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.


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 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.

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 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. 

 

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Getting What You Want

Oh sweet success! Who would imagine what a thrill breakfast could be? I’ve been here three weeks and until now the first meal of the day has been a rotation of 1) scrambled eggs, toast, strawberry jam, and fruit, 2) omelete, toast, strawberry jam, and fruit, and 3) banana pancake and fruit. I shouldn’t complain. In Minnesota I ate steel cut oats and fruit 365 days a year and loved it! But here? I was beginning to see the months stretch out in endless repetition.

My first attempt at requesting a whole papaya, cut in half, skin on, and peanut butter for my toast turned out badly. I was served my regular breakfast but the bowl that usually included watermelon, pineapple, and banana had only chunks of papaya. A bubble of desperation formed in my throat. That afternoon I went to Ganesha Bookstore and bought an Indonesian Dictionary. As soon as I got home I looked up the words for butter and peanut. Selai kecang. Good. Moving right along I found words for papaya, skin on, cut in half, etc. etc. The complex mixture of consonants and vowels were baffling and overwhelming to me. I found Ketut in the garden, and with sign language and the dictionary I tried again. The next morning the egg was absent, and the papaya appeared in quarters, peeled, on a plate this time instead of a bowl, with toast and strawberry jam. We had gotten a teeny-tiny bit closer.

About that time the afternoon meals were encountering the same issues. I realized that if I wanted to enjoy the wonderful Balinese food that I love, I needed to accelerate the learning curve. I needed flash cards! On an outing to CoCo’s Supermarket, I found wooden ice cream spoons and began writing on them the new Indonesian words and phrases I was learning. Then I practiced, and practiced, and forced my atrophying brain to simply memorize all those unfamiliar sounds.

Studying my flash sticks.

Fortunately, Ketut is a willing tutor. Each morning I tried out my emerging language skills on his Balinese ears and noted the subtle corrections he made in my pronunciation. Sometimes he had to look at the Indonesian word I’d written to understand my version of it! Take for instance, peanut butter. I was pronouncing it see-lie ke-kang. The correct sounds are seh-lay ke-chang. No wonder it had not shown up with the toast! But I’m slowly making progress and he is getting steadily more adept at interpreting my pantomimes. Then this morning his patience and my persistence finally paid off!

Half a papaya with skin and toast with peanut butter!

Bliss! You cannot imagine my excitement and the expressions of gratitude I showered on poor Ketut in English and Indonesian and probably a little leftover Spanish that still hangs out in my memory banks. After I finished the delightful and long awaited breakfast I scurried off to CoCo’s Supermarket and snatched up four more packages of wooden ice cream spoons. Getting what you want, especially when it’s food, is a powerful motivator. Wasn’t it Pavlov…?

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