Strange language experiences

August 21, 2009

Every so often, one needs to go off-island – to explore, reconnect with the rest of the world, reflect and rejuvenate. I’m back in Bali after a two-week sojourn to Lithuania – the land of my parents. It was more of a pilgrimage really. I wasn’t born there – I was sort of  dropped in transit through Germany on the way to Australia more years ago than I care to admit.

Lithuania is about 11 times the size of Bali, but with the same population. As in Bali, the people are fun-loving and friendly, the beer is excellent and the women are beautiful. Did I mention the beer is excellent? There are over 40 varieties of local beer and all of them sell extremely well. Also as in Bali, there is a rich cultural heritage that spiritually sustains the inhabitants. Particularly in rural villages, there is a banjar-like culture that provides support and security.

Despite being at a lattitude where the sun rises at 4:30am and sets at 10:30pm, even  near the end of  summer, it was still surprisingly warm in August. Mind you, everything is relative – the locals were gasping in the 27 degree ‘heatwave’ and looking at me as if I had lost my mind when I put on my jacket for the ‘cool’ 17 degree evenings. When you are used to Winters of minus 30 degrees, I guess anything above freezing seems warm …

Luckily, my Lithuanian is fluent, unlike the crimes I commit against Bahasa in Bali. (My latest linguistic transgression at a restaurant here – “Saya mau banjar” instead of  “Saya mau bayar” ).  Asking for a village instead of the bill is guaranteed to get you strange looks. And that was only a day after asking for an “es kepala”. I still reckon ‘iced cranium’ sounds like ‘iced coconut’ in Indonesian …

Anyway, language fluency, like temperature, is a relative term as well – I learned my Lithuanian from my parents, who left the old country a long time ago. People thought I was a local until I dropped words into the conversation that have not been in use for 60 years. “Have you come here in a time machine?” was one response to my witty repartee …

At a restaurant I tried all five words I know for ‘toilet’ without the waiter showing a glimmer of comprehension. After an embarrassing pantomime act (please don’t ask me to demonstrate), he asked, in perfect English, “oh, do you need to use the toilet?”  A perfect example of how even one of the oldest languages in the world – not dissimilar to Sanskrit – grows, borrows and evolves in response to globalisation.

More language difficulties also cropped up in Germany on the way back. The immigration officer scrutinising my passport and noticing that I was born in Germany, commenced a rapid-fire interrogation in German (which I do not speak).
Me: Sorry??
Officer: Sprechen sie Deutch?
Me: Nein
Officer: (accusingly) You chust did!
To my consternation, the grilling continued in German until he finally muttered something about my disrespectful refusal to speak the language. I knew I shouldn’t have fuelled his suspicions by departing with a polite “danke schon”, but I just couldn’t help myself.

So after nearly three weeks of speaking practically nothing but Lithuanian, I’m back in Bali – and guess what? I’ve forgotten most of the pitiful amount of Bahasa accumulated in the previous two months! Never mind, I’ll just have to go out and order a refreshing iced cranium and ask for the village at the end.

At least I can still say Bintang …



  1. Linkejimai is Lietuvos 🙂

    • Aciu!

  2. Thanks for another entertaining post Vyt. Isn’t language (well, the differences between them) great. I appreciate that people will respect you if you have a go at that foreign tongue, and I don’t mind if the laugh’s on me. Must look out for some ice cranium next time I’m in the supermarket…

    PS, will miss you at Learning Technologies 09 conference this year 😦

    • Makes me wish I had learned more languages while young. It’s harder now as a geriatric, but it seems to help keep the brain supple 😉
      Would love to attend the conference, but alas …

  3. Many years ago I spent a couple of months in Indonesia, mostly in Sumatra, with a friend who had learned Bahasa for 6 years at high school. His teacher was Lithuanian and consequently he spoke Indonesian with a Lithuanian accent. It caused a few strange looks but we mostly got by ok.

  4. OMG! I never thought of it before, but I probably speak Bahasa with a Lithuanian accent!

  5. Greetings from Lithuania. It is strange to hear someone speaking in Bali about Lithuania 🙂
    I am going to visit Bali in middle of September, so you have a good chance to practice again Lithuanian language 🙂
    Linkejimai (Best regards), Valentinas

    • Labas!
      The diaspora is far-flung indeed. Actually, I don’t know of any other Lietuviai in Bali, but you never know …
      Hope you enjoy your visit. Where will you be staying?

      • Labas.

        I have booked The Sari Beach Inn hotel in Legian area. They have good location directly at the beach of Legian.

        Linkėjimai, Valentinas

      • Good location – very close to many good restaurants within 10 min walk. Let me know when you arrive and we will try to catch up!

  6. Very entertaining blog
    I thought I was so clever going to the supermarket and asking for the milk ‘Saya mau susu’. Got all sorts of strange looks from the staff. What I meant was ‘Saya mau minum susu’ (I want [drinking] milk), what I was asking was ‘I want breasts’!

    • That’s one that got me into trouble too – not apparently with the Balinese, but with a Javanese friend who was with me! The low-down from the Balinese waitress was that ‘susu’ is generally interpreted as ‘milk’ in Bali, with ‘tete’ being used for breasts. But my Javanese friend was unconvinced, insisting that ‘susu’ was definitely only used to refer to the well-known mammalian characteristic. I guess ‘minum susu’ is safer! 😉

  7. It’s Bahasa Indonesia you are trying to speak, not Bahasa, which means “language”
    Bahasa Jerman = German
    Bahasa Inggris – English
    Don’t say “I can speak Bahasa” since this means “I can speak a language” Sounds pretty silly.

    • Of course. I just use the same contraction as the locals do, when the meaning is implied in the context. But you are quite correct – “Bahasa” without the descriptor is meaningless 😉

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