The Bilingual’s Balancing Game

I was 16 when they sent me to compete in this Turkish language olympiad. At the end of our final training day, oğretmenim jokingly told me I wouldn’t be able to win unless I could dream in Turkish that night. I guess it would signal that my mind had stopped translating for me and instead started to think in the once-foreign language, designated it as the ‘primary’ one. The next morning, I woke up vaguely recalling our (short) Turkish conversation in my sleep, and a week later, I flew back from Istanbul carrying a gold medal.

I haven’t been dreaming much Turkish these days, but between Indonesian and English, I could sense that my mind has been struggling to figure out which channel it should let take over as the alpha.

I used to compartmentalize them into my ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ languages. English was simply a language for writing emails at work, for tweeting ideas, for presenting research findings, for thinking about complex frameworks that Indonesian does not have a word for. Meanwhile, my (obviously self-proclaimed) funnier personality was a lot more accessible in Indonesian—I could relax and make deadpan jokes all day long. It was not difficult for me to switch between one track to another; my environment would cue me in and like a chameleon, I would have eased my way into one track.

This line began to blur when I moved to the US and have to also use English to socialize with fellow students. Underneath all the interactions, my English brain has been stretching herself in an attempt to enter an unknown territory and transmit sentences I have never delivered in English before like, “Can’t believe winter is just around the corner!” or gossips about certain professors.

My first semester of graduate school, therefore, had been slightly more exhausting than I expected it to be. I talked to people but felt like I could not fully express myself, such that initiating friendship became futile. The struggle was so real I made myself read a spoken word poem entitled “To the Phantom Jokes that Never Got Out of My Mouth” in front of a school-wide talent show. The first sentence of that piece read, I wish people knew how funny I am in Indonesian.

(By the end of that semester I have made four close friends thanks to negotiation class’s final memo assignment and I have been much happier at school now that I have my support system, but that story deserves its own blogpost.)

I would say that I had been much better at ‘informal English’ today compared to 15 months ago—but it also means that my mind has been thinking a lot in English and I could sense that I would have a ‘reverse struggle’ going back to Indonesia. Not to mention that I had been studying all these cool new theories, frameworks, and concepts for public policy in English. Already, I could feel my brain muscle pulling itself to translate phrases like ‘administrative and political feasibility’ or ‘behavioral nudge’. While living with Wikan helps in maintaining my ‘informal Indonesian’, my English brain has become much smarter than my Indonesian brain, and I worry if she couldn’t catch up.

This winter break, I am going back to Indonesia to do field research for my final policy analysis, which would require me to talk to dozens of Indonesian officials and staff in local organizations. The way I see it, it could be the perfect training lab to help my mind’s Indonesian channel readjust before I come back to Indonesia for good in June. Wish me luck.

P. S. If you happen to be a subscriber to Frame & Sentences video essays (setengah #kode), you may notice that I had been primarily using English. Again, it’s not because I haven’t tried, but the few times that I did, it had always been a nightmare for me to try to convey the same ideas in Indonesian. (We literally have to take 5 times as many shots because I kept making mistakes.) I don’t think it’s because I don’t love my country etc., but because my mind couldn’t access the same depth of thought process in Indonesian. I am working towards changing it, but thank you for understanding. Hope the subtitles help!


Chicken (Ideas) Or Egg (Words): Which One Came First? (a.k.a. The Grand Debate of the Linguists)

Here’s an invitation to one of the most contested preposition in the study of language: whether or not human minds are capable of producing thoughts had there been no supporting vocabularies to express them. Say: 1) would our eyes be able to differentiate the color ‘turquoise’ from generic ‘blue’ had fashion given less crap about it? 2) would any adult be able to understand the number of chocolate in a box had English decided to delete numbers from dictionary? and 3) would these questions have even the slightest chance to pop in my head had my parents chosen to forbid me from learning language?


A number of scholars confidently nods to that possibility. Steven Pinker, taking sides with Noam Chomsky in The Language Instinct, argues that yes, even without the words to describe so: 1) we would still have the biological capacity to strike a line in the color spectrum of green-blue for ‘turquoise’, 2) we would know if some of our sweets are missing, and 3) I would regardless be curious about how language shapes the way we think. They both believe that humans are born with the innate talent to communicate with one another, and that the Eskimos’ ambitious naming of ice only affirms that tribes will eventually come up with specific terminologies when there’s a necessity for it.

