Heaven and Hell of Talking in Tongues


The ability to understand and speak several languages definitely comes in handy. It improves your CV and makes you look good during job interviews. It eases communication with locals and helps when bargaining at traditional markets. 

Here in Indonesia, people have often tried to start conversations with me in English, and then seemed pleasantly surprised when I answered in Indonesian. 

It can also be quite amusing to overhear snippets of conversations that are not meant for your ears. 

In Japan, I was once on the subway sitting opposite a German couple who were arguing about the man’s infidelity, assuming that nobody spoke their language. After a while, the woman noticed me and said to her partner, “Can you lower your voice? Maybe that girl speaks German.” 

They eventually ended up discussing where I could possibly be from. The expression on my face remained innocent but inside I was bursting with laughter. When the train approached my stop, I just couldn’t help myself and said, “You were right, I do speak German. Have a good day.” 

However, being multilingual can also have a downside. What if what others say about you is ugly and rude? A while ago, I was queuing up at a buffet in a hotel restaurant in Jakarta, waiting to fill my plate with sushi, when I overheard two men, standing right behind me in line, chatting about me. 

They were German, and since I don’t look like your typical German, they must have concluded that I couldn’t understand them. 

“Indonesian girls are, on average, really beautiful, don’t you think?” said the first one. 

“Yes, but there are exceptions,” the other one replied. “Look at the one in front of us — she has no ass in her pants.” 

Speechless at first, I eventually turned around to give them a snappish answer in perfect German. As much as I enjoyed the shocked look on their faces, I still felt embarrassed about what they had said about me — and lost my appetite for sushi. 

But the trials and tribulations also go the other way. When I spent two weeks in Berlin in late July, I often forgot that when speaking with my sister in German everybody in our immediate surrounding could understand us. 

This at times put me in some very uncomfortable situations. I don’t really gossip about other people, but standing in the changing room of a clothes store and shouting over to my sister, “Hey, do you think this dress makes me look pregnant?” certainly did attract some amused looks and laughter from other customers. 

Sometimes, I also get confused and mix up languages. I talk to my German friends in Indonesian, to my family in English and my colleagues in German. 

At other times, I have to pause in the middle of a sentence because I can’t think of the right word in the language I am speaking, running the risk of leaving a snobbish impression on the person I am having a conversation with. 

And then there are moments when I am truly thankful that I can speak only a few foreign languages. Last week, I was waiting for my flight at the Bali airport when a group of tourists started making a spectacle of themselves. 

They seemed pretty drunk. Some of the men, still clinging to beer bottles, were lying on the floor braying songs and fondling their girlfriends. I am pretty sure they would never behave like this in their home country, and it annoyed me. 

One of them saw the displeased look on my face and asked me, “Hey, what are you staring at?” I politely answered that the noise bothered me. He said, “So, you got a problem?” 

I decided to take the high road and ignored him. That upset him even more, and he started to rant at me in a language I didn’t understand. Judging by the sound of his voice, however, he was not complimenting me on my Bali-acquired tan. 

I grabbed my iPod and let Lenny Kravitz drown out the sound of his drunken ranting. Lenny, at least, was singing sweet declarations of love into my ears — and I understood every single word of it.

This article was first published on September 1, 2010.

Katrin Figgelanguage, skills