Caught Up In the Dominance of the English Language

Caught Up In the Dominance of the English Language

Our legs dragged as we approached the traditional Indonesian restaurant, known as a warung, at the end of the street. Smokey grey fumes swirled from an open wok, behind which sat a small woman perched on the edge of a stool. Alerted by the footsteps of prospective customers, she glanced up momentarily from her work.

Selamat siang!”

Having just come off a flight followed by a two-sohour car ride into the outskirts of Canggu, Bali, I hadn’t yet had a chance to learn any Bahasa Indonesia. A cheery “hello!” was the best I could offer in return. My stomach growled in anticipation, but didn’t take long to silence once I had received my steaming bowl of nasi goreng.

Upon finishing my meal I had fumbled clumsily with my currency. This was followed by a lengthy exchange of awkward smiles before the woman counted our money for us and took what we owed. It was a classic tourist-meets-local-for-the-first-time situation: clunky and eventually communicated through gestures.

As we left, I instinctively called out, “Have a nice day!”

The owner said nothing but let out a brazen cackle. I joined in and laughed with her as if we were laughing together, but I was aware that the joke was on me. I wasn’t offended. Our interaction only compelled me to come back, prepared this time with my soon-to-be acquired Bahasa Indonesia skills. My vision was this: we would exchange pleasantries and I would order from the menu using not one word of English and – instead of inciting laughter – it would draw praise.


For many native English speakers, learning a foreign language is viewed through a lens that is primarily self-serving. We are told that being well-rehearsed in the language of a country we’re visiting will make our experience infinitely easier. Ordering from a menu, navigating foreign cities and combatting an emergency are just some of the short-term benefits, not to mention that long-term commitment to studying another language boosts our employability and capacity to learn. Sounds good, right?

But what about the people on the other side? Is there more to it than our own interests? Language is far from just a facilitator for our own accessibility. It’s important to bear in mind that aside from providing various personal benefits, the motivation for learning a foreign language should be equally concerned with paying respect to the culture of the country you’re visiting.

English can mistakenly be perceived as superior, and it’s easy to take for granted that the rest of the world caters heavily to it. Perhaps we are not aware of the magnitude of concessions made for us, which has contributed to a subconscious disregard for non-English languages.

The criticism SBS reporter Lucy Zelić faced when she made a deliberate effort to correctly pronounce the names of players in the World Cup exemplified how insensitive we can be to the foreign lexicon, and sent a pretty clear message that Australia’s attitude towards language lacks integrity. For those who missed it, Zelić articulated the players’ names with the intended pronunciation; that is, how they would be pronounced in the country of their origin. Her efforts were received unfavourably, and many took to Twitter to openly declare their frustration: “It is just me, or is Lucy Zelic fucking annoying when she speaks?”, “Lucy Zelic’s over-pronunciation of foreign names is insufferable”, “Lucy needs to stop using an accent…pls no…just stop” and “Can’t wait for month of Lucy Zelic over pronouncing foreign players in a fake accent’” were just a few of the comments made amidst a loud chorus of disapproval, and demonstrated that the manner with which we treat foreign languages can be ignorant at the worst of times, and tolerant at best.

When we encourage migrants to adopt anglicised names upon arrival in Australia, we forsake our responsibility to be the embracing nation that we maintain we are. A phrase commonly repeated upon arrival in a foreign country, and one that many of us would be familiar with is “My name is this and I’m from here.” Our names, our ethnic backgrounds and our native tongue are intrinsically linked to our identities. Yet when we urge people to change their name to one that is more palatable it insinuates that respecting their language and culture enough to try and use their given names is too much of an effort.

It’s made clear that migrants’ chances of being employed are heightened if they abandon names that are difficult to pronounce, and in doing this their identity becomes shrouded beneath a culture that’s forced onto them, rather than embracing of them. At its core, we are telling people that once they come to Australia their heritage ceases to matter.

As those coming from the dominant language, it’s easy to forget that we have been naturalised to an English-speaking environment. Our perception of foreign languages can get caught up in being concerned with ourselves, with little regard for those on the other side. Now, more than ever, we live in a globally mobile world where cross-cultural interactions are an everyday norm. The juncture at which foreign languages meet is a unique and important space, and it goes without saying there these intersections should be underlined with a certain level of respect.


“Selamat siang. Apa kabar? Bisa minta nasi goreng dan satu bottel air. Terima kasih!

These words repeated themselves in my head as we approached the familiar entrance of the warung. I continued to utter them under my breath, with an unwavering determination to pronounce each word flawlessly. I would be fooling myself if I expected that only a week of language classes would allow me to perfectly articulate my Bahasa Indonesia, but I felt it was good enough to engage the owner in some basic conversation.

I smiled warmly in greeting as we entered and hoped that she recognised our faces from the first time we met. Here goes.

Selamat Siang!” (Good afternoon!)

She echoed my words in response.

Apa kabar?” (How are you?)

Saya baik terama kasih, dan kamu?” (Good thanks, and you?)

Saya juga baik” (I’m also good.)

This was going well.

Bisa minta nasi goreng dan satu bottle air?”  (Can I have nasi goreng and one bottle of water?)

She pointed at the meal on the page and raised her eyebrows in inquisition.

“Yes please, that’s the one”. Dammit, there goes the streak. Unfortunately my knowledge of Indonesian didn’t extend to this phrase.

She started to pack up the menus. Time for the final call.

Terima kasih!” (Thank you!)

The owner nodded abruptly and turned on her heel. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by her lack of acknowledgement of my efforts. The gratification I was hoping to fulfil hung in the back of my mind, unmet with closure.

When I met the local owner of the warung for the first time, and resolved to come back with pre-rehearsed Indonesian phrases, I expected to receive praise. Praise that would fulfil some warped sense of self-gratification. Praise that I shouldn’t assume I am entitled to, because as its basis, using the language of the country you’re visiting is no more a tool for your own convenience than it is a basic display of respect.

Cover by Caroline Voelker

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