“I majored in Indonesian… I’m pretty fluent. I did Indonesian at high school… I’m pretty fluent. I did six weeks in-country… I’m pretty fluent”.

Photo by irwandy

Photo by irwandy

Umm…no, no and no you’re not.

I don’t mean this to sound harsh, but you’re not. And I’d really appreciate it if you stopped professing fluency in a langauge when you can’t order fried rice and teh botol.

I have studied Indonesian every year since I was in Year 4, and every day since I’ve questioned my fluency. I went on to major in Indonesian at Monash University and  knew I was nowhere near to being “fluent”. One day I asked a friend to put me in touch with Indonesians studying at Monash to provide me with conversation partners. Already, after my first meeting with my first ever Indonesian conversation partner, I knew how much work I had to do before I could even contemplate calling myself a “fluent speaker” of Indonesian.

In 2007, I took myself to complete the final semester of my law degree at Universitas Indonesia. I sat through two-hour-long lectures of which I understood next to nothing. For example, I sat through hour and a half-long lectures in international environmental law for 16 weeks where I was convinced my lecturer kept saying that Singapore was stealing Indonesian sand! (Turns out that was kind of correct – a short visit to Singapore after my six months in Indonesia was highlighted by the mountain-sized mounds of sand I saw in various places.) For perhaps my first four months I felt like my head was spinning and would default to English out of self-preservation whenever possible.

In 2008, my Indonesian lecturer recommended me for work in Timor-Leste with a forensic team as their Indonesian language interpreter as they investigated the Santa Cruz Massacre of 1991 and conducted disaster victim identification training for local police and mortuary workers. Sometimes translating forensic science terminology and expressions simultaneously for five hours, with the occasional break, never have I exerted so much brain power in my entire life. Even then, when I felt like my Indonesian had never been so “fluent”, I had moments where my brain refused to cooperate. By this stage I was nearing what most people would call fluency in a second language – to interpret professionally  – but even then, I questioned to what extent I was truly “fluent”. I was later told that UN interpreters work one hour on, two to three hours off!

For whatever reason, few people value true fluency, nor recognise it, when it comes to foreign languages. Yes, some people have enough to “get by”, and that’s great. People will tell you they’re fluent when they’re not, giving those who are a bad name. Sometimes it simply isn’t appreciated what it takes to achieve proper fluency. In Indonesian, this means learning formal Indonesian, but also knowing the every day slang variety, especially important in Jakarta. I regularly find that once I convince my Indonesian counterpart of my fluency in their language, they relax and open up far more than if they were confined to using English. So often, and I am guilty of this too, we listen to non-native English speakers and forget or are simply oblivious to the mental cartwheels they’re doing in their head trying to formulate sentences that we understand. Attempting to achieve fluency in Indonesian has given me empathy and a true appreciation of what people whose lives and professions require them to regularly converse in a tongue not native to them, are like.

True fluency in any language opens so many doors.  For instance, the number of times I have managed to convince a bartender in Jakarta to extend happy hour for 15 minutes because I have been able to tell him that my friend was babbling in my ear and we simply forgot to order another round, is an example of how fluency can truly make life so much easier in a foreign land. More seriously, while completing my postgraduate degree in Melbourne I completed an intensive four-day subject with several Indonesian students. Once one of them knew I could actually casually and comfortably converse with her in Indonesian she instantly invited me to her place for Easter, and then and there I had a new gang of Indonesian friends, all of whom are still friends of mine to this day. In fact, I just saw them last week in Jakarta, six years on from that Easter Sunday back in 2008.

Don’t get me wrong: six-weeks intensive study can be great. But it’s only the beginning. You need true immersion, and that can be a head-spinning, exhausting, life-questioning experience of trials, tears and tribulations. That said, the second you’re able to actually have a conversation with a cab driver whilst sifting through the tragic traffic Jakarta serves up, you might start to feel it was all worth it. You’re actually having a conversation with someone who knows the city better than anyone, in (one of) their langauges and who is not going to try to take you to Pacific Place from your office on Sudirman via PIM because he knows you know the place and will let him know if he tries to do anything dubious.

We need to start appreciating fluency properly. If someone already speaks a language, and is able to prove it, give them a job if that’s what the job requires. To our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, don’t be so naïve as to think even two years of intensive language study will be enough to get someone else with no grounding in that language to the same level of fluency as someone who has studied it since Year 4, for example. It not only mocks the time and effort the other person has put into truly mastering the language, but shows no understanding of what it actually takes to master a langauge.

In Australia, real fluency in a second language is often seen as a specialisist pursuit, so that we become pigeon-holed only as language teachers, interpreters or translators, or a postgraduate degree in linguistics. This is a minority subject, and language learning is often treated as a minority by those who do not understand the benefits it brings. We need society to understand that a linguist with high proficiency in Indonesian can advance cross-cultural communication in ways the general “get by” second-language speaker cannot even comprehend. It is only when Australians see the value of this fluency, and start understanding its full benefits, that more school and university students (and their parents) will see the importance of a second language. If we’re lucky, linguists might even enjoy more permanent or steady forms of employment in business, government and elsewhere.

If you believe that languages other than English are worth studying, we need to have a clearer agenda about what true fluency is, why it should be pursued, and why employers should recognise it.

Daniel Peterson works with the Sampoerna Foundation in Jakarta. The views expressed are his own and do not represent that of his organisation.