I had been in Indonesia for less than a month when I was informed that I was expected to take a Bahasa Indonesian proficiency test. My employer had been ‘invited’ (in a way that allowed no refusal) to send the expat employees along for the test. This examination was introduced a few years ago by the government for all foreigners living and working in the country but, as far as we were aware, had been scrapped earlier in the year. Nevertheless, one hundred or so expats were placed in a school gym behind exam desks and put through a Saturday morning of language exams.
Now I have no problem with being expected to learn the language of the country I am living in. I tried and failed in Myanmar, (languages not being my strong suit) but I arrived in Surabaya with the intention to learn, and I’m quite proud of my progress over my first few weeks of living here. Good morning ‘salamat paggi’ and thank you ‘terima kashi’ came quickly. I’ve been learning my numbers and can count to ten with the exception of seven and nine, as they keep slipping from my mind! I’ve been reading and interpreting signs while out and about. Dilarang, for example, is DO NOT (and there are a lot of those signs around I’ve noticed!) plus I’ve got the essentials: phone credit is ‘pulsa’,water is ‘air’, and beer is ‘bir’, all things I buy on a regular basis. But I’ve also been settling into my new life and job, meeting students and parents, planning lessons and learning my way around, so I haven’t been able to give much of my time to language acquisition. I’ve found going to the cinema helpful as everything is subtitled and I’ve started to see and hear other words I recognise. But still, after just 36 days, there I was facing a test of my proficiency in a language I barely understand.
I first appreciated the rediculousness of my situation when we met with a trainer a few days before the exam so that he could explain the testing procedure. He had a tough audience, a group of teachers who knew that essentially, they were being set up to fail. Even the longer term colleagues who had picked up conversational Bahasa by going out and spending time with locals quickly saw how unrealistic and undifferentiated the test was. It went against everything we stand for in education. The session was disheartening and demotivating. Even though we were encouraged to try our best as the results were to be used for ‘data’ to help the government support expats in learning the language, we knew that the results would be skewed because of our short time in the country.
The test itself was equally rediculous. I suppose, after years in education testing children, I have a pretty clear view of how people should be tested (if they must be tested at all). 110 minutes of back to back exams with instructions in a foreign language (and some spoken translations I struggled to follow), using a multiple choice baked bean format is not my way to go about it, but that is how we were evaluated that day.
Candidates were wandering about, phones were out, selfies were taken (guilty). There was even the rumour that some people were using GoogleTranslate to help them, but no formality was observed, except for the welcome speeches from people responsible for the delivery of the tests. We were encouraged to enjoy the experience, and I guess some people did!
But I tried, I really did, even though every fiber of my being screamed at the farcical nature of the situation. I followed my own advice to students in the listening test and pre-read the questions, listening carefully for keywords before making a (semi) educated guess at the answer. Let’s face it, I had a 25% chance of getting it right after all. I used reading strategies like skimming and scanning, key wording and prediction to attempt the reading paper until the length of the paragraphs I had to read became too much for me to process. I admit I used the old reliable snake pattern for the grammar seksi (section – see, I managed to extend my vocabulary while in the exam!) as I wasn’t even able to decode the questions in that one. And, I’m sorry to say, I failed the writing section completely as the 250 word limit exceeded my own vocabulary by about 225. So I wrote the phrase I learnt specially for the occasion ‘saya tidak mengerti’ I don’t understand. I also rated each section with emojis, most of which involved tears!
Now I simply await my result, and accompanying certificate, which will tell me what I already know: my proficiency in Bahasa Indonesian is very ‘terbatas’ – limited!