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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Not-so-easy English Language

The young man stand erect with confidence and grace. He gave a perfect handshake to his interviewer, not too tight, not too loose, and in just the right amount of time. His interviewer secretly upped his point several mark for his stature and handshake alone. How he hated those people who look slack or too stiff; or those with clammy handshake or worse, the ones that shook his hand like there's no tomorrow. But this one, this young applicant looked like the perfect fit for the job. He gestured the young man to sit and ask, "So tell me about yourself. Why do you apply for this job?". To the interviewer dismay the young man replied in thickly accented broken English, and between his stream of words the interviewer gripped his table tightly and ask in his mind: "Why God, why???"

I can't remember when I started to learn English. I just did. I remember watching the TV shows, both for adults and children. I love Sesame Street, I Dream of Jeannie, Remington Steele, Knight Rider, Brady Bunch, Quantum Leap, all kinds of movies. I also watch music video and hearing songs from the radio, I would listen to them repeatedly and carefully wrote down the lyrics as best as I could. Mind you, it sometimes comes as a jumble, but then I would find the correct lyric in the music magazines and I will go: "Oh so that's what it says!". English books were hard to come by, but it got way easier when I was in my Senior High School. I would borrow English books from my friends and just read it on and on and on. Ah... The good old days.

At Brady Bunch's house

They taught us English at school in Indonesia, so in total we have almost 12 years of English education. Some children would also attend additional English courses to enhance their English. These English lessons helped me to understand the basic English grammar, but to be honest it did not help much in real life. I also taught English for some time, and in lessons (both me as a student and me as a teacher) it is easy to differentiate which tense to be used and the [grammatically] correct way to say it. There are formulas that you can memorize (i.e present tense = He/She/It + Is + Verb -ing), and it worked perfectly in exercises where you can decipher easily which is which and what verb to be use in each sentence. Try doing that in real life (plus repeatedly looking at your tenses formula list) and see how far your English conversation can go. As for reading and writing, it is a whole misery in itself. When I was 12 years old I remember reading mussel just like I read muscle. 10 years later my friend who spends time in USA told me it was read as myu-sel. 20 years later my husband who is an American told me it was read as mas-sel. Ugh. Not to mention the eternal questions such as: where is the L in talk? Why comfortable read as comfterble? Why drink-drank-drunk but cut-cut-cut?

As the video below illustrate, English is indeed a difficult language to master. Thus in my mind anyone whose native tongue is not English but learn to master English as second language deserves respect. They are just like the Engineer who also has a degree in Biology, or the IT major who also has a degree in Law. Sadly, sometimes this achievement go unnoticed. A fellow teacher once said to me she was embarrassed to speak to the foreigners because their English is better than hers. Well yes, I replied, but only because they have learned the language since the day they were born. I always stressed to my students that there is nothing shameful if you made mistake when speaking in English, and pointed out that if a foreigner tries to speak Bahasa Indonesia we would probably think he/she would sound silly as well. It is important to encourage them because the fact of the matter is, as with any other language English can only be mastered by practice. Lots and lots of practice. And even then, things such as accent can not be fully eliminated. 

In USA, where immigrant issue is a big deal, it is only normal to see people got so hung up with less-than-stellar English speaker or with the heavily accented one.  In terms of jobs, it is understandable if companies prefer employees that can speak English fluently, just as they prefer the ones with excellent computer and/or communication skill. This is indeed an English speaking country, so whoever wish to work here has to have a sufficient English skills. Vice versa, if you are a US citizen who happen to work in Indonesia you would also need to learn Bahasa Indonesia in order to survive there and to effectively do your work. As the saying goes, when in Rome do what Roman do. Yet sometimes English fluency can be a source of discrimination, where the more fluent English speaker considered more valuable and respected. When I worked in Bali I noticed that my foreign clients treated me with more respect and I receive far less complain than my other co-worker because my English was better than hers. In perspective, this has more to do with the frustration that one might experience from failed communication (i.e. one or both party can't figure head or tail what the other was saying), and it can happen also with fellow English speakers (imagine an Englishman with Cockney accent trying to speak with an American with Cajun English). Yet sometimes, there will be people who say indignantly, "Why, he/she can't even speak English!" and think lowly of the poor English speaker as if his/her inability to communicate in English is a sign of his/her being less civilized than the native English speaker.

In correlation to the world in general, English is a unifying language. You could go far in this world if you can master it, but it is in no mean superior than other language. To people from countries that use English as their main language, this concept is difficult to understand. It is easier for us in Indonesia who happens to use Bahasa Indonesia as our unifying language. There are hundreds of languages in Indonesia, and probably thousands of dialect; by using Bahasa Indonesia as our main language we are able to reach out and unite the citizens. The local languages and dialects are free to be used any time, but for official matters and education the Bahasa Indonesia is used to ensure everyone understands. This is what English is to the world: a true convenience if you can master it, but you can still live your life without it. The next time you met someone who evidently use English as second language give him/her a respect instead of a glare because learning a new language is not easy. You can hate him/her still if you want, especially if you think he/she is being ignorant. I hate people who speaks Bahasa Indonesia ignorantly too. Nevertheless, if you see his/her effort to master it, give it a thumbs up just like you would to people who tried to master a new skill. And when you went to non-English speaking country, be grateful when you met someone who can speak it albeit imperfectly instead of trashing around in social media how you couldn't find anyone who can communicate in English in that remote country. Or better yet, get a dictionary and speak their lingo ;)

Caption: This is true we shouldn't have to be bylingwill 
to work and live hear if they move hear they need to speek English.

-Possible translation: This is true we shouldn't have to be bilingual 
to work and live here if they move here they need to speak English.-

I love English a lot. I guess that is why I can easily get it by myself. Despite it being super hard and super confusing, English is a beautiful language with so many words you can choose from to express yourself. It is very versatile and it has no hierarchy, which means you can speak it as it is to whomever. You can change the intonation if you like and how you speak it to better fit the condition you are in, but the nature of the words itself remains unchanged. In various languages in Indonesia (and I guess in the majority of Asia countries) there are words or phrases that can only be use with your superior, or to put it bluntly: a hierarchy in language. By writing in English instead of Bahasa Indonesia I am free from that hierarchy and the limitation of how I can express myself. This is a luxury that many native English speakers do not realize. Every time I saw a poorly written Facebook status such as the above or I can't help asking: Why??? You got your chance to learn it properly since day one!! Like this woman said: I won the lottery — the linguistic lottery, that is. If you also born and raised in a country that use English as your first language, then you are better equipped than most people in the world. Let's use it properly, shall we? 

1 comment:

  1. i met an american once when i traveled in Thailand who asked me why indonesian people speak english with american accent :p


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