The intercultural error of ‘You’ and ‘I’; a reflective writing

As an English teacher, I have always been constricted by my own understanding that my primary goal is to assist students in reaching an acceptable standard of English proficiency – that includes fluency and comprehension. The instructional focus, therefore, is on two components only: students and language. Little did I ever try to acknowledge, let alone accommodate, the cultural value in my students’ language and that of English. One assignment in identifying errors made by students makes me realize the gravity of my mistake in doing so. First, language is not a neutral entity. It is and will always be laden with cultural and social load. Fairclough (2001) highlighted the notion that language has a dialectical relationship with society. Every linguistic phenomenon is determined by social rules and, in turn, has social implication. Second, failure in acknowledging so leads to error in language production and a potential hindrance of communication. The overwhelming evidence of these is my students’ errors in the use of pronouns.

Pronoun is not only a small part of grammar rules in English but also a mirror of a bigger social value in (the speaker’s) culture. It contains information about the concept of self-and-other-ness, how the speaker forms her identity, and how she assumes her position in power spectrum. In bahasa Indonesia, for example, the first person singular pronouns ‘aku’ and ‘saya’ have a stark semantic difference. The former is stronger in its self-ness compared to the latter. In a very communal society like Indonesia, therefore, saya is more socially appropriate. Likewise, the use of second person singular pronouns in Indonesia – kamu, engkau, Anda – reflects the degree of formality influenced by social status, age, power, and interpersonal distance between the speakers. Kamu and engkau are more casual, showing the degree of closeness. Anda is more formal but, on the other hand, it puts distance between the speakers, so much that it poses a risk of patronization. A linguistically aware person would resort to a strategy of not using pronoun at all. Instead, she is going to use ‘Bapak, Ibu, Tuan, Nona, or Nyonya’ that might or might not be followed by their name.

However, the difference in social, power, distance and stratum of speaker is not contained within English pronouns. It envelops the equalitarian nature of its speaker’s culture (Brown and Gilman 1960:118-119). In modern (current) English, singular I and singular you are the same regardless of the speakers’ status or distance. This is where errors occur. Students, unaware of this different politeness concepts, avoid using objective pronoun ‘you’ altogether or compensate it by the coding of title and name or by using a direct translation of ‘Bapak, Ibu, Tuan, Nona, or Nyonya etc.other than as vocative. It is because the use of you eliminates the social structure, diminishing the power of the addressee, something that is considered as impolite when sending a text to the teacher, in students’ culture.

The following examples illustrate the error caused by source language cultural interference.

In this example, the sender goes as far as switching the code to Javanese ‘njenengan’ just to emphasize the politeness, his ‘submission’ to the (assumed) powerful receiver.


This example illustrates how the student tried to compensate for the lack of ‘subordination’ indicator in the language, so she transferred the politeness strategy in Bahasa Indonesia directly to English (Bu –> Mrs.).

These intercultural errors mainly because students still think in what their source language’s culture dictates them to. They could not fathom the equalitarian concept in interpersonal interaction of English speaking culture. Leavitt (2015) stated that the words your language gives you determine and limit what it is possible for you to think. Therefore, another goal to add in EFL instruction is to train students NOT only to speak in English, but also to think in it. All in all, these errors need to be addressed by giving corrective feedback, explicit teaching of cultural value, and exposing students to as many intercultural materials as possible.


Brown, R & Gilman, A. (1960). The Pronoun of Power and Solidarity. In T.A. Sebeok (eds). Style in Language. MIT Press. 253-76.

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power.  Longman: Harlow, Eng.

Leavitt, J., (2015). Linguistic relativity: precursors and transformations. In: Sharifian, F. (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Language and Culture. Routledge, London and New York, pp. 18–30.

Beli mobil di zaman now, yay or nay?

Jadi kemarin iseng-iseng ngobrol sama suami, masih perlu gak sih di era sekarang ini beli mobil? Setelah dihitung-hitung, financially, lebih bijak kalau tidak.

Sebelum kita break-down perhitungan untung ruginya, konteksnya demikian: untuk saat ini, mobil idaman saya at least seperti Honda H-RV, transmisi otomatis. Harga OTR di beberapa situs (minimal) 270jt. Untuk memudahkan perhitungan (dan mungkin karena saat ini kami mampunya segitu), anggap saja 250jt.

Opportunity cost: kalau uang segitu kita invest di properti, margin keuntungan per tahun 20%.
:1) 20% * 250jt = 50jt.

