Saturday, May 1, 2010

All Greek to me

My fellow teacher Rudi and I were having some communication issues last week. He picks me up for school on his way in in the morning, and he drives me home. I have 3.5 hour breaks between classes and English Clubs sometimes, so some days I ask Rudi to take me home.

I always say, “Rudi, would you mind taking me home now?”

And he was constantly getting this odd look on his face. He would pause a moment, and then say, “That would be fine.”

“You don’t have to!” I’d exclaim. But he would insist and say it was no trouble.

Finally, I found out what the problem was. “Katie, what do you expect me to say to that question?! It is one of the hardest things in English!”

Huh? Ooh. “Do you mind…”

He said, “Do you want me to say ‘yes’ or ‘no?’ I don’t know what is the right answer!”

So I explained that technically “no” is the right answer to a “do you mind” question, but he could always clarify what he meant. “No, I’d be happy to.” Or “No, it’s no problem!”

Rudi continues to test my knowledge on a daily basis with the English questions he’s thought of since the last time I saw him. Whew—on Mondays, he usually has a full two pages. They’re typically things like this:

Why is a lunch box not always a box and a trash can not always a can?

What is the difference between got and gotten and when should I use each?
(Most Indonesians use these interchangeably, but not my Rudi.)

Can you practice choir? Usually you just have choir practice.
But you can practice football? Yup.

What is the difference between “kind of” and “sort of?”

Why is the “i” in organize and organization pronounced differently?

You know the coolest thing about Indonesian? The verbs. They have verbs for everything. They have a verb that exclusively means “to have a moustache.” They have a verb that means “to take someone’s virginity.” They have a verb that means “to cook rice by boiling it.” All just one word. I mean, three separate words. That’d be weird if all those were all the same verb. Eww.

I really have always felt that one weakness of the English language is that we don’t have a way of asking “what kind of sick are you?” Someone says, “I’m sick.” And we say… where? Is it the flu? What’s wrong? (Those last two would work, I guess.) But Indonesians just say a direct translation of “What sick?” I like that.

I had no idea how much a language can affect the way people think. Do you know how many tenses we have in English? SIXTEEN! We have sixteen whole tenses! No wonder it’s hard for people. And we’re not talking Shakespeare’s English here: there are 16 common, everyday tenses for English speakers.

Indonesian has one tense. If you need to know that something happened in the past, you use context to figure it out. Obviously “I eat dinner yesterday” happened in the past, so it would be like “I ate dinner yesterday.”

But Rudi was explaining how English is so hard for Indonesians (and other foreign speakers, I would assume) because they literally have to change the way they think. For example, “If I’d known you were coming yesterday, I would have gone to the store.”

(Here’s where I want to start singing that song: If I’d knowwwwnn you were comin’ I’da baked a caaaake. Baked a caaaake.”)

Indonesians don’t have a way to say that in their language. They would break it down into two present tense sentences. “I do not know you come yesterday. I should go to store” would be a near-literal translation. Rudi said the ability to think one thought that means all of that at once is something he had to work hard to train himself to do. Isn’t that fascinating?

I really used to think that your brain was one thing unto itself, and language was just what comes out of your mouth, how to explain what you think. I guess that’s still true, but Rudi insists, and I’m starting to agree, that language can enable you to think more complex thoughts, faster. Hey, maybe there’s some uber-language out there that would force us all to go beyond English-language thinking…


Also, there are just so many more words to learn in English. I guess it’s nearly impossible to count the number of words in a language (Does dog count separately as a verb and a noun? Is hog-tied one new word or two old words joined together? Dig, dug, digging—one word in different tenses or three different words altogether? Etc.) Still, experts who know more about this sort of thing than I do estimate that the English language has somewhere around 750,000 words. An Indonesian dictionary from the ‘80s (yeah, it’s outdated, but go with it) contained 25,500 Indonesian words. So… there are a lot more words in English.

Ooh, and also according to the esteemed Dr. Wikipedia, here are some English words that come from Indonesian:

amok (as in “to run amok”)

Yeah, ok, so those are about the only ones, but still. The others I don’t count because you would directly associate them with Indonesia or Asia, like batik or rambutan.

PS- When I was looking up how many words were in the English language, I also learned that you’re pretty hot stuff if you know even 20% of that ¾ million. How enthralling. And riveting. And intriguing and exceptional and captivating. Eh, I probably wouldn’t even scratch the surface.


  1. Katie--all of this reminds me of former President Clinton and his "lesson" on the many uses of how the word "is" can be defined. He was/is pretty slick with his English language skills. Dad

  2. My head hurts fro this entry. I didn't know we had 16 tenses. I just taught people how to talk good. :-) I feel I need to go back to school to learn all that. But, it's not something kids need to know anymore - like diagramming sentences. And, Indiana's standardized tests usually don't go that deep. So, I bet most Indonesians know English better than us, we just speak it better.

    Keep on with the good fight!!!

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE you!!!

  3. I feel like a lot of these cross cultural misunderstanding come from the American butchering of it's own language. such ad the example
    of how to pronounce the "I" in organize vs. organization.... Or "practice choir"... Or the "kind of/sort of" debate. Pronunciation and use of these words depends on where you are in the country and whith whom you are speaking. (note the proper grammar through the use of "with whom"...)

    It makes MY head hurt too, to just imagine we have 16 different tenses. I don't even want to know what all their names are! Do all the tenses even HAVE names? I wonder.

  4. Talk about butchering English...

    Sorry for so many typos on that other post. I'm writing this from my phone...