Monday, October 20, 2014

We Don't Speak 'Bahasa'

Just in case you're one of the increasing number of people who think the name of the Indonesian language is 'Bahasa', here's a little reminder:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sarunai Tapanuli

In my previous post I showed a picture of a musical instrument called a 'sarunai' which comes from the Batak Tapanuli region of Sumatera. It is a small woodwind instrument with a single reed with a sound very much like many of the single-reed bagpipes of Eastern Europe.

I first encountered this instrument while teaching in Jakarta. The music teacher was a member of a Tapanuli music group. Being interested in woodwind instruments, particularly reeded bagpipe-type woodwinds, I purchased a couple of Sarunai from him. After finding a Sarunai for me to learn on, he invited me along to a Batak wedding so that I could get a close look at how the Sarunai was played.

It is quite a difficult instrument to play in that Tapanuli music tends to be very fast with a lot of staccato meaning a lot of tonguing of the reed by the Sarunai player. The reed of the Sarunai can be very temperamental to the point that even the most delicate staccatto playing can cause the reed to immediately close up and cease to sound.

Here is a video I made of the group playing at a wedding in Jakarta:


Kayu Hitam

Kayu Hitam, better known in English as Ebony has a long history of use as a highly-valued exotic wood prized for its colour and also its tonal qualities when used for woodwind instruments. Here in the west we are accustomed to seeing the very dark, almost black wood on pianos, violin tuning pegs, chess boards and so on. It comes as no surpise then that we asociated the word ebony with black and fully expect that anything marketed as being made of ebony wood to be nothing but a deep black colour.

It wasn't until a trip to Bali back in 1989 when I first encountered the notion that ebony wood could be anything other than deep black. Outside the front gate of our hotel, a friend was approached by a man selling carved wooden flutes, decoratively adorned with carvings of the Garuda bird. I forget what the asking price was, but being a long-term resident of Indonesia, my friend began the bargaining process first of all by asking what type of wood the flute was made of. The seller answered, 'Kayu Hitam...Eboni'. My friend countered by saying that it couldn't be ebony because ebony is a black wood. This wood was a much lighter coloured brown but with some visible darker streaking. Anyway, I can't remember the outcome, other than that the flute remained with the seller and I went away thinking my friend had succeeded in catching out a would-be cheat.

Fast forward about 5 years to when I began to take an insterest in woodwind manufacture and the world of 'tone woods' - woods which are prized for their suitability for making woodwind instruments and I begin to develop an awareness of just how many different varieties of ebony there are - all belonging to the same Diospyros family - ranging from the deep, jet black colour that we are used to imagining through a whole range of lighter shades of dark brown, light brown, striped with darker almost black streaks, to what is known as 'black and white ebony' which literally looks like the striping of a zebra - very pale white alternated by dark, almost black.

It was then that I discovered a particular Indonesian variety of Ebony known here as 'Makassar Ebony' but in Indonesian known as Kayu Hitam Sulawesi. This variety of ebony, while not as sought after as the darker, blacker varieties of African ebonies, still retains the qualities sought after by woodwind manufacturers in terms of tone and workability. The biggest difference is that it is of a lighter brown colour with dark streaks, exactly the same colouring as the carved flute my friend in Bali was offered to purchase. So it turns out the seller was telling the truth after all.

Here are a few samples of different ebonies in their raw states as found in my workshop:

Papua New Guinea Ebony - Very closely related to Makassar Ebony:

Indian Ebony

Gaboon Ebony 

A chanter I made from PNG Ebony showing similar colouring as Makassar Ebony:
 A chanter I made from Indian Ebony showing the jet-black quality of the colour:

A Batak Tapanuli Sarunai made from Kayu Hitam Sulawesi:

Monday, September 24, 2012

To think 'English as global lingua franca is enough' is a catastrophic mistake

In a broadcast on ABC Radio National on Saturday, Sept 8, Kishore Mahbubani, Professor in the Practice of Public Policy and Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, made the following points in relation to Australian attitudes towards our place in Asia -

"Europe represents the past. America represents the present. Asia represents the future"...