Bagaimana dengan kebutuhan transportasi harian?
: Yang commute tiap hari adalah saya dengan rute rutin ke tiga daerah saja: Rumah –> UM –> Poltek. Dengan menggunakan transportasi online (Go-car/Grab/Uber), AT MOST pengeluaran saya per-hari 75k. Per-tahun ada 48 minggu, per-minggu efektif kerja 5 hari (ini adalah hitungan yang paling kasar karena saya tidak menghitung waktu libur dan faktor-faktor lain).
2) 75k * 5 * 48 = 18jt

3) 50jt – 18jt = 32jt.

Maka: jika saya memutuskan untuk tidak beli mobil dan, instead, ‘memutar’ uang tersebut di properti, dalam setahun uang saya akan jadi 282jt.

Jika kita memfaktorkan biaya bahan bakar, perawatan rutin, asuransi, parkir, dan lain-lain yang oleh situs ini dihitung sejumlah 36,2jt per tahun (dan angka ini belum termasuk depresiasi nilai aset), maka menurut saya membeli mobil saat ini itu kontra-produktif.

Jadi, keputusannya sekarang: sudahlah, pakai motor+mobil yang lama atau naik Go-car/Grab/Uber saja.

2016 is here!

There’s a reason why I have never been big on new year resolution: I’m afraid of commitment. Ahahaha, how cliché. No, not really.

Anyway, I’m joining the big 30 club this year so I gotta  put that one out of the way.

So, here we are:

  1. Maintaining psychological hygiene. Keeping my sanity intact. If you are anything like me, you’d know it is not easy. And how do i plan to do that?
    a. focus on what matters,
    b. avoid unnecessary distraction,
    c. stay positive, clean and purge yourself up from any negativity (yes, that means purging negative people on FB, too!),
    d. get to know myself better: what makes me angst, avoid anxiety triggers, and know how to cope; and
    e. The’DO IT NOW’ mantra. …
    And It just happened that I stayed in during all the firework shows in new year eve and watched this video.
  2. Ibadah: Gak muluk-muluk, saya ingin sholat 5 waktunya gak bolong-bolong. Itu ajah.
  3. Reading habit: I need to discipline myself in this department. 2 books a month, at the very least.
  4. Social life. I lost a friend to a tragic motorcycle accident last year. It hit me so hard and so much. That time I realized 3 things: 1) life is momentary. You could plan everything ahead and do everything properly but click, and you’re dead. It could happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere; 2) we came into this world with nothing and will leave with as much. Make sure that what you do in between matters. Do good, be good. 3) there will only be a handful of people coming to your funeral. They are your real friends. Find them, keep them, be them.
  5. Till last year, I occupied myself so much with work. I started teaching at a uni, I opened a woodwork workshop, and some other small projects. There were always loads and loads of things to do. How did I fare, you ask? Well, not good. I wasn’t doing them out of greed. In fact, , I know my problem exactly: I was running from something only myself know. I ‘subconsciously’ thought if I kept myself busy enough, then I wouldn’t have the time and energy to think about it. At some point it might be true, but I had not been fair to myself. My body took the toll and I fell sick a lot last year. So, this year I’m am dropping the woodwork project, leave it to people who are good in it. I’ll focus on teaching, APique, and ONE personal project of mine

So far, that’s all i can think of right now.

Antagonizing the haves


Sometimes ago, my husband relayed what Aba said to him about me.

“Look how far Uswah has changed over the course of time. She used to antagonize rich people.”

I did? Antagonizing rich people? Well, maybe i did that unconsciously. It is easy to do that. In fact, the tendency is prevalent.

There’s a lambo driver vs. pedestrian accident, it’s the driver’s fault. Motorbike vs. car accident, it’s the car’s fault. Due process proves otherwise, there must be a bribe involved. Well, at least in Indonesia.

Lately, there is this one Facebook post about people taking half of a public road in front of a high-end private school complex in Malang to park their car. It causes massive traffic jam during rush hour. Well, putting aside whose fault it is, you’d see that most of people’s comments automatically cynically accuse the perpetrators’ richness as the root of the problem. Not their education, not their upbringing, their common sense or social awareness BUT their being rich.

In many soap operas, cheesy romance movies, sinetron, etc, we are often presented with the narrative of how the haves see the have-nots: that they are lazy, uneducated, to somehow downright uncivilized. i can’t say whether the portrayal is right, but i know what is lacking from them: the other side of coin. The cynicism perpetuated by the poor toward the haves, how subconsciously poor people patronize the haves, guilt-trip them into feeling remorse for being able to afford things that the poor can’t. There’s always that default assumption that the haves are greedy, soul-grabber, blablabla yadda yaaddaaa…

I don’t know what causes that other than it’s a human nature to antagonize people for being different, to fear the unknown. But clearly, this classism has now become the new ‘racism’. And it’s so easy to tar people with the same brush.