Confessions of a Lingo-Mixaholic

Indonesian actress Cinta Laura (JG file photo)

By : Tiza Mafira | on 12:20 PM October 31, 2013
Category : Archive

Indonesian actress Cinta Laura (JG file photo) Indonesian actress Cinta Laura (JG file photo)

Although some of you would know better, the rest of us often fall into a lapse of vacuous fascination with how Cinta Laura speaks. I fall into the latter category, having more than a few times watched her interviews on YouTube, then wishing I could retrieve the five minutes of my life I just wasted, and then doing it all over again the next day when someone posts the link on my newsfeed.

At first it was funny, then weird, then sickening. But ultimately, like traffic, celebrity infotainment and completely incomprehensible K-Pop lyrics, we develop a certain fondness for it. Familiarity breeds affection, or something like that.

Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that her language is what made her famous in the first place. When she said, "aku ada masalah dengan gastrow aku, jadi ngga bisa puasa" ("I have problems with my gastrointestinal tract, so I cannot fast"), I sympathized straight from the bottom of my gastro-resistant stomach. When she said, "not all beautiful people bisa menjadi famous" ("not all beautiful people can be famous"), I nodded at her wisdom. And when she proudly reported her Ivy League enrollment by saying "aku bisa buktikan bahwa biarpun aku artist, aku bisa keterima di Columbia University yang sangat prestigious, it’s super selective!" (I can prove that even though I am an artist, I can be accepted at the prestigious Columbia University. It's super selective!"), I gave her a little silent cheer for being so achieved.

All this, I must admit, with an underlying jest at how ridiculous she sounds, bless her. A jest that was shared, retweeted, and liked by a viral-worth of Internet people. I think it is safe to assume that by general consensus, Indonesians think Cinta Laura’s language sounds entertainingly annoying. (I would have added here a brief discussion on Vicky Prasetyo if only I could understand a word he says).

That annoyance is reflected elsewhere, with a more serious nationalist sentiment. Indonesian linguists have written anguished columns lamenting the decline of proper Indonesian, the government has issued a language law, and even the New York Times has generously dedicated an article on how Indonesians focus more on English instead of Indonesian.

In October alone, which happens to be the nationally proclaimed Language Month, and also the month when determined young Indonesians swore to speak a unified Indonesian language 85 years ago, I have lost count of the swelling number of postings by language enthusiasts who seem to be very visibly unsettled at the state of our national language.

But let’s put aside the critique on young children educated in "international schools" mushrooming all over Jakarta. Let’s put aside for a moment the hot defense by those who belong to the "what language I speak is my human right" school of thought. We now live in an era where mixed language is a daily reality not exclusive to mixed-race celebrities and children with privileged education.

Our own president, born and raised with humble means in our very own soil, is somewhat of a trendsetter in this regard. Numerous times have the media vultures swooped in to document his English-peppered speeches, some neatly organized into bullet points on the thirty English phrases the President mentioned in a single state speech. He even spoke English to fellow-Indonesian Sri Mulyani when she visited the country on behalf of World Bank.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is known in his better days as a reformer, as made clear when he once said in a speech that, "Saya itu punya keyakinan penuh bahwa today’s situation is much different dengan the situation in 1998" ("I have full confidence that today's situation is much different than the situation in 1998"). Yes Sir, in 1998 a public official wouldn’t be caught dead speaking like that.

All this language-mixing is certainly a departure from President Suharto’s era, where at some point not a single advertisement, real estate name or billboard was allowed to contain any language other than Indonesian.

I remember being a 9-year-old; confused, squinting at an electronics repair shop in Kelapa Gading called "Skilap". I was quite sure it was called "Sky Lab" just the other day. "Skilap" sounded ridiculous to my 9-year-old self back then. These days an exquisite cemetery in Karawang, West Java, called "San Diego Hills" sounds ridiculous to me too. I wonder whether this is all just a natural part of the colossal shape-shifting idea that we call reform.

Whatever it is, I shouldn’t be the one to judge. I mix languages to a fault, I must confess. There was a time, growing up, when I had been more comfortable with Indonesian. And then, there was a phase when I was more comfortable with English. It was all rather confusing, this whole bilingual business, inevitably washed-up on our shores by the aggressive tides of globalization.

Now that I have grown up, I find myself a little disgusted at my inability to stick to one language and be consistent with it in one sentence. One sentence, for goodness sake. It feels a little irresponsible to be an educated adult, but not be able to speak one language properly and correctly on a daily basis. So I made a resolution (one of those elaborate New Year resolutions, which included a weight-loss target and drinking less coffee) to start speaking one language per sentence.

