What’s in a language? Sometimes, an unspoken part of you

For Missing Perspectives columnist and author of ‘The One Thing We’ve Never Spoken About’ Elfy Scott, learning to speak Bahasa, the national language of Indonesia, means more fully becoming herself.

Growing up with an Indonesian mother and a British father, Bahasa (the official national language of Indonesia) was always a presence in our household, despite the fact that my mum was the only one who spoke it. She would take phone calls on the kitchen landline, with the familiar “apa kabar” ringing out loudly enough for everybody in the house (and likely our next-door neighbours) to hear. The Indonesian food mum served us was always presented with its Indonesian name, meaningless to us but heard regularly enough that we came to recognise it: “sayur lodeh”, “bubur ayam”, mountains of “lumpia”. 

There were also snippets of Bahasa, generally mixed with English phrasing that came to be common parlance in the household. To “go bobo” described somebody falling asleep, usually somewhere they shouldn’t be. “Awas” was used almost exclusively to get hungry children out of the way of hot cast iron pots. And “goblock”, Bahasa for ‘stupid’, was primarily employed while my mum reached out to whack one of us around the head for doing something reckless. 

But these fleeting connections to my mum’s language were all I had. We were never formally taught Indonesian, and there was never any attempt made for us to be raised bilingual. Recently, when I asked my mum about this she expressed surprise that one bilingual parent could effectively teach their children a language (in fact, the Linguistic Society of America recommends this approach, with each parent speaking one language full-time to children). It was perhaps also never thought of as any particular priority based on the fact that we were raised in Australia – being able to speak fluently to mum’s friends and our many, many overseas relatives didn’t seem to occur as something of much importance. 

When I speak to friends now about learning languages, the dominant reason that people give for trying to learn one seems to be largely economic, which is fair reasoning, given the broad work opportunities that speaking the languages of the work world can afford you. My reasoning is different, while I have certainly lost out on some job opportunities because I can’t speak Bahasa (the time I auditioned for a role in a zombie movie when I was 18 and had to scream “They’re eating my brother!!” among them), I feel more profoundly that I’m missing out on part of myself. Being a half-Indonesian woman who’s lived in Australia for her whole life and only had the most fleeting interactions with Indonesian culture and language, I feel as though I’m observing what could have been an important part of my life from afar. Less caught between two cultures and more a prisoner to only one. 

Trying to pick up Bahasa now in earnest, I’ve dedicated days (possibly weeks) of my life to Duolingo and fumbling my way through children’s textbooks. I can tell you that my cat is red or an apple is looking at me, but I’m yet to be able to ask my cousin how their day was. It’s a lonely way to piece together a language and it’s not entirely effective, either. While language apps like Duo Lingo advertise the ease and convenience of picking up a language, they can never equip users with true fluency. When you’re relying so heavily on these modes of learning a language and trapped in these earliest stages, the sense of incompetence beams through every mispronunciation and pause while you scour your brain for the right word (the words for “with” and “meat” are always crossing wires in my mind, eventually I’ll just have to resign myself to the idea I may accidentally ask for “meat” quite a lot when I next go to Indonesia). Languages are social but the methods I’m currently engaging in are not and the more I learn Bahasa, the further away any semblance of true connection feels. 

I don’t blame my parents for overlooking Bahasa for us as children, but I do wish it had been otherwise. Being biracial in a Western country is a state already steeped in so much political and social complexity. Being culturally too white for some and aesthetically too brown for others is a social awkwardness that I’ve been forced to become accustomed to. 

But missing out on the language is particularly frustrating because it means that my identity, whatever it is, doesn’t feel wholly realised. I feel locked out of a culture because of my own failings – and trying to open the door is going to take a really, really long time.