This has been a strong rebuttal to George Orwell, whose 1984 depicts the scary scenario where language becomes a means for extreme thought control. In that dystopian world, the Minitrue (Ministry of Truth) modifies English into a much simpler language called Newspeak, whereby the word ‘freedom’ as well as other value-giving adjectives have no rooms for existence. Orwell basically proposes the idea that inventing a language (or in this case destroying one) is a very (if not the most) effective way to disallow thoughts and take over people’s heads. He contends that, not having the word ‘independence’ will profoundly limit a nation’s cognitive ability to understand the concept from the first place, let alone to actually desire it.

So which one actually came first—chicken (ideas) or egg (words)?

Earlier this afternoon a friend tweeted me this article about how a Brazilian indigenous group of 700 people are anumerate for their language’s lack of words for numbers, confirming Orwell’s proposition. A couple of months earlier, however, I bumped into a New York Times post quoted otherwise:

If different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Interpreting bahasa Indonesia into English, for example, will enforce you to be a lot more time-sensitive, while entering French requires you to be significantly more gender-sensitive. These aspects of language do not particularly permit or ban you from thinking in a certain way, they just push you to pay more attention to certain details.

Just last week, the same friend introduced me to Ngram, Google’s not-so-new yet very fascinating webtool. Also dubbed as ‘the language time machine‘, this feature lets users identify the frequency of word usage over time, using Google’s storage of thousands of electronic books as a database.

Screen Shot 2013-10-10 at 10.21.50 AM

Quite interestingly, upon entering the words ‘colonialism’, ‘imperialism’, ‘exploitation’, ‘communism’, and ‘capitalism’, a similar rise-and-fall fashion can be observed (see graphic above). Looking retrospectively, of course, it is apparent that a link between history and such vocabula-trend does exist, although a deeper research must be taken before coming up with any conclusion at all. If anything: Ngram shows us that words are invented and consequently expire when a new, more suitable word replaces it.

Quite related to that: I have spent the last few months assisting a senior on a research about Indonesia’s foreign policy during Soekarno’s era using a discourse analysis approach. The analysis (partly out on The Establishment Post) includes an identification of keywords that we assess as the late president’s building blocs to establish Indonesia’s position as the leader of Third World countries, collecting countries’ favor to vote for us on the West Irian issue. It was an entirely different dimension in doing an International Relations research, and I am quite grateful to have been involved in it (yes, Yere, that’s my thank you note right there).

As usual, in addition to my being too coward to draw any conclusion, I believe you will have more fun figuring out the truth by yourself. So yeah, the chicken-or-egg rhetoric will sit there for a while. In case you haven’t been interested in language, think about how its affects are truly profound in shaping civilization (thus ideas traveling through time).

P.S. Apology to the fact that a classic clock makes no relations whatsoever to the topic being discussed; I just found the picture very pretty. Hope you had a great Sunday.

Meet Argots and Verlan

Do you recall the last time we use coded language with our peers?

I remember using ‘the g-code’ during my elementary school years. The rule goes like this: “add -g(a/i/u/e/o) to each syllable in your sentence”. Thus, “Eh, cowok itu ganteng banget,” would be “Egeh, cogowogok igitugu gagantegeng bagangeget.” The basic idea is to prevent outsiders from understanding our conversation, and this coded language was quite practical until more and more people know about it and making it unclassified enough to actually be called a ‘code’.

The Roman armies did it better. They use Caesar’s Chipher and wrote down sentences that can only be decoded by this cipher. For example, if you set the code to +3, then:

  • A = D | O = R
  • C = F | R = U
  • E = H | S = V
  • H = K | W = Z
  • L = O | Y = B
  • N = Q

So the sentence “Why wheels won cars?” is going to be written as “Zkb zkhhov zrq fduv?” making the non-intended receiver of the message who doesn’t udnerstand cryptography wouldn’t be able to read your message.