At first it was extremely difficult, but slowly —very slowly— I began to improve. It became fun to do, like a private game I was constantly playing with myself. I would often stop mid-sentence, finger-snapping, so tempted to switch languages because I had that word, I had nailed the precise word that I needed to express my thoughts, but I couldn’t speak that word because it was in the wrong language.

I had to retrain myself to be acutely aware of the words that I was using to express myself, instead of just saying them automatically. But as I did this, something else happened. Something that I had not predicted before: I also became more acutely aware of the words that other people around me were using. And this is what I heard:

"Well, gue prefer film yang kemaren sih, which is lebih light, lebih banyak action. Yang hari ini agak complicated dan boring" ("Well, I prefer yesterday's film, which was more light, more action-filled. Today's was a bit complicated and boring"), said a friend who routinely bashes Cinta Laura.

"Wagyunya juicy and tender, pastanya creamy. Even kentangnya digoreng sampai crispy dan ditaburi grated cheese. Overall, sangat recommended dan worth it. Must try!" ("The Wagyu [steak] was juicy and tender, the pasta creamy. Even the the french fries were crispy and sprinkled with grated cheese. Overall, very recommend and worth it. Must try!"), wrote a restaurant-reviewer in her blog.

"Gue menyadari bahwa sometimes, kesendirian itu penting. Somehow itu bisa me-lead gue untuk lebih aware akan sekeliling gue, dan membuat gue lebih improve juga ketika acting" ("I realize that sometimes, being alone is important. Somehow, it can lead me to become more aware of my surroundings. Also, it can make me improve myself, also when acting"), a respected actor said during an interview with a radio station.

"Berdasarkan hal ini, dapat disimpulkan bahwa scope of work dari bidder adalah, in general, final delivery of the goods is to Surabaya and Batam. Therefore, we can assume that all bidders sudah prepare proposal (including price proposal) dengan tujuan akhir dari pengiriman adalah Surabaya and Batam" ("Accordingly, it can be concluded that the scope of work of a bidder is, in general, the final delivery of goods to Surabaya and Batam. Therefore, we can assume that all bidders have prepared proposals [including price proposal] with Surabaya and Batam as the final destinations"), my colleague wrote in an email to our boss.

"Mulai sekarang semua agreement harus dibuat bilingual dan me-refer ke Undang-Undang Bahasa. Memang perlu effort tapi ya kita ikuti saja" ("From now on, every agreement must be written in two languages and refer to the Law on Language. It requires effort, but we have to obey it"),  a lawyer discussed the consequence of the 2009 Law on Language.

We’ve all heard these phrases before on a daily basis. They are all around us, used by most of us in daily conversations. It has become so ubiquitous that most of us are not even conscious of the mix-up anymore. It has become so normal, in fact, that some have argued that this is simply a natural evolution of a language by absorbing a foreign vocabulary (although I would counter-argue that most of the English words used by Indonesians in daily conversation are already abundantly available in Indonesian, such as "which is", "sometimes", "prefer", "recommended", "aware", "improve", etc.)

It dawned on me then that "they" are actually "us". I had been tempted to jest and point fingers at celebrities and public figures that can’t seem to get their lingo right. But there are varying degrees of incorrect language usage and apparently most of us are not less guilty of failing to meet standards.

Language is not a thing, it is a living interconnection. The same way that we could not abolish corruption without uprooting an entire system starting from the top leaders to us common people who pay Rp 50,000 ($5) bribes to traffic police; language cannot be forced to go a certain way unless a lot of people speak the same way. So in a sense, we are all in on it.

Why is it then, that we are in such a ticklish uproar over how Cinta Laura speaks? Allow me to suggest a humble theory which might already be obvious to you. It is because she actually says the English parts of her sentence with an English tongue, whereas the rest of us say our English phrases with an Indonesian dialect. There you go, that is the simple foolproof secret to getting away with it. As long as you say "sangat rekomendet" instead of "sangat recommended", you would be grammatically incorrect but nobody will think less of you. Unless, of course, you are the president.

To gratify the grammar nazis in this Language Month I decided to be extra careful about maintaining my "One Language Per Sentence" rule. At this point most of my colleagues have become aware of my mission. One day I knocked on my colleague’s door to retrieve her CD-Rom containing the files I needed to download on to my laptop. Before knocking I thought carefully about what I wanted to say.

"Hi, pinjam cakram optik dong yang berisi file yang mau diunduh ke komputer portabel gue"  ("Hi, can I borrow the CD with the file that I wanted to download to my laptop?").

She stared at me blankly for a few seconds. And then she smiled smugly and said, "Berkas.  The Indonesian for 'file' is 'berkas'."

Gosh darn it.

Tiza Mafira is a lawyer based in Jakarta. Follow her tweets on @TizaMafira

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