Present Tense

As most of you are aware—probably because I won’t shut up about it—Natalia and I live on the Indonesian island of Bali. If you want a mental image, pick up the movie Eat Pray Love on Netflix and fast-forward to the last third.

Do we still say fast-forward in 2021?

Anyway, one of the things a newcomer will immediately feel on Bali—after stepping away from the insane motorbike traffic—is a sense of timelessness. YES, everybody’s got a smartphone. YES, what happens in the rest of the world matters here. But there’s an inescapable sense that the important stuff—meaning the small stuff, the everyday stuff—is the same now as it as has been for the last thousand years, and as it will be for a long time to come.

Whether war, poverty, natural disaster, or pandemic, people here seem to take whatever happens in stride. You know how we say that every United States Marine is first and foremost a basic rifleman? Well, every Balinese is at heart a rice farmer, and there is a rice field in view more or less everywhere you go. Times might get tough, but very few people here are actually going to starve.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those horrible epiphanies: I realized that we have been on Bali for a year and a half, and we STILL don’t speak the Indonesian language! We’ve become those annoying expats who depend on the dedicated study of others to order coffee and find the bathroom. Shame on us.

So we enrolled in a bahasa Indonesia class, and you know what? It’s EASY! I mean, my last language was Russian, which I think left me with a permanent case of language PTSD. After four weeks of twice-a-week bahasa Indonesia classes I can communicate better in it than I can in Russian after four YEARS of living with an actual Russian.

But it might be interesting to learn WHY bahasa Indonesia is so simple. It does lack a lot of elements that make other languages difficult:

  • There is no gender.
  • There are no articles: a, an, the, the.
  • There is no distinction between singular and plural.
  • There are no prefixes or suffixes required to make different parts of speech agree. (That’s what makes Russian so infernally tricky.)

But consider this: the words you speak out loud are the same ones you speak in your head, right? And they directly affect your outlook on life. In humans, LANGUAGE and THINKING are the SAME THING. 

The MAIN thing that makes bahasa Indonesia an easy language to learn is that it only has one verb tense: the present.

In this language, you can specifically reference tomorrow or yesterday, but it is not possible to talk about the past or the future in general terms. Whether an event happens a hundred years ago or next week, you speak of it as if it is happening RIGHT NOW. All else is context.

I understand this observation holds for a lot of Asian languages. But it’s also fair to observe that we Westerners are able to detect something ineffably different about a lot of Asian culture. And maybe this is it.

When the language of your mind compartmentalizes time into the infinite past and future, it takes a lot of training and discipline to OCCUPY the thin slice of time in between them where we actually LIVE.

When the present tense is all there is, you lose a lot of descriptive power about the past and the future. But we also know that dwelling on the past and the future can create a lot of misery while sapping performance in just about any field. And the trade-off here is that when your language is constrained to the present tense, living in the current moment is an effortless decision.

I think there’s a lesson in here if I just sit with it.

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  1. Jason,
    Your comments are at the heart of being “mindful” – living in the present. Thank you for sharing that-

  2. It’s funny, learning a language. Some can get it right away, some it takes forever. For me, I have to be immersed in it. Forget classes, books, tapes, videos…I have to actually be there. When I was building manufacturing plants around the world, my immersion was complete – a few weeks of riding a local bus, ordering in restaurants, just being around people…I would be at level A3 in no time.

    Conversely, when I leave any country, I tend to forget the language quickly. Out of sight, out of mind. I guess that’s what happens to many left-brained people.

    Since I travel around the world a lot, it gets easier and easier to just use English. As I’m sure Jason has experienced, many natives want to try their English on YOU, rather than you trying their language on them. But it comes at you slowly – you see a few words, you hear a few words, you try them when you get on the bus or order a lunch. After a couple of weeks, the whole arc of a typical conversation is in your head. You’re on your way.

    One question for you Jason – I was in Bali about 10 years ago and the big news was that many of the islands were starting to slip into the water. Jakarta was sinking. What’s the buzz now? If it is still happening, what’s Indonesia doing about it?

    Thanks and great travels!