These codes are called argot in French. Here goes the most interesting part: today’s French youths also use argot in their everyday language through transposing syllables of individual words to create new slang words, and they name the code as verlan. In other words, verlan features inversion of syllables of a word formed by switching the order in which syllables from the original word are pronounced. For example, français becomes cèfran.

I find this fact very interestingly new, because I thought French only provides extra vocabularies for romantic lines. I did not expect French to have certain ‘style of language’ that is used by their teenagers like verlan.

Just as the information is not interesting enough, the word verlan itself apparently is a verlan from l’envers (lan-ver), meaning “the inverse”. Exactly like the fact that ‘portmanteau’ was a portmanteau of porte and manteau.

The pronunciation of a verlan generally retains the pronunciation of the original syllables with exception for one-syllable-words (poor thy). There are also words that can be verlan-ised in more than one way, like cigarette which yields both retsiga or garetsi.

So, have you met Argots and Verlan? You can go here for more information on verlan.


In face-to-face interactions, face expression is inevitably important, almost on the same level-of-importance with intonation. In written interactions, this function is replaced by something called ’emoticons’. We sound amiable by putting ‘:)’ in the end of our sentence, and convey that we dislike something by using ‘:(‘.

I was curious upon who invented this genius thing, so I browsed and found that the blame should be thrown to Scott Fahlman in 1982 who made the first smiley! Through the computer network of Carnegie Mellon University, he posted:

19-Sep-82 11:44
From: Scott E Fahlman
I propose that the following character sequence
for joke markers: 
Read it sideways.
Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things
that are NOT jokes, given current trends.
For this, use: 


An voila, just like that, the meme does it job and become a worldwide trend! Nowadays, the usage probably varies beyond what Mr Fahlman expected, but we’ll always owe him for initiating the use of consequence-of-symbols to express ‘layered’ intentions.

Years have passed and technology develops. Today, you aren’t just able to express happiness or sadness, but also actions! Instead of ‘hugs’ you can write ‘({})’, you can ‘kiss’ someone through ‘:*’, and you can say that you’re ‘not interested’ by using ‘3-|’ emoticon.

Unique thing is the fact that there are several alternatives to these emoticons. Some people mark Yahoo!’s emoticons as their favorites, while others are so familiar only with Blackberry’s.

I. Blackberry Messenger




III. Yahoo! Messenger


Somehow, different developers convey different expression and leave different effects on the readers. ‘Smiling’ on Yahoo! has a slight difference with ‘smiling on MSN, for example. And this is an interesting phenomena that I’d like to explore more about.

Second interesting fact that lures my attention is how there are people who are very attached to these emoticons they can hardly write any single thing without them whereas there are ones who do not like using them at all. Not to mention that there is an accepted assumption that (assuming you haven’t met both), people who use emoticons are friendlier than those who don’t.

I bet the word ’emoticon’ is a portmanteau from ’emotion’ and ‘icon’. Probably because these icons emit certain emotions. But does that mean icons showing only certain goods like rose or clover can’t be called ’emoticon’? Who invented such portmanteau anyway?

(You might want to sue me because this post has more questions than it provides information. Sorry. Happy Saturdating!)

Holy Guacamole!

I’ve been frequently using the phrase during the past week and plausibly left some people questioning on what it means. Truth be told, it has no meanings.


According to, the word ‘word’, means:

A unit of language, consisting one or more spoken sounds or their written representation that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.

It is punctuated that a word per se is a ‘carrier of meaning’. Nevertheless, this ‘meaning’ does not have to be explicit. In other words, there are words whose meaning hides somewhere between layers of understanding. Human kind is such an interesting species that can, believe it or not, communicate without basic agreement on which means what.

Take, ‘alamak’, for instance. No Indonesian nor Malaysian can help you comprehend what it means. However, each and everyone of them knows when they can use such expression. We have gah, meh, woot, and more words to tell people that you’re surprised, words to show people that you’re amazed, but we can’t actually define what these words ‘mean’.

It is the privilege of human beings to acquire and use complex systems of communication–way more complicated than a bee-dance is–and it’s called language. Be proud to have it.