evening aside for what will be a new venture for the site: daily updates and a daily vlog. I’ll be keeping it very short and sharing not just the learning experience but some of the sight and experiences that befall me out-and-about.
Just to get some practice, I recorded this intro video on Orchard Road, Singapore’s main shopping drag this afternoon. Hope you like (and please subscribe to the H2GF YouTube channel if you haven’t already done so):
What am I expecting to achieve?
A week is only, well, a week and my expectations are realistic. I’d be very happy if, when it’s over, I’m on track with the pronunciation of the language and have a sense of its main structures (I’m not expecting to be able to use them all). I’d also like to get some basic vocabulary (though I’m not going to be able to get the magical most frequent 2000 words which make up eighty percent of what’s said in any language). Words on their own help with guessing meaning but to start speaking I want to get a stock of useful functional phrases too.
Beyond learning Indonesian in the narrow sense, I hope for a sense of the wider linguistic landscape and an interesting cultural and travel experience. I’m hoping to do a trip or two out of town and I’ve kept the final full day, Saturday, free for that.
All that would be a wonderfully enriching balance for one a week. At the very least, I want to leave with my appetite well-and-truly whetted. I hope you’ll follow my progress and I’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried your own hand at Indonesian, if you have any comments or questions or similar “minimmersion” experiences of your own to share. Now to pack my bags….
Next post in series: journey to Yogyakarta