He counters the attitude that all we need is English, that we don't need to be preoccupied with learning second languages because of the emergence of English as the global lingua-franca. He states such an attitude will be a catastrophic mistake. 

He states, "Just because Asians speak English well, it doesn't mean that they think in English or feel in English. If you don't speak their language, you don't get a window into their culture, into their hearts and minds"... 

"There are two countries clearly that will have a major impact on Australia's future. One is Indonesia and the other is China. If young Australians are not learning either Bahasa Indonesia or Mandarin, then I think they will be at a severe disadvantage in preparing themselves for the Asian century".

 Well worth listening to.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Indonesian is one of the most difficult languages to learn II

Following on from my previous post, which I should add was a response to a comment made on a forum that Indonesian is an easy language to learn, the following is a second response to add more clarification to my initial point:

My point is, it's the difference between the vagueness of Indonesian (I mean 'vague' in a positive sense), which relies to a high(er) degree on context rather than words, thus 'High-Context language' and languages such as English which rely to a high(er) degree on spoken words over context, hence 'Low-Context language'.

In that sense, Westerners need to come to grips with being able to understand all the words, yet struggle with the gaps because the context-based message is far less apparent. Indonesians learning English need to come to terms with the speed and the many idioms found, especially in Australian English, amongst other hindrances that Australian English presents. I'm being overly simply here. It's far more complex than that.

I should point out too, that between US English, British English and Australian English, US English could be considered to be a 'lower-context' variety of English than British English, whereas Australian English could be considered to be the highest-context form of the three. Meaning, Americans tend to use more words than Australians to get their messages across. Australians have a subtle vagueness which means our meaning, especially in our humour, is often lost on Americans.

I actually struggle speaking Indonesian with other western learners of Indonesian because, having become more accustomed to the Central Javanese vagueness (again I mean this in a positive sense), I find westerners try to use way too many Indonesian words, comparatively speaking, in a single sentence to get their points across. And for some reason Westerners, myself included simply cannot pronounce Indonesian all that well. No matter how much I practice and try to mimic Indonesian pronunciation, I just cannot stop sounding like a westerner.

In a nutshell, the point I'm making is that no language should be considered any easier or difficult than any other language. All languages present their own unique challenges to learners.

* Update on this post (10-08-2012)

In response to my statement above that, "westerners try to use way too many Indonesian words..." a forum member made the following statement:

'True, we do this, and we also have the annoying habit of ending way too many sentences with a "yaa?", turning the simplest observations into questions.'

I have observed exactly the same thing. I wonder, why is it that westerners like to append a 'Yaa?' on to the end of so many of their Indonesian statements?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Indonesian is one of the most difficult languages to learn

Indonesian is one of the most difficult languages to learn. The grammar may be comparatively easy compared with English, but the socio-linguistics is a different matter altogether. Indonesian is what is sometimes termed a 'high-context'' language. In overly-simple terms, this means that, in spoken conversations, Indonesians do not use as many words to get their meaning across as speakers of 'low-context' languages such as English and Dutch do.

The difficulty for learners is that Indonesians have an uncanny ability to communicate meaning through 'unspoken' language. In essence, what is 'not' said conveys an awful lot of meaning. Therein lies the difficulty of Indonesian. That, coupled with the fact that an awful lot of ideas are worded in ways that are not immediately obvious to English speakers. It is not simply, as one person I heard mistakenly claim, a matter of putting English phrases into Indonesian.

This all becomes much more apparent the more you start getting beyond superficial 'selamat pagi, dari mana? Saya dari Australia.'- type conversations and trying to have more deeper engagements with Indonesians, especially if you are among a group of them rather than one-on-one. I've been in situations where conversations around me, that I am included in, go completely over my head. Not because I don't understand the words - I do - but because what is 'not' said throws me off. I understand every word, but I have no idea what they're talking about!!

Oh, and for the love of krupuk...please please please stop calling Indonesian 'bahasa'.