On Learning Foreign Languages

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.

If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela

Coming from a multicultural country, I am used to hearing different languages spoken in a daily basis. I live in Bekasi, just 30kms outside of Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, which is also the melting pot of people around Indonesia. So, it’s not very unusual to hear Padangnese, Bataknese, or any other local languages spoken on the road.

Both my mom and dad are Javanese, so basically it is the most common language heard everyday beside our national language, Indonesian. Although I am not a fluent Javanese speaker myself, at least I can understand what the relatives and elder people are talking about on family gatherings. I learned a little bit of Sundanese during my elementary and junior high school. I can say that I excelled on it, though I already forgot 99% of what I’m taught on the classes due to minimum usage of the language. My professor in Tokyo speaks Sundanese very fluently and made me ashamed of forgetting my language lessons.

I consider myself lucky as I started learning English since elementary school. Though I realize that I still make a lot of grammatical errors and my list of vocabularies can get a little bit help, my IELTS and TOEFL results were pretty good and I can confidently write and converse in English, even with native speakers. During my travels, not only once I was told, “Your English is really good.” by foreigners. This is in no way meant to brag, but I’m just saying that they (native speakers) still have that stereotypes that Asians can’t speak English. Or, even if they can, they usually don’t have the courage to use it verbally. So it surprised them when they found any Asian who does. Basically it’s the same when we found any foreigner who speak Indonesian. Even though they do make grammatical errors, somehow we can understand what they actually meant. I believe that as long as your partner can understand your ideas and vice versa, that’s a good communication. It doesn’t require you to be 100% grammatically correct. Having a rich vocabularies is actually more important in learning foreign languages, and also the confidence and not afraid of making mistakes. If you wait until you can be 100% perfect in some languages, then you will never ever speak at all.

Personally, I love learning new languages, as it’s not only enable you to have a better communication with local person, but also enable you to understand better about their culture, their way of live, and their way of thinking. I seriously think that it would be very awesome if there’s a button in my brain to help me switching from one language to another, so I can easily communicate with every people in the world. But I also think that would eliminate the fun and the challenges. When I travel, learning some new words in local language is one of the most exciting part. Although some of you will argue that knowing English would be enough to get you through most parts of the world, but I believe that knowing several words in local language would make a big difference to your time in that particular country, as simple as those words might be (hello, good morning/afternoon/evening/night, thank you, you’re welcome, nice to see you, etc). Because even now, every time I know someone who speaks Indonesian, or is willing to learn 1-2words in my mother tongue, it would definitely put a smile in my face.

Just like how people always said that French people are rude and doesn’t want to talk in English to a foreigner, even though they do speak English. Have you ever put yourself in their shoes for once? Just in case you didn’t know, France is the most visited country in the world. Based on UNWTO report, there are 79.5million tourist arrival in France throughout the year 2011. That number is 10million higher than the whole population of France. So how would you feel if you have to face hundreds, thousands even, of tourists every-single-day, taking over your transportation, speaking in loud voices, stopping every 5 meters to take pictures, stopping you in the middle of the road and asking for directions and simply being annoying every-single-time you encounter them? I bet even the world’s most friendliest person would snap, too.

So, which one would you prefer, get a simple smile from a stranger just because you greet them with “Sawadee krup” or get a hatred look just because you insist on speaking your own language and acting all rude all the time?


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