Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Road to Fluency

Indonesia is one of the Asian countries that most of its citizen can not speak English. Even for many university graduates, speaking in English is almost like a torture. Indonesians are far left behind their counterparts from neighboring countries. Let me tell you my story.

Ever since Junior High School, I always got a high mark in English. My English teacher in the first and second year was very fussy, but she’s a good and funny teacher. She called me “cat” when I made a noise with my seatmate during her class.

My English teacher in the third year was even better. His name is Pak Yudono. It’s pronounced like “You Don’t Know”. Because of him, I got 9 (out of 10) in my final exam. The other 9 that I got was in history, which was also my favorite subject.

At the first year of Senior High School, I was my English teacher's favorite. Every time he asked questions that nobody could answer, he could rely on me most of the time.
When I was in ITB, for two consecutive semesters I could beat my classmate who had ever lived in US for several years.

All of those above achievements, however, were far than enough to make me fluent in English.

During my professional life, the first presentation I made in English was in 1990. I was asked by my immediate superior to convince his boss to launch a new antidiarrhea product. It worked well. Then, I got an opportunity to attend a meeting in Malaysia, and a few months later in Kundl, Austria.

The second time I worked for Otsuka (I joint the company twice) had given me more opportunities to practice English, since the Jap spoke English fluently. This time around I attended symposium in Thailand, and I went to Japan two or three times for training.

However, I used English more frequently when I worked for BD between 1997-2003. My boss was an expat, and I had to report to different people who were based in Singapore and US. It was in BD that I traveled a lot to many foreign countries, whether attending meetings or participating in a training.

Still I always had a feeling that my spoken English was not good enough.

Most people think that taking English course can improve their skills. It's only 25% true, maybe less. Consider this. My kids took English course in average about 4 hours a week. They got also English lessons at their schools. On the way to school every morning, I asked them to read a short article in an English newspaper, and I help them with translation whenever they found difficult words. Could they speak English fluently? No. Why? Simply because they didn't practice it in their daily lives.

It's the same with me. I only used English during meetings. Outside the meeting room I stopped using it. When we had a meeting and an expat was in the room, we spoke English. When he left the room, even for a short period of time, we switched immediately to "local channel".
The other fact was that I didn’t read English newspaper, didn’t subscribe to English magazine either. When I watched TV or movie, I read the local translations, instead of listening from the dialogue. When I bought foreign books, I bought the Indonesian version.
Most Indonesians do what I did. That’s why we can’t speak English fluently, even though we started learning the language since junior high school, even some from elementary schools, and take English courses.

I have got no luck to live abroad, so I have to learn the language by myself. After realizing the above facts, I conversed in English everyday with a friend when I was in BD. I subscribed local and English newspapers, but then stopped the local newspapers to force me reading the English one. I still read local newspapers though, at least on Saturdays and Sundays.
I bought the original books rather than the translation ones. Even though it's actually quite expensive for my pocket, but it improved my vocabulary considerably.

In my company, I took the initiative to converse in English with managers, and with other division head as well. It seems that I succeeded in convincing them the importance of doing the daily practice.

Meanwhile, local authorities and owners of private companies, including the media barons, need to give supports, encouragements and facilities for people to practice English in their daily lives. We need regular TV and radio stations that are fully broadcasted in English.
Good quality but more affordable English course shall also be provided.

We need a critical mass for the formation of English speaking community, especially among professionals and workers, to improve competitiveness. Let's just start rolling the ball by selling the idea to a friend in office, and start conversing in English with her, today.


  1. Is a friend in office always referring to "her"?!
    hm.. I wonder yah..=P
    English is important, but NOT the only one! Instead trying hard to learn it,, maybe we can start to make bahasa as international language?! LOL

  2. try to have your thoughts in english. and dont worry about pronounciation.