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by chandrasa on 

August 31, 2015
What is your mother tongue?
what's your mother tongue, kids?

Just last week I met a high school friend during a reunion; to be exact, she was from my high school in Jakarta (ergo, Indonesian: this piece of information is important to note) although we didn’t know each other then. She’s currently residing with her family in a non-English speaking country in Europe, let’s say D, since her husband is a national of D.

Here’s what happened during that event: she kept going back and forth from us to her family to translate what we said to her children and husband since they don’t speak Indonesian. She also casually mentioned that when their children is of age to choose their nationality, they’ll probably choose D because they don’t feel that much connection with Indonesia even if they come here every year during the summer holidays.

This situation saddens me.

There are over 270 million people speaking Indonesian and we are the fourth most populated country in the world – why would someone deem their own mother tongue so unimportant that they are not passing it on to their own flesh and blood? If I’m not mistaken, she said that she speaks another language to the children (e.g. English). Right, it’s not as if English is such a universal language, they’ll get it at school anyway.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)

 So, it makes me wonder, how could the children feel connected to their mother’s homeland when the only means to communicate with their Indonesian relatives is by waves, smiles and informal sign language? At that age they don’t speak English and D is not a language that Indonesian speaks. How would you make your offspring value their country when there is no love lost between them?

“Chand, get off your high horse, I live in a foreign country where nobody speaks Indonesian!”

Well, so did I for more than half of my age (that’s around 25 of course, despite the fact that my daughter is 11 years old. Soon my daughter and I will be of same age). During that time I spoke Indonesian to both my children. I had a 37,5-hour/week job to hold (and had to clean the whole house, cook, wash clothes all by myself without any assistants – but hey I am straying from the subject). However, my children and I made time to participate at various Indonesian events held by the Indonesian embassy (pengajian, 17an etc). I was adamant because I didn’t want my children to feel awkward when they meet people from my country or when we would be vacationing in Indonesia.  Yes, it “does” take effort. Big time.

“Indonesian is easy, they’ll learn it when they’re older.”

Is that so? Sure, but remember my quote and what you yourself said? That “love” connection will not be there then. This has to be developed early on and by the time they’re adults they’ll already identify themselves more as D and just a very small part as Indonesian, maybe even never.

How did this happen? How did some of us start to undermine our own language? Can we avoid similar situation in the future? How is it that an offspring of an Indonesian and a European parent residing in Jakarta since the day that child is born can only talk “broken-Indonesian” and yet people find it cute? I beg to differ. Hang on, I don’t like begging. I’ll have to rephrase then. Annoying, much?

Yes, I say: go for it, learn as many languages as you want, go on and teach your children to be polylgots. Concurrently, know your roots and be proud of them! Please be honored of being Indonesian! If you’re Indonesian, settle within your family who will talk Indonesian to your offspring!

This article does not reflect the opinion of Polyglot Indonesia.

About the author

Chandra is an alumni of IPB (Bogor Agricultural University) and Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Her elementary until high school years were spent in Korea, Indonesia and Switzerland. She has worked for the ASEAN Secretariat, AusAID, COST Office, GIZ, IBCSD, LB-LIA Bogor, and UNESCO. At the moment, in addition to holding a full-time job, she is also studying for her doctoral degree in natural resources and environmental management.

After having lived more than half her life abroad, Chandra returned to Jakarta in 2013 along with her daughter and son. And they live happily ever after.

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