Language and Cultural Shock

I’ve got SMS today from my friend that wants to visit KL soon. Apart from questions about Genting and Sunway, she asked about the language: “Can we use Indonesian there ?”. Well, it’s almost the same question that the admin guy in my office asked me before: “Boleh cakap melayu tak?” (Indonesian: “Bisa bicara melayu ga?”).

The problem is not whether you can speak Malay or Indonesian. The real problem is that whether you understand the real meaning behind the words or not.

People everywhere, especially in Asia, tends to attach “emotions” in the language. It simply means that some words have deeper emotion compare to others (even though it expresses similar meaning). Some words can be used to express negative emotion, while others positive emotion.

If you live outside the area where you’re born and raised, it is very important to understand that these meanings are different from one area to others. The same word that you use may not have the same emotional meaning as you are expected. So, be careful. You may offend people without even noticing it.

Let me give you a simple example.

In Malay, the word you can be referred as: awak, kamu, anda. Awak is something that you can use to speak with friends, but not for formal language (for your boss, someone that you’ve just met, etc). Kamu is more formal than “Awak”, and it is more polite (it’s even used in court’s decision in newspapers and formal regulations).

In Indonesian, the word you can be referred as: kamu or Anda. The word kamu is the informal language to speak with your friends. If you try to speak with your boss with kamu, he will be very offended. Indonesian use Anda as formal word. The more polite word to refer “you” in Indonesian are Saudara (brother/sister), Bapak(father), or Ibu(mother). Indonesian are referring formal “you” as their blood ties, even though “you” are not their relatives.

So, my suggestion to you, if you’re living in the different culture where you’re born and raised, is to use the language that you (and they) really really understand. Keep the language formality high, especially if you speak to unknown local people. You don’t want to be alike my friend, that was almost beaten in a bar in Melbourne because he was trying some Aussie’s slang with them.


  1. Waktu sekolah di perancis saya punya kenalan orang malaysia, wah bingung denger dia ngomong cakap melayu … akhirnya saya suruh dia ngomong pakai bahasa perancis atau inggris saja …

  2. Hahahaha….Senasib dgn saya dong Pak =)

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