Hi, I'm Megan. I am a writer, a photographer and an international public health professional. After a year-long research project in Indonesia, I'm back in my hometown, Chicago. It's great to see white snow again, but I miss the fresh coconuts that machete-slinging street vendors would chop open and sell to me for a mere 50 cents. Currently looking for ways, other than hibernating in a hat and gloves under my comforter, to stay warm. Please contact me at mmryan1@gmail.com to pitch your ideas. (FYI - I already tried hot potatos in my pockets, an old Irish tradition)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Learning the art of linguistic shamelessness

Since the day I imagined becoming a polyglot in my first Spanish class, I noticed that one thing might get in my way: my torpid tongue. Plainly put, for me, the Spanish “r’s” never seem to “roll off the tongue” like they do for others. I envied my old Spanish teacher's linguistic agility. I was jealous of anyone who could make the pur-like sound with their rs. I remember walking down the hall, repeating words like arriba and parrilla softly, hoping my tongue might just start to roll like a motor. It never did, and I never told anyone that I felt so insecure about my flat Spanish rs. To this day, my tongue and the double r have never gotten along.

Even if this idea was just a seed I planted in my own head to begin with - that my tongue isn't agile - it grew into a self-fullfilling prophecy. I felt shameful when a spanish word clumsily escaped my lips, and so I became shy to speak. I dreamed of having a perfect Spanish accent and I thought studying Spanish in Ecuador for five months might make that a reality. Five years later, my r is still as flat as ever. But what I did learn from living abroad was how to let go of the fear of sounding like a novice. I also learned that the art of speaking a foreign language lies in being shameless. 

I often think about whether I allow the fear of making mistakes or sounding preposterous stop me from expressing myself in Indonesian; I wonder whether I'm applying what I learned in Ecuador about shamelessness and language to my language acquisition in Indonesia.

Looking back on the past 9 months here, I don't think I have. Sometimes I self-censor my sentences (to avoid saying something that's not perfect) and in doing so I miss opportunities to make mistakes, be corrected and to learn from them. I'm a grammar nazi, a perfectionist when it comes to word choice. But my vocabulary in Indonesian isn't sophisticated enough for me to be such a stickler with Indonesian words. If there isn't a dictionary or a thesaurus laying around, I end up saying nothing. 

One hurdle I encounter in learning Indonesian language is one that I never did in Spanish: words that start with ng. In English, words don't begin with ng, they end with ng; for example, gerunds. But in Indonesian, many words start with ng. So the struggle of my tired tongue wanting to be nimble continues, not only when I say words with r (In Indonesian there is a slight role of the r also) but in forming the sound ng at the beginning of a word. But I'm trying to be an optimist. I believe that if my tongue gets the proper amount of exercise I might be able to say words like "nganggur and ngangtuk" unstrained one day. 

Fortunately, I have gracious Indonesian friends to exercise with. And I'm fairly certain they don't mind listening to me practice my pitiful pronunciation. Case in point: for twenty minutes my two Indonesian friends, along with my articulate and patient American friend Colin, listened to me try to say ngantuk - which means sleepy in English - over and over again. It was an ironic moment. I was between tongue and roof of mouth with the sounds that form the Indonesian word for sleepy. I couldn't help but feel like this word "ngantuk" was mocking me. My friend Merio tried his best to explain the difference between the right sound for ng, and the sound I was making. I swear there was no difference. I began to think that maybe I was tone deaf. 

Although I felt rediculous and everyone at the table was laughing, I continued trying to say ngantuk. On my way home, I imagined my friends forever dubbing me as the "lidah ngantuk" (sleepy tongued) American and never ask me to hang out again for fear I might find another word to practice on them for hours. To my surprise, a few days later I received a message on Facebook from Merio's friend. She asked me how my "ngantuk" was sounding and ended it with a little wink ;). Perhaps what I thought was a weakness, what I thought would make Indonesians disinterested in me, is actually something Indonesians find endearing. It just took a bit of shamelessness to figure out.


  1. The reluctance to speak another language unless you can be a native speaker is universal. Its true with sign language as well. But I have learned the need to connect is far more important than how it comes across. The effort to communicate is the path to peace.

  2. this is a great post, especially because of the use of the GRE SPECIAL WORDS like 'polygot'. <3