I was born and grew up in the northernmost part of Indonesia called Talaud Islands. A bit about the islands: it consists of dozens of tiny isles that located right in the West of Pacific and sits comfortably inside of so called “Pacific Ring of Fire”. On the map, the islands formations are like jumping stones connecting Sulawesi to Mindanao, the Philippines. Actually, it is closer going to the Philippines than to Manado, the provincial capital.
From the day I knew how to speak, I spoke Bahasa Manado, a dialect spoken by people in North Sulawesi, although it is not my mother, yes mother, tongue. People of our islands have their own dialect, Bahasa Talaud, which is completely different and alien from both Indonesian and Bahasa Manado. Indonesian then is left to be used for education purposes, talking to people from other parts of Indonesia, for enjoying entertainment and in formal ceremonies. And, with good reason, I consider it as an advantage to be brought up in such a multi-language environment like this.
It just dawned on me, and I have to admit it, that it is true, it takes me some micro seconds delay to say something in Indonesian than when I am speaking in Bahasa Manado, because words, orally, do not come naturally for me in Indonesian. If it is the case, then the way I speak Indonesian is similar to speaking English, which is I think not uncommon for people speaking second language.
Very often in Jakarta when I meet a person for the first time, I often get response like this:
“Dari daerah yah? (literally, you are from region, aren’t you? )”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“Thank you!” Why can’t just they say that I am speaking Indonesian with an accent? Sometimes, I find the statement said not in a good term, unnecessary, snobbish, derogatory, and annoying and instantly create communication barriers because it implies that because you do not speak like the rest of us, you do not belong to us, so you are an outsider.
Similarly, when I am overseas, I often get asked like this:
“How do you know?”
“G- – bless you. You are so [damned] right! Yes, I’m from southern Philippines.”
It still amazes me why that people from the same geographical area can have that similar voice pitch and intonation and speech pattern although they speak different languages like ours and people of the Philippines?
I had a quite amusing experience in Bali a few years back. I was in the airport, just landed and trying to find my way out. Found an information booth, I asked the lady who tended it with plain Indonesian for a direction I wanted to know. But to my dismay, she kept answering me back in English! Do I look like a foreigner to her? Or my Indonesian is not good enough to justify that I am an Indonesian? I suspect that it was more on my accent. For her, probably, I sounded more like a Filipino trying to speak Indonesian.
It was in Australia that I learnt that for most people, the accent stick with them forever after they pass their teenage years. Even more, what stick are also things such as gestures, body language and laughter! I could recognise from my dormitory in the 9th floor whether an Indonesian gathering is being held in the basement just by listening to the vague sound of their laughter! This revelation helped me not try to speak English in, say, Australian or American, accent. It just sounds weird to hear, say, a Japanese, with heavy distinct Japanese pitch, striving to speak in American accent. Besides, even for the English speaking people there are various accents. Why bother to be like one if, sometimes, even the Americans can not understand Australians?
I apply the same thing to speaking Indonesian. It is simply that you can not change and hide your accent. It is time, I think, to make ourselves familiar, comfortable and accept those various accents instead of viewing that a single Jakartan accent is more superior and acceptable. Certainly, it is embarrassing talking to a person from a certain ethnicity trying hard to speak Indonesian with Jakartan accent and its much-prided colloquial. It feels like facing someone trying hard to be someone they are not, someone trying hard to be accepted. It is unnecessary and an insult to our sense of originality.
(Jakarta, January 27, 2007)