WHEN we were on a summer vacation in Indonesia last year, an experience occurred to me that still amazed me till now. It’s a kind of puzzle. As we landed in Jakarta, and my kids met with some relatives, they refused to speak English, even though some of them insisted on hearing my kids speak that “alien” language.
For some people down there in Jakarta, let alone in my kampong, to see kids speak English is exactly like American seeing Barack Obama wear that “strange” traditional attire from Kenya, his father’s home country, the other day. It’s so cute to see our kids speak other “foreign” languages. It’s even an exotic experience for some people.
When I visited my wife’s home town in Rembang, some of her relatives “provoked” my kids, Ben and Billy, to speak English. But Ben who apparently spoke English better than his sibling at that time refused politely the “stir” and said instead, “This is Indonesia, and it is not the right place to speak English”. People bursted in laugh at that time.
That experience was an amazing moment for me. How do kids understand the very notion that a language is closely bound to time and space; that a language is “glued” to certain place; that English is not supposed to be spoken in different context?
What amazed me was that my first son, Ben, seemed to be so shy to be noticed of as speaking English in Rembang. He tried so hard to retain his Indonesian language and related with other people around him in that language.
In nutshell, how do kid understand the concept of language’s spatiality, i.e. that a it is relevant as far as it is spoken in the right time and right place?
When we came back to Boston, it was just automatic that my kids seemed to undergo a kind of “mental switch” and spoke English again as nothing never happened, as if we’ve never been in Jakarta few days before. Now, I have a hard time to “push” them to speak Indonesian. Their teachers in school always alerted us to the importance of bilingualism for kid’s mental and, particularly, language skill. My wife is tirelessly trying to speak Indonesian language with them at home.
I envy my Chinese neighbors who always speak Mandarin with their children at home. I also envy my wife’s best friend from Israel who insists on speaking Hebrew with her children as soon as the school’s class is dismissed.
I see my Indonesian friends as lacking in this “language nationalism” that I see among Chinese and Israeli friends. To my best knowledge, all my friends’ children in Boston area have abandoned their native language.
The other day, my American neighbor envied as I speak at least four different languages (Indonesian, Arabic, English, plus my own native tongue, Javanese), while most of ordinary Americans like him speak just one language. I was proud to realize that to be bilingual or multilingual is rare “stuff” that few people are lucky enough to posses.
But, how about my children who seem to loose grip of our national tongue now? At least, my kid’s generation has already lost one language, i.e. the native language, bahasa daerah. I lament so miserably that many Javanese people of today who live outside the “Javanese cultural hemisphere” (Central and East Java) had abandoned their native tongue.
Can we, or at least I, reverse this lamentable course of event?