Many people asked me about how I learned my English; both locals and foreigners. So I’ll write this post so that later I can just copy-paste the link to them. And I’m writing this not because I feel so confident about my English, in fact, on the contrary, I realize how imperfect my English is even though I’ve worked a lot for years since I was in middle school to master it, still I will never be close to native, not even advanced level. At first I hated it, I hated myself for not being good at something that I like. I hated the fact that my English is far from perfect, that I have a strong accent sometimes in speaking and you can feel it too in my writing that English is not my first language (even though my writing is better than my speaking).
Maybe for many Indonesians, they consider my English more than enough. Many people hope that they can speak English like I do. Many foreigners were also surprised with my English, but I think they’re not amazed with my English, they just didn’t think any Indonesians would be capable of communicating in English because we are from a poor country and our education is not our best quality.
Also, I’ve been made fun of and mocked because of my English, sometimes not in a friendly way, and even by a guy I was dating at that time (a foreigner). He said, “How pathetic that you are an English graduate but your English is sh*t.” , when we were having an argument (that’s not even related to my English, he just suddenly said that to hurt me).
I realize that when a westerner (especially those who like to call themselves “expats” instead of immigrants) speak broken non-English language like Bahasa Indonesia, it’s considered cute. But when non-native English speakers like me speak broken English, we’re considered less educated, less important, or have lower thinking ability. I realize how easy it is for someone to feel more exclusive than others just by a language, even if English–their mother tounge–is the only language they speak/ understand.
My story is just one of Indonesians’ stories about how hard we work for something that we dont easily have access to. Especially for people like me who don’t come from the upper class where they speak in English more than they speak in Bahasa Indonesia. Indonesians in big cities and the upper class minority speak English very very well, they study and travel overseas. One example of this class is the breakthrough young rapper, Rich Chigga/ Rich Bryan. People won’t think that he’s an Indonesian if you listen to his English and music.
My parents sent me and my brother to the best private school in the our city at that time, it’s quite expensive and far from where we lived, so my friends were from families who are richer than us, that every time I was invited to my friends’ birthday parties or just to play at their houses, I was amazed by how big their houses mostly were, felt like mine was the smallest and modest. Many of my friends already went to English courses since very early, kindergarten maybe. My parents, even though they understood the importance of English, they couldn’t afford that for me and my brother. So it’s like we started the marathon late, because we did not get any English courses until we’re in middle school. At that time, there’s no Youtube, there’s no internet and kids didn’t play 80% of their days with tablets/ phones. Even I had to go to my neighbor’s house every afternoon and Sunday morning to watch cartoons because he was the only one who had TV cable in our neighborhood.
I never realized I was good at learning languages until I was given the opportunity to learn other language, that’s when I was 13 y.o. My parents could not afford the expensive English course for us, so we went to the mid price, none of the teachers were native. That’s when I realized I fell in love with this subject, I didn’t know at that time if English is important, I didn’t know how it’s gonna help my life in the future, I just fell in love, I enjoyed it and I want to be able to speak it. I have no target nor expectation from my self-study. I think that’s the purest kind of love, when you love something/ someone with the least reasons.
I only got 4 hours of English lesson in a week from that course, two hours per meeting. I realized how little it is, that it’s not gonna be enough. I asked my parents whether I could get another English classes, like 4 times in a week or everyday, but my mom was angry. She said I have to learn math, YUCK!!
Mostly, I learned English from my self-study. In this case, movies and music helped a lot (remember, at that time internet was so rare). My interest in English turned me into a nerd. I skipped playing with friends just to have some hours to watch english movies or read books over and over again. I used to watch every movie three or four times. The first play was to enjoy the story, the second to take notes of the english, third is to repeat how they are used in conversation, forth to practice speaking it during the movie ( I dont think I can do that anymore, because we have abundance of options now that I even can’t play Youtube videos or podcasts in normal speed anymore because I’m afraid I dont have time to watch/ listen to others).
At that time, english books were not easy to find. So I went to my english course’s library almost every day just to read English books. No matter what book it was, I just needed something that’s written in English. I compiled my own grammar notebooks (those notebooks were even photocopied by my friends in college!).
I had no one to practice my English speaking. So after I watched english movies, I spoke by myself to repeat the conversation in the movies. Then a DVD rental just opened near my school and it had a promo of 6-month free DVD rental if we bought a DVD player from there. So my brother and I begged to our parents for that, and we finally bought a DVD from there. Literally EVERY DAY, we rented movies, we could only rented 2 movies max every day.
I knew about internet earlier than many Indonesians did at that time. I didnt really have much time to play with other kids, because I would rather either watch movies or be in internet cafes. Internet cafes were very very rare, only 2 in my city at that time. If I could fly, I would fly to the cyber cafe as soon as my school finished, everyday. And the internet was very very slow, to load a page could take like 5 minutes (wow I just realize how patient I was before, now I can’t even stand a pop-up dialog box!). I signed in to mIRC (chat rooms) in order to chat with westerners. I thought that was the cheapest conversation class! Well I had to lie about my age, otherwise no one would talk to me. I had to keep a dictionary next to me every time I was in front of the computer, then I would write them down, whatever I learned from every day.
Then I started to write something in English everyday, at least for one page. Anything, it’s just for practice. I would not review my writings right away, because I would think it’s perfect. But if i give it time and just review it after 3-5 days, I will able to see my mistakes easily. Then I train myself to start to think in English rather than in Bahasa Indonesia. In 2009, started to write a blog. Unlike this one, my old blog was 85% in English, but I didn’t write as often as I do now.
Even though my English is still not perfect, I’ve been able to make money from it. Started from teaching, translation projects, and now it helps me A LOT in my job that I can make money in dollars. I can get my other skills valued more because I can bring it to international marketplaces. I’ve worked with foreigners since I graduated uni, and I’ve made friendships with non-Indonesians. Not only in my job, but also in love life, I havent dated Indonesians anymore for years (trust me, the cheapest, and most enjoyable way to learn conversational English is by dating. Haha!! But dont get me wrong, I didnt date them because they’re foreigners, I never planned to fall in love with them, it just happened.)
One day, I stumbled upon this video, and it made me feel like that’s probably what my future kids will feel about me. But I wont be the sad broken-english speaker parent, I dont care that much anymore if people wanna laugh at my English. At least from their laugh, I learn something. And my broken English means I’ve worked for something. I’m proud of myself even with those limitations I’ve had, I’ve made it this far. And my brother, he got scholarships from his university in Australia until Ph.D. Not perfect indeed, but like my lecturer ever told me, “It’s okay if your best is not good enough, but it’s not good when your good is not your best.”