Selamat Pagi: My Indonesia connection

Many of you know, and I’ve certainly reminded everyone in earlier Nanilaie Blog entries, of my ties with Samoa . . . but most of you may not know about my Indonesia connection.

I think I was still a missionary in Samoa in the mid-1960s, or maybe it was just after when my brother, Larry — a linguist who recently retired from the LDS Church Translation Department and is now serving as a missionary with his wife, Janice, in the Mexico City Temple Visitors Center — encouraged me, if I ever had the chance, to apply for an NDFL scholarship.

NDFL — which stands for National Defense Foreign Language — scholarships were an offshoot of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which the U.S. passed in the late 1950s soon after Russia won the first shot into space with Sputnik and it was deemed that Americans were falling behind in a whole range of critical areas, including a long list of languages not commonly taught in the U.S.

I took this advice to heart during my first semester as a TESL [Teaching English as a Second Language] major at Church College of Hawaii [BYU-Hawaii since 1974] when I saw a flyer advertising NDFL summer-school scholarships for intensive language study at the University of Hawaii. Indonesian — Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia [i.e. the language Indonesians learn in school, in addition to numerous local dialects they learn at home; sort of like Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, or High German] — was one of the languages offered.

Perfect. I based my application on the fact that I already knew Samoan, and was interested in exploring its ties to Bahasa Indonesia. Linguists consider Indonesia and Samoan to be part of what used to be called the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages: It turns out there are similarities among all the island languages of Polynesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, other island groups, and even some in Madagascar.

Indeed, quite a few words are exactly the same. For example, lima means ‘five’ in both Indonesian and Samoan; and others are direct cognates: It doesn’t take much imagination to see what happened as the Indonesian word langit (also sometimes spelled langi’ in my day; the national spelling policy has since changed] became lagi in Samoan — pronounced exactly the same, without the final sound, and both meaning ‘heaven’ or ‘sky’ . . . as does langi in Tongan, rangi in Maori, ra’i in Tahitian, and lani in Hawaiian. Run through thousands of examples like this and other comparative similarities, and pretty soon you have to agree that the languages probably had a common origin, thousands of years ago.

So, sure enough, I received an NDFL scholarship to study intensive Indonesian at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the summer of 1968: 12 credit hours worth, commuting on my motorcycle every week-day for six or more hours of class a day, all summer long. Then I would dash home in time for my night job at the PCC. It was grueling, but interesting. Fortunately, I like studying languages, altho’ I’m probably not as good at it as my brother. Nikolaas Winter, an Indonesian, was our main instructor, under the direction of Dr. Pak DeHeer, a chain-smoking “Indo” or Eurasian professor originally from Jogyakarta, Java.

The classmates I remember included three former Peace Corps guys — two who served in the Philippines and one in Malaysia, the son of a Honolulu publisher who went on to take over his dad’s business for quite a few years, and a pretty young woman who wore the skimpiest outfits you can imagine in a college class — quite a change from CCH standards. It was quite far into the summer before I learned she was Nikolaas’ girlfriend.

By the following spring I wasn’t sure if that’s how I wanted to spend my summer of ’69, but UH wrote, inviting me to apply for a second NDFL scholarship…and just like that, after more grueling study, I essentially completed a second undergraduate major in Indonesian.

The credit never applied at CCH, but as my brother had suggested the two NDFL scholarships looked very good on my application to the East-West Center, where I was accepted as an American graduate fellow in 1970, and where I was able to use it for part of my MA degree requirements a year or so later, again at UH.

And, of course, in 1975 I decided I should really put all that bahasa study to use, so I applied for — and received — a junior Fulbright lectureship to teach English in Indonesia for one school year. But that’s another blog entry in the future…

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