Language is, of course, more than vocab, grammar and pronunciation, but in Indonesia, I’ve been stumbling over one aspect of language that has rarely tripped me up before, namely tone.

Indonesian is not a tone language like Chinese, where individual words change meaning depending on their pitch, but it is tonal insofar as every language is a little bit tonal. In English, pitch might not influence the definition of a word, but it can change the intended meaning or feeling of a word or of an entire sentence. Take the word please. We use it firstly for polite requests and agreement, but we can use it to express doubt or annoyance as well.

“English is a tonal language? Oh, please!”

Sarcastic, critical, patronizing, skeptical, sympathetic, imploring, aggressive, etc. We can be all of those things just by changing our tone of voice. The please example illustrates what I mean by tone, but it is also idiomatic; it’s a usage of please that has to be learned separately. The difficulty I’ve had with tone in Indonesia is not idiomatic, but idiosyncratic.

The intention behind a particular tone is not universal across languages. What I might interpret as a critical or mocking slight to my intelligence, might not be meant that way at all. In fact, in Indonesia, I can be relatively sure it isn’t. To make things (subjectively) worse, however, questions I get asked are often, though not always, phrased negatively.

Don’t you know about the meeting? Why aren’t you drinking coffee? Don’t you want some snacks? You’re not going out today? Why aren’t you riding your bike?

By themselves, each of those questions is innocent enough, but I rarely hear just one. It’s hard for me not to feel annoyed, when I’m bombarded with negativity like that, particularly when I hear a list of expectations I have “failed” to meet. In reality though, commenting on changes and differences is a classic Indonesian method of troubleshooting, albeit a nosy one. Straying from the norm in Indonesia can be seen as the first indication of a problem, so when my ibu as good as freaks out because I don’t drink coffee one morning, she doesn’t intend to criticize my habits; she’s worried she bought me the wrong coffee. I still can’t completely ignore my first impressions of a tone of voice, but I’m getting better at reinterpreting tone or simply accepting it.

The incongruence between what I hear and what I understand is a product of my own cultural sensibilities. The fact that, in Java, an invitation to have some food is expressed the same way I might warn someone that their shoes are on fire is simply an aspect of Javanese culture I have to get used to.


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