top of page

Speaking Someone's Language: The Paradox of Knowing pt 3

They say that by speaking someone’s mother tongue, you speak to their hearts. Personally, I’d rather have people speak to me in English than their broken Indonesian if they are trying to say something very important. If they are just learning and want to practice, I am more than honored to hear someone speak my mother tongue. But anyway, what does it really mean to speak someone's language?

Hi all! Fabian here from the Think-do-team, writing a blog about something I discovered this week. Although I am very fond to speak about languages, the focus today will probably relate more to Psychology than Linguistics.

The past few months, I've been searching for farmers where we can install our biogas digester. This process turned out to be much more time-consuming than I thought. You simply cannot just deploy technology to a target group and assume that they'll immediately understand it the way you do. I've covered this before in my previous posts, where foreign initiatives fail in developing countries due to the lack of cultural understanding. I realized that it takes several meet-ups before a farmer is interested, convinced, and gains personal incentive. A conversation this week corroborated this point.

This week, I was talking to one potential partner who knew a lot of Coffee farmers. I was explaining to him the difficulty in communicating with farmers. He told me that it's completely understandable. He told me (not word by word) "for you to gain their trust, you must stay with them at least two weeks. I personally stayed for three months". I was blown away. He strikes me with a few more questions "how much do you actually know their lifestyle? how much have you actually understood them? only then will they make an effort to understand you". These words really hit me. I don't know why I thought that texting farmers over WhatsApp would be enough for them to understand the biogas digesters.

This week, I also had an offline meeting with a different potential partner. Our meeting lasted about two hours and diverged quite a bit with various topics. There is something different about having physical meetings, especially less formal ones. Without the bad internet connection, or the rush of "I have another zoom meeting coming up", the exchange felt more organic. It was an enjoyable meeting that still had outputs.

Where am I going with this? I realized that I was forgetting one of the most important cultures of this country - high-context communication. Cynthia covered in her blog here. In short, Indonesians aren't so straightforward. In fact, we're the most indirect. We like to go around in circles and discuss other things before the point.

Meanwhile, I did spend quite some time in the Netherlands. Personally, I think they are even more direct than people from the States. So I wrote a super short book about what I think is weird about the Dutch, in Dutch. I'll cover this another time.

Anyway, I think I'm starting to better understand why we are indirect. I used to despise it, but now I'm learning to enjoy it. Simply, people become storytellers this way. Being straight to the point here feels like you are missing an important factor – being human. We get to speak more than necessary, which means we get to hear more than 'formality'. I think I've grown to become a better listener because of this culture.

After installing a biogas digester to Pak Rudi, a farmer in Munggu, I visit his place several times to make sure the digester is okay. Every single time I visit, it is never a short one. He always serves me coffee and we'll chat about many different things. For instance, just before harvest, he was explaining to me the ceremonies the family has to do. Then, his wife served me some homemade Kolak, one of my favorite Indonesian desserts. I feel that these exchanges are necessary for a better understanding of each other. Everything else will come later once we are aware of each other's personal goal. Because this way, we can find where our life trajectories intersect more naturally, where it isn't forced by any system or institution. In a way, being indirect is actually more genuine in this context.

To conclude, I think speaking someone's mother tongue is still insufficient to speak their language. It's about a full understanding of their culture and how it shapes their thoughts. Sometimes you may not need to speak, simply bring me my favorite dessert and I will instantly consider you to be fluent in my language - the grumblings of my belly.

Thanks for reading my blog, I hope you see some value in learning cultures deeper than the surface. I will try to cover more on this topic next time!

See you next week!

43 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Semi-structured Interview Questions

This list of questions was utilised to conduct our European Commission H2020 research project, TIPPING+, in understanding narrative-network dynamics in tipping processes towards low-carbon energy futu


bottom of page