How To Outwit Atrophying Brain Cells

As a native English speaker I have assumptions about language. But the one that troubles me the most as I study Indonesian is the idea that everything I say should translate the way I think it. In other words, I want every word of English to have a corresponding word with an identical meaning in Indonesian. Am I naïve or just stupid?

If you’ve learned another language you know that at first you listen to what’s said, translate it into English so you know what’s being said, think of the answer in English, then translate it back into the foreign language. That’s a bulky, inefficient method and that’s where I’m at.

So the other day when I wanted to say, ‘next time,’ I fished around my brain for the Indonesian word meaning next. Whoops! Sorry. No enchilada. I asked the nearest English speaking Balinese person, “How do you say ‘next time’?” He rattled off a string of words. “Repeat that slowly, please,” I said.  When I wrapped my head around the jumble, it translated as, following the other time only. That doesn’t work for next month though. Next month is, following the month in front. Try happy birthday. It’s no fun at all: congratulations repeat year. I don’t need to be repeating any years, thank you very much!

My favorite is selfish. That one word of English takes no less than four words of Indonesian and it translates literally as, like to make important one’s self alone. Nails it to the wall, doesn’t it?

I was told that Indonesian was an easy language to learn so I plunged in all starry-eyed and eager. Easy compared to what? Arabic? Chinese? But for those of a certain age who want to exercise the brain cells to keep them from atrophying, by all means study Indonesian. It’s 90% memorization and 10% remembering what you’ve memorized. That’s a lot to ask of defunct grey matter. After that the challenge is knowing how to put all those amazing words together in a sentence. It’s tricky. Throw everything you know about English sentence structure out the window and you’re off to a good start.

P1000267This was my humble beginning about a year ago. I found the wooden ice cream sticks, 25 to a package for 40 cents, and bought two packages. I wrote an Indonesian word on one side and its English counterpart on the other and I was on my way. Ah the bliss of ignorance! It really did seem easy until one day I realized I didn’t know how to say anything in past or future tense. That’s when the prefixes and suffixes and all the delicious little extras appeared.


 Now, hundreds of words later, I am nowhere near fluent in this ‘easy’ language. These five hundred plus sticks hold the words that I’ve successfully lodged in the memory banks.


 And here are 107 more that rattle around like loose marbles, but I’m getting closer.

It’s an undertaking that is humbling and gratifying at the same time. Just knowing I CAN still memorize and retain information is a kick! But being able to communicate in the national language of my host country feels important. It’s my way of saying thank you. Thank you for your kindness, your beauty, your warmth. Thank you for your patience with my assumptions and my ignorance. But most of all, thank you for this amazing life. 


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. healingpilgrim
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 09:02:15

    Love those photos! There’s a word that never slipped into my language-learning, what’s “selfish” in bahasa?! More importantly: what are you planning to build with those ice cream sticks? A maquette model of rumah anda baru?! Or let’s have an art party when I’m back… island-side. Speaking of which: selamat hari raya empat bulan juli 😉



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Jul 04, 2014 @ 09:18:23

      I’m so glad you asked that question! Suka mementingkan diri sendiri! If that isn’t a mouthful I don’t know what is. Those sticks, by the way, are sacred. I’m building a temple of words! No 4th of Juli celebrations here. Very quiet tonight!



  2. Lottie Nevin
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 09:04:18

    I remember you telling me about the ice lolly sticks. I thought it was a great idea and still do. You’re doing great, Sherry, I’m most impressed. My Spanish has improved – I’ve gone from zero vocabulary to being able to make a few simple sentences but it’s not enough, and not nearly fast enough so I’m starting Spanish classes soon. Keep up the great work, I’m sure your Balinese friends think you ROCK! xx



  3. sageblessings
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 09:47:49

    Awesome Sherry. Great perseverance and it is/will be rewarded.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Jul 04, 2014 @ 15:24:42

      The rewards are many: I get laughs when I butcher it, I get ego strokes when I speak well, I gain understanding of a complex culture, I’ve expanded my opportunities for chit-chat enormously, and maybe I’ll avoid senility for another decade or so!



  4. Jan Borchers
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 11:01:28

    It is quite a challenge, Sherry, to learn a new language (esp. as the years advance upon us!). But you are doing so well, and your warmth and love for the Balinese always comes across clearly in your communications!



  5. Diane Struble
    Jul 05, 2014 @ 01:48:55

    I think what you have accomplished is amazing. 500 words with another 100 plus is truly an achievement regardless of age. Romance languages are not so bad. Asian languages I hear are nearly impossible unless you grow up with them. Congratulations and more sucess will come, I am sure.



    • writingforselfdiscovery
      Jul 05, 2014 @ 05:24:42

      Many of the sounds that have to be put together are uncomfortable to the Western ear and vocal cords. I don’t know of any words in English that begin with Ng. That’s a tough one. When I say words beginning with ng it feels like I’m swallowing my tongue!



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