Learning, and Loving, Foreign Language
“Fun” is not a word that most people would use to describe the experience of learning a new language. However, one language school in Bali is trying to put “fun” into learning Indonesian. The school is called Cinta Bahasa or “Love Language.” It is the brainchild of couple Stephen DeMeulenaere and Yoshida “Ochie” Chandra DeMeulenaere, who both have language training backgrounds, but were dissatisfied with the way Indonesian is taught to foreigners. Started in 2010 with three students and two rented rooms in a local college in Ubud, the school now occupies the whole top floor of a building, with four classrooms, space for private lessons, a library, 13 teachers and 600 students.
Stephen had a background in language training, having taught English in Japanese public schools for two years, as well as in Argentina and Mexico. He also taught English to refugees in Canada. Ochie formerly lectured at Bina Nusantara University (now BINUS University)in Jakarta, teaching English and advertising and working as a translator and interpreter for the US Embassy in Jakarta.
Stephen first came to Indonesia as a volunteer in 2000. He underwent a month’s intensive language course in Yogyakarta, but the course taught him a highly formalized version of Indonesia. He noticed that Indonesian people seemed quite uncomfortable speaking with him. His Indonesian friends told him that he used a formal language that is reserved for people that one is not close to, said Stephen. They teased him, making fun of his “too perfect” language skills, and told Stephen that he spoke Indonesian better than they did.
“I had to learn the Indonesian that I now speak outside of school,” he says. “I was so disappointed at how I acquired the language. To learn a language that I couldn’t use practically; it made me think a lot about starting my own school.”
Stephen says that as far as he knows, Cinta Bahasa is the only language school in Indonesia that teaches common Indonesian first and the higher-level, formal language, later.
“Our methodology is to teach the language that everyone [in Indonesia] speaks, in a polite way, “ he says.
“We teach grammar at a later period. The first thing is [for students] to feel comfortable responding to and asking questions and making statements in Indonesian, without thinking whether it’s grammatically correct or not.”
Ochie said she learned English by watching Sesame Street and MTV.
“That’s when I started loving English. Later on, I learned about grammar and tenses.” She said she might not have embraced English so eagerly if she had started with grammar lessons.
“We want our students to start speaking Indonesian straightaway, like I did with English,” Ochie explains.
This will allow foreigners to engage quickly with the Indonesian community, she adds. “We want people to fall in love with the language.”
Ochie doesn’t want to burden students with homework. She wants them to have fun learning Indonesian.
“When people are relaxed and having fun, they learn better,” Ochie says.
Ochie and Stephen met at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in 2009. Stephen was based in Bali, while Ochie was still living in Jakarta, but considering moving to Ubud. They started discussing the best way to learn Indonesian, based on their own experiences of learning a second language. In 2010, Stephen and Ochie, together with their first teacher, Novi, rented two rooms in the Camphuan College in Ubud and started teaching their first classes.
At Cinta Bahasa, students are encouraged to learn more about Indonesian — and Balinese — culture. Stephen estimates there are more than 150 courses offered around Ubud, from mask making, to dance and so on.
“In other parts of Indonesia, it’s hard to find that level of access to the culture that you can find in Bali,” he says, adding that this contributes to people’s interest in coming to Bali to learn Indonesian.
People discover Cinta Bahasa by word of mouth and online, often through social media.
“About half of our students are referrals,” Stephen says. He adds that new students often want to learn formally because they have the mentality that this is the best way to learn a new language and they find the Cinta Bahasa teaching methods deceptively simple at first. They quickly learn that “we are not taking the easy way; that this is the right way to get into the language,” Stephen says.
According to Stephen, many people who study languages want to learn Indonesian, as it is considered an easy language. As for elderly people, learning a new language is one of the easiest ways to keep their minds active. Cinta Bahasa has many older students, who come from Jakarta or from abroad to study Indonesian.
Stephen explains that many people who are keen to do business or work in Indonesia are starting to realize the importance of learning the language. Not having the language prevents them from having a good working relationship with Indonesians. In the past, many executives “expected the linguistic part of what they’re doing to be mediated by someone else. But that is changing,” he says.
One of Cinta Bahasa’s better-known students is Tim Ferriss, the author of “The Four Hour Work Week” and a master learner, particularly of languages. Ferriss’s most recent book, “The Four Hour Chef,” is a manual on the best way to learn new skills.
Ferriss had always wanted to visit Bali and was interested in learning Indonesian. Based on student feedback on the Cinta Bahasa website, and a lengthy interrogation by email of Stephen and Ochie’s teaching methods, Ferriss chose Cinta Bahasa and has since referred others to the school and written positively about Cinta Bahasa on his popular blog.
Other clients include the United States Air Force, the American Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, the Australian Consulate, Australian Volunteers in Development, the Office of National Assessment in Australia, AusTraining International, and European and Canadian volunteer agencies.
The Indonesian language changes quite quickly, says Stephen, and often, many teachers, especially those overseas, are out of date. Cinta Bahasa revises its textbooks constantly for this reason.
Cinta Bahasa staff attend Indonesian Education Ministry training courses four times a year to learn the easiest and most effective ways to teach Indonesian to foreigners, encouraging teachers to find their own personal styles and bring their own unique diversity to teaching, benefiting students, rather than conforming to a single image of a “model teacher.” The result, says Ochie, is that the teachers and staff of Cinta Bahasa feel valued for their unique skills and contributions, and experience working for Cinta Bahasa as more like being part of a family than just having a job.
Cinta Bahasa is also very involved in the local community; it donates to local non-profits, advises the local alternative Green School on their Indonesian language curriculum, and provides interpretation services for the Bali Emerging Writers Festival and the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival.
In the future, Stephen and Ochie want to form closer working relationships with other language schools in Indonesia, in an effort to try to change the way that Indonesian is taught to foreigners. “Most of the other language schools in Indonesia still think that Cinta Bahasa is kind of weird,” Stephen says. “They don’t really understand our teaching methods.”
Stephen and Ochie also want to build better relationships with groups and organizations in Australia that have an interest in Indonesia, and increase the number of online classes the school offers. There is a soundproof booth for teaching classes via the online chat service Skype. This allows students in other parts of Bali, in Jakarta or overseas to take classes at Cinta Bahasa without having to travel to the school.