Mt Merapi, Jogjakarta. Photo by Joe Soerjoko (IG @ joesoerjoko)
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In January I moved to Jogjakarta, Indonesia to further pursue my studies in Indonesian language. I was fortunate enough to receive the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan scholarship last year, an Asia-specific scholarship which is basically the dream for someone studying in my field – a no-backwards-glace kind of opportunity. The NCP program allows recipients to study and gain work experience in Asia for up to 19 months, with fantastic support. I plan to write regularly throughout this period as a way of letting people know how I’m getting on and to chart my progress, with a language-specific focus. I also want to be able to regularly reflect for myself, and also have a written record of such a special and different period in my life for posterity’s sake. As such I’ll be honest, and this month honesty involves admitting I’ve had a testing initiation to life in the archipelago.
While 2 semesters at the University of Western Australia have given me a sound base of Indonesian, its surrounding presence currently serves as a constant reminder of how much I don’t know. Studying a second language in a university environment you are fed information in controlled drips; quantities designed to fit neatly into your study load.With a modest amount of application you can absorb said drips, obtain a nice mark and finish the semester feeling like you know something about something. But a feeling born of controlled drips is a feeling which can evaporate. Arriving in a language’s native environment is like following those drips up the pipes and eventually falling into the vast source from whence they came. This is what they call “immersion”. But as I rode home from campus at the merciful end of a frankly demoralizing first week of class it occurred to me the concept of “immersion” can be synonymous with “drowning”. At that moment it seemed the latter was more appropriate with my experience.
Simply the pace of the variety spoken by your average Indonesian speaker is intimidating, and it is frequently difficult to understand words and phrases you do know as they hurl past you, let alone ones you don’t. Their speech seems to test the limits of the human vocal apparatus on its way out the door to test your and comprehension and cognition. At times during my first couple of weeks here I felt buoyant after a successful exchange ordering nightly nasi goreng or getting my washing done at the local laundry, only for a failed conversation to make me feel inadequate the next minute. I was surprised at how difficult this feeling of inadequacy can be to handle. Perhaps that was partly due to its juxtaposition with the plaudits and excitement from loved ones before I departed, subliminally inflating my confidence and pride. When reality unfolds it can be deflating, and in the first couple of weeks my language confidence was at a low ebb. Combined with inevitable bouts of bodily sickness, which in turn amplify homesickness, settling in has been a bigger challenge than I imagined.
However, while these experiences can be humbling, overwhelming and demoralising, they are also the only way you learn. I’m not wishing I was somewhere else or doing something else. I feel more motivated than ever and I’m only limited by how much I can soak up at any one time – the source itself is endless, its availability constant. Between the stumbling and humbling there’s no doubting the progress and at times I’d probably do well to get some perspective and marvel at it. Particularly in the last week I’ve felt the flow quicken, whether it be comprehending speech or producing my own, and Indonesian is great fun and very malleable once you start to come to grips with it.
Along with Indonesian classes at university and a private language school, I’m also taking one-on-one Javanese classes. Javanese is the most spoken language in the world without official status (100 million speakers), and is said to be at its “purest” in Jogja (though as a linguistic student I have to consider such judgments “prescriptivist”). While sharing structural and some lexical similarities with Indonesian, it’s phonetically trickier for an English speaker. But the real challenge in studying “Basa Jawa” is the presence of several distinct registers for use in different social contexts. These registers have different lexicons and so resemble independent languages – as such, my Javanese has progressed a bit like the baking of the delicious Javanese lapis legit layer cakes. From studying Indonesian through English, to studying the everyday, egalitarian Javanese register ngoko through Indonesian, to now studying the formal and polite register krama through ngoko – not to mention krama itself has different words for the same concept depending on grammatical person. Generally I’m finding the mental acrobatics involved in studying Indonesian exhausting, let alone this Inception-esque mind warp. After a session of the local variety, an Indonesian class is a soothing treat. But the best thing about studying Javanese is the surprise and delight which blooms on the faces of locals when you speak it – apik Mas!
Throughout the bumpy process of settling in I’ve been trying to keep perspective and appreciate my circumstances – life as a student in Jogja is fantastic. Living is cheap even by Asian standards and the pace of the place is relaxed, once you feel your way into its current. You can get around easily on bicycle and choose from myriad delicious warungs, restaurants or cafes. This is all accentuated by the legendary friendliness of Indonesian people, who are always happy to chat, return a smile and find out about you, your background, your purpose in Jogja and Indonesia. I know I sound like the back of a Lonely Planet book but the normality and consistency of this kindness keeps you going and makes you feel a little less adrift.
I’m hurrying to finish this at my homestay on a Saturday morning before I go away for the weekend. I’m lucky enough to be pulang kampung (roughly translates to returning to your rural home) with my housemate Erik to stay with his family for two nights, with traditional arts performances, pigeon racing, eel stew and futsal on the cards. This is the sort of situation that’s like gold to second language learners – no English all weekend, perhaps not even that much Indonesian – Erik says Javanese only in the kampung. I’ve been excited by the prospect all week because after all, experiences like this are what I’m here for – with luck, this is the first of many.
Everything I’m talking about here is made possible by support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s New Colombo Plan scholarship program, the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies, the University of Western Australia, teachers, family and friends – thank you.Read more "Bulan Satu"