Yes We Can (a discussion on modal verbs)

language, teaching

The image is well familiar to the American audience. The idea to share this image with one of my classes came as I was thinking about what activities to use when teaching modal verbs (can, could, must, should, would, will …). I showed the picture and asked them to comment. Among the things said by the students, was the similar phrase used by President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign, “Yes we can.”

Obama is popular here in Indonesia. That he once lived in Jakarta and is a black man leading a superpower nation are a source of inspiration for many I’ve encountered. “He gives hope to people with dark skin” a student from the university once told me. So then, it is no surprise to me that they know his old campaign slogan.

Our class discussion led me to say in Spanish, “Si se puede!” This phrase also has some deeper cultural meaning in the US, which is too complicated to explain to my class right now, but is relevant to talk about what we can do. Ever eager to translate, the students told me the meaning in Bahasa Indonesia: Kita bisa. Then, as they are Batak people, it was also offered in Batak: hita boi. Sometimes too much translation gets in the way, but this is helpful—hopeful even—to them, and also to me, as I learn their languages.

We can do it. Yes we can, messages of encouragement and hope. Like the current pop-culture use of this poster from the WW II-era, the phrase “yes we can” is meant to empower. This is my hope for my students, that they feel empowered and able to speak English—that they can speak English.

Along the way, much encouragement is needed, for I often hear them tell me (in English), “Sister, I don’t speak English.”

My response now: Yes you can. Ya, kamu bisa bahasa Inggris, adik! But maybe better if we do it together: Hita boi.

The Adventure of Learning Languages

culture, language

Halo! Apa kabar?

I have a confession to make.

No, I haven’t committed a major sin or anything like that. This is actually the good sort of confession. In preparation for living in Indonesia, I am currently teaching myself Bahasa Indonesia. There are over 300 distinct languages spoken across the country, an archipelago of more than 17,500 islands. Bahasa Indonesia is the lingua franca and official language.

Here’s the confession: Only days after I heard of the possibility of global mission in Indonesia, before I was even sure that I would get an interview, I discovered that the Seattle Public Library had an audio language instruction for Indonesian. I promptly checked it out and began the lessons (Free language lessons? Yes, please!).

I decided after the 3rd half-hour lesson that at the very least, I could learn a few words from another language. This is most certainly a good thing. So I resolved to continue learning, and if nothing else could say to confused friends: “Saya mengerti Bahasa Indonesia sedikit. Tapi sedikit sedikit saja.” The emphasis landing greatly upon sedikit sedikit saja and repeated several times. (Meaning, “I understand Indonesian a little. But just a little.”)

Things are going well it seems, however my resources are limited and I have no one to converse with, save the faceless voices on the CD—after he says, “Tell her you don’t understand,” I dutifully respond, “Saya tidak mengerti!”

For all my efforts, I will most likely be staring blankly at people when I hear the Bahasa in the country (Saya tidak mengerti!), at least for a few months. There will indeed be misunderstandings and misadventures. It happened to me when I arrived in Germany 10 years ago. With 3 previous years of German language under my belt, it was still not quite enough to prepare me for the rapid accented everyday speech.

I just hope my first experience with Bahasa is nothing like trying Spanish in Central America. Most of the Spanish I had tried to teach myself went out the window once I arrived. Nevertheless, having a host family that spoke no English meant we had to find some way to communicate with each other. More than once the part of my brain that deals with language got confused, and spat out phrases peppered with German and Spanish.


(and maybe this is the real confession) Have a good laugh: “Ja, aber muy consado,” and “Una hora ist genug” were phrases I really said. Out loud. I also tried to count and it ended up like this: “uno, dos, tres, cuatro…fünf.” When asked in Spanish how long I’d been there (30 days), I promptly answered, “Treinta Tages.” Which left me wondering, ¿Which language hablo ich, eigentlich?

So it seemed my understanding of spoken Spanish made leaps and bounds in a month of immersion, but not my ability to speak the language (next time I’ll take a course taught by someone other than myself). Perhaps Bahasa Indonesia is different enough that the wires won’t cross so easily.

In this process of preparing for and imagining my life in Indonesia, the best I can do is whole-heartedly learn and absorb. I need not worry about being fully prepared, because that is not possible from my current location in the world, nor is it advisable; I can’t know everything. But I can come with some knowledge and most of all, a wide open mind and heart.
(And a sense of humor)

Tschüss, Selamat tinggal, adiós!