Reflections of a Critical Language Scholar in Indonesia

The humidity reached me before the customs officer. With one step off the plane and onto the tarmac, the wet and heavy Jakarta air filled my lungs and permeated back out through my pores. This humidity clings to you, never quite letting go until you leave Southeast Asia.

The thickness of Jakarta’s humidity is rather symbolic of my broader experience in Indonesia. Most sensations—intellectual, cultural, spiritual—are plentiful and thick with meaning. Statistics can give an idea why. The archipelago boasts over 17,000 islands, 250 million people, 700 languages, 300 ethnic groups, and 250 religions.

As a student of international relations and environmental governance, I found that it was the scale and scope of diversity that originally drew me to Indonesia. Its relevance in the global environmental arena is undeniable, both as a leader in multilateral negotiations and as a country vulnerable to many environmental challenges. Its growing importance in these landscapes drove me to seek opportunities to cultivate a deeper understanding of the country’s dynamics and to engage with its people.

I applied and was fortunate enough to receive a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) through the U.S. Department of State. The CLS is a cultural and educational exchange program geared toward giving U.S. citizens the opportunity to participate in intensive language study abroad. The scholarship funded eight weeks of intensive Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian) instruction, the country’s lingua franca. In a nation comprised of over 250 million people and 700 different languages, Bahasa Indonesia plays a significant role in reaching across the vast and varied archipelago. Notably, a large majority of Indonesians do not use the national language in their homes, preferring instead one of the abundant native languages.

On the streets of Malang, where the CLS program takes place, the day-to-day language is Javanese. Though it is the most widely spoken native language nationwide, Javanese also has many variants and geographic dialects. For a fresh bule, or foreigner, the challenge of understanding street chatter is mentally exhausting. The flow of new words and meanings are seemingly endless. Like so much else in Indonesia, the experience of learning the language is thick and heavy, weighing your brain down with a constant influx of new information.

CLS accurately describes itself as “an intensive group-based language and cultural enrichment program.” The typical day includes five hours of class time, after-school tutorial sessions with local students, and daily dinners and activities with host families. Without prior knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia, each day of the two months was truly a mental challenge. I’ve lived with host families before in Costa Rica, Uganda, and Belgium. However, in all these homes we shared at least one common language between Spanish, English, or French. My new Indonesian host family, like so many others, only spoke Indonesian and Javanese. The first few weeks were rich with humor and frustration. House rules and dynamics were not learned through verbal negotiation, but rather by trial and error. Slaps with a sandal by my host mother taught me to always take my shoes off when entering a home. Finding my host father sleeping by the front door waiting for my return taught me when curfew was.

The demands of the CLS program are surpassed only by its rewards. In eight short weeks, I was graciously given the ability to communicate and connect with hundreds of millions of people across Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. (Malay is mutually intelligible with Indonesian and spoken widely across Southeast Asia.)

The rewards of learning Indonesian reach deeper than mere communication. In Indonesian, subtle contextual nuances are often fundamental in drawing meaning from cultural and social environments. The Indonesian word musyawarah exemplifies the significance of nuance in gleaning lessons about the country. In many communities across the archipelago, musyawarah describes an important consensus-based decision-making process where every stakeholder is given equal opportunity to express his or her opinions or interests.  A literal translation of the word is “conference” or “discussion”—a definition devoid of the process’s egalitarian nature. However, within its appropriate linguistic and cultural contexts, the word denotes more relevant concepts such as “compromise,” “consensus,” and “agreement.”

But one doesn’t need to speak Indonesian to realize the country teems with meaning and life, as your senses alone will teach you. Regardless of where in the archipelago country you are, the unbounded life of Indonesia will reach you. Tropical humidity sticks to your skin, the ubiquitous azan, or call to worship, fills the ambient noise, and the smell of frying foods always reaches your nostrils. The CLS helped me achieve my goal of cultivating a deeper understanding of Indonesia’s vast diversity. Like Jakarta’s air, my experiences in Indonesia still cling to me, yet the country’s thickness leaves much to be discovered.

Image: Alex Laplaza in Indonesia taking part in the Critical Language Scholarship. 

Alex Laplaza is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar based in Lombok, Indonesia, researching climate change adaptation and local water governance. Alex was previously a Critical Language Scholar and has prior work experience with Warwick Group Consultants LLC, the Environmental Law Institute, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He graduated from American University with a degree in international studies and a specialization in global environmental governance.

One comment

  • That was a great article. Thanks for sharing. I had never heard of the CLS before. It seems like a very enriching experience. Now I’ll look into doing one myself.


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