September 19, 2019
How I Pushed Away My Mother Tongue in Favor of English – And Regret It

It's the little things, like when every time I speak in English I gained more compliment and people respect me more.

by Siti Rochmah Aga Desyana
Issues // Politics and Society
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I am fluent in at least three languages. I am also able to comprehend basic sentences in five. Being a multilingual or polyglot has always been something that I take pride of. But perhaps also my biggest regret.

If you ask me what my most dominant language is, I would have to say English. I am fluent in it, I am able to articulate complex thought with it, and I am able to hold meaningful conversations through it. This is despite the fact that I have never left Indonesia, I do not live in a family that speaks English as their first language, and I have little to no interaction with people from countries who predominantly speaks English. My neighborhood and my surrounding do not enforce the necessity to speak this language, and yet here I am; not only fluent in it, but also using it more often than the language my community actually demands me to use.

Some people would say that it's such a brilliant achievement to be able to fluently speak in a tongue you have never directly experienced in your life and in your environment. But I regret it—not regretting being able to speak English, but rather the fact that I let it consume and marginalize other languages that I master, specifically the language of my mother.

Ever since I was able to speak English fluently in high school, I made a conscious decision to switch the majority of my thought process from Indonesian and Javanese to English. My mother tongues were pushed into the corners of my head, only resurfacing in very casual moments that doesn't require a lot of thinking. English became the language through which I learned, it become the language with which I articulate my thoughts, and it became the language that enables me to express myself and my views and my stances. The first language that I spoke, Indonesian and Javanese became meaningless and useless in meaningful conversations, because I could no longer immediately process the words that I want in the language.

With this condition I have the unique experience of having a language barrier with a lot of people, including close friends and family, when the environment around me does not necessarily demand the existence of that language barrier. I often found myself staring at the phone looking at my mom's contact and wanting to call her and tell her about my complex life problems only to not be able to find the words and chickened out. I found myself unable to hold long conversations with my friends without switching to English and confuse them. I often struggle in writing essays in Indonesian whenever I'm in class or even when I want to. My brain has been so continuously trained to avoid using my mother tongue, to shove it inside this metaphorical cupboard, up to the point where that cupboard is jammed whenever I tried to open it.

I tried to find the root cause of this very strange experience, and I can’t help to pinpoint it towards the very Eurocentric and Anglo-centric way our society has been built—up to the point that the culture carried itself even when there is no Westerner physically present to enforce it.

It's the little things, like when every time I speak in English I gained more compliment. People respect me more when I say that I can speak English and prove it. There are more encouragements from my environment to learn a correct English pronunciation than to learn the three stages of Javanese linguistic system.

It is also especially important to note the obsession and idolization of the general Indonesian public towards Westerners and their culture, and how desperate we are to come close to their Eurocentric standards—including mastering their languages. Languages that are predominantly spoken in the West—such as English, French, German—are viewed as better than other non-European languages like Japanese or Afrikaans or Arabic.

But, above all, I realize that our own language, Bahasa Indonesia, has been lumped into the so-called undesirable languages because they did not reach the Eurocentric standard society had raised us to live in.

It’s a strange to realize when you're only 15 that speaking in your native language could make you be valued less than when you're speaking in a foreign tongue. There is a hidden and undiscussed reality on how we value ourselves as a culture and an identity compared to how we value Westerners and their culture, even years after colonialization had ended.

But it’s a nuanced, complex conversation that flew right off my head, then an impressionable, slightly vain, uninformed, and overall just confused teenager. At 15, all I thought was that English would raise my value more compared to my peers, and so I ran with it because I wanted those approvals. So maybe, that was why I switched.

Flash forward to this day ­– even as I write this, I resent the fact that I have to use English to get my message through, because to me Indonesian come in chopped syllables and weird sounding words. And I resent the fact that I'm not the only one who feels like this. I have friends, bilingual and multilingual friends from across the globe, who express difficulties in articulating themselves in their native language because they were convinced to push away their mother tongue in favor of English.

It is ironic that I can only write an honest love letter to Bahasa Indonesia in English. And it took me years to unlearn all of the trained devaluation of my own culture and language. In fact, it's still taking me years. But I am trying, and I hope other people who feel the same way as I do continue to try as well, to understand and truly value our culture and language.

Siti Rochmah Aga Desyana is a law student in Universitas Padjadjaran who continues to give hot-takes on Feminism and other social issues. Follow her on Instagram (@desyanarach) or twitter (@hoekhti) for further insight of her mind.