GCD: Multilingualism

The hardest question for me to answer has (and I think always will be), where is home for you?  or where are you from?  The answer for me, is a little more complicated than just Jakarta. Or Singapore, or Japan. Home for me, has changed throughout middle school and high school. There’s no doubt that I’m Indonesian – both my parents are Indonesian, my passport says I’m Indonesian, almost my entire family and extended family are in the country’s capital, Jakarta – but out of 17 years that I’ve been alive only a mere 3 months or so were spent living in Indonesia. I moved to Singapore when I was less than a year old, moved to Australia after about a year and then came back to the small city and stayed for almost 15 years. Singapore and Jakarta are both home for me (and now Yokohama too!).

It’s nice to be able to call three different countries/cities home, but I’ve always been worried about loosing touch with my “Indonesian-ness”. It’s a little embarrassing for me when I go back to Jakarta and I can’t communicate with my family or friends in my mother tongue. So it has always been important to me and my parents, especially my mum, that I kept up with my mother tongue by speaking it as much as possible at home. And for a while, from preschool up until grade 2, Bahasa Indonesia remained the language I was most comfortable with. I’ve never been taught the Indonesian language formally, having grown up in two international schools in Singapore and Yokohama. In Singapore, I had a lot of Indonesian friends and we were all on the same boat. We were Indonesian kids away from Indonesia, determined to not loose our mother tongue – so we tried to have all our conversations in Indonesian.

For a while in my school in Singapore, I enrolled in the “Mother Tongue program” they had, in which I was formally taught Indonesian by a tutor, along with 4 of my friends. I dropped out of this after a while as I found it too difficult to keep up with the demands of this program and also keep up with learning French as a part of the school curriculum. Dropping out of this course is  probably one of my biggest regrets. I could feel myself in following years from grade 6 up until high school, loosing the ability to speak confidently and fluently in my mother tongue. By grade 4, English had become my more dominant language.  But my mum was not having any of it. She was determined, and as was I, to continue using my mother tongue as much as possible.

I think it’s safe to say now that I feel just as confident with my English as I do with my Indonesian. I feel like my “dominant” language changes depending on where I am and who I’m talking too. In class, my mind will work in English, and obviously I’ll speak in English during school. But as soon as I get home, my mind switches and all of a sudden my brain is functioning in Indonesian. This is an especially useful skill to have, when I go back to Jakarta. Growing up, my family used to tease me a little bit about my Indonesian competency, but now I feel confident talking to them in my mother tongue. Being able to speak English is useful because when I travel it tends to be the language that I communicate with locals with and the only language that is possible for us to communicate with one another. But even living in Japan! I don’t speak any Japanese and I find myself using English with locals – though difficult, if I didn’t have English I would have no idea how to communicate with locals when I’m travelling, or even when I’m out and about around Yokohama or Tokyo. Being able to speak Bahasa Indonesia also allows me to understand and communicate with people who speak Malay. Though there are significant differences between the two languages, being able to speak Bahasa Indonesia allows me to understand an “extra” language.