Blog 8

Listening to language, understanding each other

Since beginning this blog, I have been thinking of writing about language. And since beginning this blog, I’ve been avoiding it. For processing the mysteries of language(s) is more than I can hope to even reflect on in one blog post and certainly much more than I myself understand.

But I also need to accept the assignment (from myself) and just write. So some brief thoughts about some of my thoughts on languages.

Very simply, I am conscious of language and of languages every day in Indonesia. I am conscious of hoping to understand others and hoping to be understood. I am conscious that I know very little of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of the country in which I reside. I am conscious that it is normal for Indonesians to speak multiple languages. I am conscious, as always, that I have a lot to learn.

I am also conscious that a language is a gift. The more we learn of a language (including the first languages we learn), the more of that gift we received. The more languages we learn, the more gifts we receive.

A language also is a worldview, a particular way of understanding and processing the world. Through it we comprehend name realities of nature and culture and other persons and God. It is through language that we make sense of what our senses sense. And it is through language that we communicate to others our own understanding of the world.

To learn a language is seek to understand another’s point of view. It likewise expands our own worldview, giving us new ways of thinking about the world.

To learn a language is to bridge a gap to another person, another culture, to seek to understand and be understood.

This is certainly true for other persons in the present. I seek to expand my knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia so that I can better understand my students and colleagues. Yes, their English is excellent, but to know these persons more fully I must learn their language, their particular way of processing the world. The more fully I know Bahasa Indonesia, the more fully I can know those fellow humans who think, and most often speak and listen, in that language.

This is also true for persons of the past. We learn languages to read, hear, understand what people from the past wrote, said, communicated, as well. I am celebrating this approach now through a translation project, a bilingual edition of the poetry and prose of Germany’s first female poet laureate, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler. I’m particularly living with, and translating, her writings on three topics of great importance to her (and expressed, of course, in her native German): poetry, music, and women’s rights.

So I urge you: listen closely in every language. Seek to share with others the ways you understand and process the world. Listen to others: let them share with you the ways they understand and process the world. Listen in your own language. Listen in the languages of others. Listen and seek to understand.

Music students and faculty, Southeast Asia Bible Seminary, May 2018
Music students and faculty, Southeast Asia Bible Seminary, May 2018

Tak kenal maka tak sayang

“Tak kenal maka tak sayang.” “If you do not know, then you do not love.”

I learned this commonly shared Indonesian saying on the first day of Music History III, in answer to my question, “Why should we study music history?” It’s a great answer for any academic course. Why should we study xyz? Tak kenal maka tak sayang. If you do not know, you do not love.

This also points to a wonderful cycle of knowing and loving. My students are in Music History III because they love music. They have chosen music as their college major and are dedicating five years of their life to the academic study of it at SAAT. (Side note: the Indonesian academic system is different than that in the U.S., and a bachelor’s degree is typically five years and includes the writing of a major thesis. SAAT students write a 100-120 page bachelor’s thesis and also complete a one-year internship.) So their love of music has led them to know it more. And their knowledge leads to greater love, which leads to greater knowledge, and so on and so on and so on.

As a professor, I always hope this is true for my students, that their learning leads to a deeper love. Love for the subject, certainly. And also love for learning that will lead them to know and love and know and love other subjects, as well.

But these loves are not enough. I also want my students to grow in love for the neighbors with whom they share a classroom. And I want them to grow in love for their neighbors beyond this classroom: across campus, across Palos Heights, across Chicago, across the world. Tak kenal maka tak sayang. If you do not know, then you do not love.

And this, in fact, is the primary meaning of this saying in Indonesia. My friend and colleague Yudha Thianto explains: “The cultural meaning behind the saying is about hospitality. It is the Indonesian way of saying that we shouldn’t judge. Instead, we must spend time to get to know a person well, and then we will love that person.” Tak kenal maka tak sayang.

How could it change our perspectives if we said to ourselves, “Tak kenal maka tak sayang,” about each person we encounter each day, from those we know best to those we don’t know at all yet, in person or through various media? Could we even extend it to people we don’t know—in our neighborhood, in our country, across the world?

  • Could we replace judging with loving?
  • Could we replace pride with humility?
  • Could we make hospitality our normal impulse rather than self-defense?
  • Could we make listening well more important than being right?
  • Could we place the interests of others before our own interests?
  • Could we practice that perfect love that casts out fear?

I think it’s worth a try. Tak kenal maka tak sayang. Or, to say it another way: Love your neighbor.