It's Only Words, and Words are All I Have

We've all had the experience of wanting to order a particular food in a restaurant and finding it difficult to come up with the name of the food we want.  And we all know the frustration of looking for an item in the hardware store and not being able to ask for help because we don't know the Indonesian name for the item we're in search of.


Whenever you find yourself in these situations - whenever you find yourself groping for a word that you simply don't have - it's only natural that you'd want to build a stronger vocabulary.  For most of us, it seems that it's our 'lack of vocabulary' that causes us most of our difficulties when attempting to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia.


Of course, vocabulary acquisition is a very important aspect of language learning.  It goes without saying that you'll never be able to communicate if you have no words to use.


But unfortunately, many language learners focus almost entirely on 'memorizing words' and forget about everything else. They're convinced that simply "knowing words" will make them fluent in Bahasa Indonesia.  Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

There are two reasons why rote memorization of vocabulary does NOT lead to fluency:


1.  In most cases, sentences in one language can NOT be translated 'literally' to another language.  If you take a sentence from your mother tongue and attempt to translate it to Bahasa Indonesia by simply "plugging in" Indonesian words, you'll likely end up with a sentence that makes little sense.


If the context of your Indonesian language lesson today is "Telling Time," then the word lewat will come up.  When you want to say, "The time is 10 past 12," you'll learn to say in Indonesian, "Jam sekarang jam 12 lewat 10."


As you can see in this example, the word lewat can best be translated as past or after . . . but simply memorizing the word lewat and plugging it into the sentence will NOT help you when you want to tell someone the time in Bahasa Indonesia.  Why not? Because a 'literal' translation of lewat is not possible. If you 'literally' translate the sentence, "It is 10 past 12," you'll come up with "Sekarang jam 10 lewat 12." But this does NOT mean "10 past 12." It means "12 past 10".


So you see, it usually doesn't work to simply memorize a word in isolation, without any context.  In order to use the word lewat appropriately in the context of "telling time," you must first learn how to communicate properly in the  context of "telling time."


2.  In every language, words take on slightly different functions and meanings when used in different situations or contexts.

If the context of your Indonesian language lesson today is "Giving Directions," then the word lewat will come up again. When you want to say, "Go from Fatmawati to Antasari by way of Cipete Raya," you'll learn to say in Indonesian, "Pergi dari Fatmawati ke Antasari lewat Cipete Raya." As you can see in this example, the meaning of lewat in the context of "giving directions" is slightly different than it is in the context of 'telling time.'  When giving directions, the word lewat is best translated as by way of, whereas, when "telling time," it's best translated as past or after.


Again, it won't work to simply memorize and translate the word lewat in isolation.  You need to (i) know the context (situation) in which you are using the word, (ii) know the meaning and implication of the word in that specific context and (iii) know how to properly use the word in that specific context.


To make a long story short: It may sometimes seem that all your language difficulties would be resolved if you just memorize more words, but we can assure you that this is NOT a solution.


Please trust us:  Memorising words in isolation, without any context to use them will NEVER make you fluent.

If you need proof of this, just cancel your language lessons, buy a dictionary, and start memorizing words! But let us warn you in advance: such an approach will never lead you to fluency. Language fluency is attained by learning to use words properly in different situations. The meaning and function of words change based on the context in which they are used.  And the way that the words are used in various contexts also changes.


Memorizing words can be useful when learning simple things like the days of the week and numbers, or concrete nouns such as the rooms in your house and the foods you eat. But simply memorizing and translating words is NOT a shortcut to fluency. Your first priority should be to learn how to properly communicate in the various contexts of your life. In doing so, you'll pick up the words you need to communicate in each of those contexts, and you'll learn how to USE THOSE WORDS PROPERLY in each situation.

“IT'S ONLY WORDS, AND WORDS ARE ALL I HAVE”

is a lovely sentiment in a romantic song but it takes on an entirely different implication when used in the context of language learning.


Selamat belajar, happy studying.

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