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Culture through Language: Learning Bahasa Indonesia

Francine with people

by Francine Barchett, undergraduate in international agriculture and rural development and development sociology 

When I decided to make Ithaca, New York, my home as a Cornell freshman, I placed “becoming fluent in another language” toward the top of my college bucket list. My language of choice? Bahasa Indonesia. 

That decision, made in September 2016, led to countless hours in Ibu Jolanda’s Rockefeller Hall classroom. It later brought me to Malang, East Java, Indonesia, where I spent two months in summer 2018 as a US Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) student.   

While in Indonesia, I was dead-set not just on learning Indonesian, but securing that golden word: fluency. Thankfully, the structure of the program positioned my dream within reach. Besides, I wasn’t allowed to speak English or else I’d be kicked out! 

CLS allowed me the opportunity to have a personal team of Indonesians help me improve my language skills. My teachers, tutors, fellow American students, and host family were unfailingly supportive from the beginning of my stay, when I could barely introduce myself in Indonesian, all the way to the end, when we tried the spiciest noodles, bought colorful traditional batik and oleh-oleh (little gifts), and chatted for hours on end about the most trifling topics.  

My tutors, Mbak Vita and Mbak Mei, were students at Universitas Negeri Malang, where I was studying. They spent their afternoons making sure I was healthy, happy, and safe and that I understood my daily classroom lessons. 

As for class timeit was never boring. Since there were four students and four teachers in my language levelI received personalized attention at its finest 

One day our class went to warung (café) for coffee. Another time we visited an artist with disabilities who painted wonders with his toes. And I can’t forget the day we searched far and wide for a bundle of durians to share. Although the fruit’s smell was horrendous, the taste—and experience—were priceless. 

As was my host family. Ibu Rina and her mother, Ibu Katarina, were my adopted mothers from whom I never witnessed a frown or glareSinging with their church choirbuying produce with them at the local marketplace, even hearing them say “tambah!” (“have some more!”) at breakfast and dinnerour experiences were not fancy per se, but they inspired a lot of positive memories. 

As I look back on my Indonesian summer, I would be lying to call myself a fluent Bahasa Indonesia speakerWhile I am still on my journey there, I’m equally grateful for other lessons I picked up.  

learned to not be afraid of making loads of mistakesThat is the essence of learning. Improvement is all about embracing errors and using them, not as ditches but building blocks.     

My time in Indonesia also introduced me to a culture completely different from my own. I made numerous Muslim friends, who through our conversations and friendship erased all the confused notions I had about their religion 

Moreover, now have a distinct impression of the Indonesian people and their diverse identities. Whenever someone in the United States tells me that Indonesians are like Chinese or like Indian or like some other culture, have the tools to educate them through my own perspective and experience—and, hopefully, to persuade them to share my love and passion for the country. 

Learning Bahasa Indonesia is one of the best decisions I made at Cornell. Looking ahead, I aim to continue language classes with Ibu Jolanda. I also hope to perform agricultural development research in Indonesia in the near future, either as a Fulbrighter or PhD candidate. Regardless, when I cross “becoming fluent in another language” off my college bucket list, you won’t need to ask which language I knowit will be Bahasa Indonesia.