3 min read

A Tale of Two Tongues

Suddenly, I had lost the power to fluently speak, and to write.

I asked myself why I wasn’t writing anymore. I used to weave stories in my spare time and write articles in my head. And before the words disappeared forever, I’d grab a pen and see my thoughts transfer itself onto an old receipt. Once when I was at church, I had forgone the sign of the cross to write a few lines of poetry on the back of my hand.

I would swallow hundreds of pages in a day and scribble on restaurant napkins, all the while kicking myself for falling so hard over ink stains etched on wood pulp. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Just ink, or maybe now, just pixels. Black lines that curve this way and another—a set of scribbles that somehow makes sense.

Writing is how I bleed, and how I heal. I write to iron out the mangled string of thoughts and observations—an infinite string, perpetually twined. I’ve always found it strange how no one else had to purge themselves this way. Writing became a necessity; like rice or potatoes.

When I came to Jakarta last year to work as a copywriter, speaking and writing in Indonesian was a feat I was wildly unprepared for. I used to practice my Indonesian in front of the mirror to reacquaint myself with the staccato rhythm of the language. Even then I would still trip over my words when speaking to my coworkers.

The moment I sat behind my cubicle desk, my expertise in English was immediately set aside, like an old childhood toy, only to be taken out if absolutely necessary. Instead, I was required to construct a world in Indonesian—a language I was never comfortable with speaking since I was a kindergartener. Unfamiliar words began to force themselves into the dense crevices of my mouth, which was already brimming with words from another language.

Four years in Melbourne was all it took for me to subconsciously shed my other mother tongue. One year in Jakarta and it came rushing back to me like a tsunami without a warning.

There was a war inside my head; two languages trying to eliminate one another on a battlefield I never knew existed. Suddenly, I had lost the power to fluently speak, and to write, in both English and Indonesian.

English sentences slowly turned into hieroglyphs, but Indonesian words—although much more familiar now—still tasted bitter.

I’m now in language limbo; neither here nor there.

Words used to flow out of me faster than wine in a broken bottle. Not anymore. Perhaps not until I move overseas again so I can let my Indonesian tongue rot inside my mouth. But I have built my life upon the English language, and there is this visceral fear that perhaps I will never be able to grasp for words as easily as before.

I asked myself why I wasn’t writing anymore. I thought it was because I had lost interest—but the answer is far more despairing.

I have simply forgotten how.