Being “Smart”

I’m in Indonesia right now for a research project, and it’s going well. Although one thing is frustrating me.

I know very basic greetings in Bahasa Indonesia, but I am not able to hold a conversation. I can say hello, thank you, please, etc. And that’s about it.

Today I was the recipient of quite a bit of attitude from some locals about not being conversant in the local language. I’m here for less than a week on a short site visit. It’s only a 6 week project anyway. I’m not living here, and I’m not working here for an extended period of time. And I was obviously aware enough of my shortcomings to arrange for a translator for the duration of my visit.

But apparently the fact that I have a PhD means I’m “smart” and therefore should be able to learn the language quickly.

So, here’s the thing…I suck at languages.

There, I said it.

I might be smart – at science and maths. And my English is better than most.

But foreign languages? No.

I did 4 years of Italian in primary school, and while I passed, I wasn’t good with it. I did another year of Japanese in high school. Again, I did ok, but nothing spectacular. I spent 4 years working on projects in South America, and while I obviously picked up some Spanish and Portuguese, I can’t hold an actual conversation. I know enough to get by, but that’s it.

My brain is wired for maths and science. Not languages.

Being “smart” is not some universal truth.

Some people can fix cars, that makes them “smart” when it comes to mechanics. Therefore I’m stupid. Some people are fantastic painters, that makes them smart when it comes to producing art. Therefore I’m stupid. Some people can speak 10 languages, that makes them smart when it comes to languages. Therefore I’m stupid.

Don’t assume that just because I have a PhD and I’m “smart” at one thing, that I’m smart at everything.


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