"It's like having 70 grandchildren"

Sam and his wife fell in love with Bali 25 years ago when they first visited as tourists. They kept returning every year and formed close relationships with Balinese families. The couple wanted to give back to the amazing place that became their second home. Now they volunteer for the SOS Children's Village orphanage in Bali. Sam told Glossika how he teaches English to the children at the orphanage and what difficulties he had to overcome to become conversational in Indonesian.

From Tourists to Volunteers: Fulfilling Retirement Dreams in Bali

We first came to Bali to celebrate our wedding anniversary almost 25 years ago. We fell in love with Bali and visited maybe two times a year after that. We got to know Balinese families and I was impressed by the uniqueness of their culture. There is an interesting mix of Balinese Hinduism and Buddhism. And the Balinese people are just some of the most beautiful people that I've ever known. We were able to form relationships within the culture that gave us kind of a front-row seat to see how they lived and it's a wonderful thing. We felt at home.

At some point, we began to think that a dream retirement would be to give back to the Balinese people. I realized that the best way to do that would be to teach English. We began planning five to seven years before I retired. I spent a year getting TESOL certification to teach English to speakers of other languages. And then during our trips to Bali, we explored different places. I helped at a university, taught at an elementary school, and at a high school. I just tried to find my place.

And then we visited an orphanage, SOS Children's Village. It’s different from a typical orphanage in a key way: they don't adopt out and remain responsible for the children until they become self-sufficient adults. We were really impressed with the village, how they treated the children, how they helped to nurture them, and with the whole environment of support and love that they showed.

The village itself is just beautiful. It's 7 hectares that's been carved out of the jungle in western Bali. It's just the most beautiful place with the rice fields out in the middle of nowhere. The village is self-contained so the children go to school in their local village in the community.

It made a great impression on us. So, over time, we got involved. We began sponsoring some of the children financially. And then, little by little, I began to teach English as a volunteer. In 2016, I retired and then began teaching on a regular basis. I do a three-month semester in the spring and a three-month semester in the fall.

Do you need to know Indonesian to teach English?

Before my retirement, I was a professor for 30 years and taught cross-cultural leadership. So I had a great interest in different cultures and I got to travel to many different places around the world. Within the academic area, I had experience with learning different languages, like French and Latin, but none of it stuck.

There was a debate in my teaching certification class about whether you needed to know the native language in order to teach English effectively. And there were two sides to the argument. At the time, I thought that it wasn't that necessary. However, the more that I got into it, the more I realized that it's important. My main motivation to learn the language is speaking with the children. I want to be able to use Indonesian to help them when I'm teaching English.

When my wife and I lived in Southern California years ago, we decided we wanted to take a Spanish class. We got into the class, and the teacher only spoke Spanish. She used Spanish for instructions, and we had no idea what she was talking about. And we didn't go back. It was the funniest thing to realize just how difficult it is to even get engaged in a class like that when the professor can't speak your language. If you're listening to something that's just above your capability, then it pulls you up. However, if you're listening to something that's way above your level, then you can listen for 100 years and not learn it. So my motivation to learn Indonesian comes from the need to talk to my students.

I tried every program I could find to work on Indonesian — I'd say between six and eight different things over the years. I even took a course through the University of Hawaii. So I was doing everything I could to try to make progress. And everything you try makes its own contribution to your journey of learning.  You just might not realize it until you look back. The problem was that when I reached B1, I just hit a wall. I couldn't get to fluency. All these resources got me to B1, but after that, they just didn't work.

Getting over the intermediate plateau

I struggled for two years to try to get past the B1 level. I'd tried every program I knew and I didn’t know where to go next. I was really confused and frustrated. About a year ago, when I was working with my tutor before I went back to Bali, I asked him to help me create some scripts for conversations. We developed six or seven different conversations that I might have with the children or with the orphanage staff. And then I began memorizing it. My wife helped me, and we went back and forth. All of a sudden, I began to understand the value of repetition. Of all the study I had done, I'd never really used repetition as a way to help with speaking. So when I went back to Bali last spring, I began to use some of that. I started researching to see if I could find anything repetition-focused for Indonesian. And I found Glossika.

It was like I had been looking for this for years. I had worked with so many different approaches and seen their limitations. My progress with Glossika was almost immediate. The use of the language was more natural. I just suddenly... was able to speak. And it continues to grow the longer I'm in it. Looking back, I think all of the programs I used had a speaking element but there was something different about Glossika, which treats the repetition itself as the learning approach. That was new to me. I'm up to 43,000 reps now, so I've made it far enough to see the benefit. It's a rewiring of your brain or something to just make the conversation normal and natural; just an automatic thing. Because you practice speaking through so much repetition. I think it's an amazing tool.

I think my biggest challenge with Indonesian was fighting the tendency that I had to feel more comfortable studying than speaking. Language learners who are more outgoing and extroverted have a much easier time getting to the conversational level. On the contrary, I enjoy the studying part of it. I enjoy learning the grammar and looking into the linguistics. The interesting thing was that, at a certain point, that emphasis on studying began to work against my ability to become fluent. If I were with a tutor I would rather spend time talking about the difference between two words, or maybe exploring a certain grammatical issue, rather than actually working on my speaking, the skill that’s so important to fluency. So, before, I would do anything to default to my natural interests, rather than doing the hard thing and getting out of my comfort zone and speaking.

I've had to really push myself to get comfortable with working on the fluency part, but Glossika helped me with that because it increased my confidence through having me do so many repetitions of phrases. I’ve been learning Indonesian for about seven years but this past year has changed everything as far as my ability to feel like I'm communicating and influencing in the way that I want to be communicating and influencing in my volunteer work.

Something bigger than yourself

At the beginning of my language-learning journey, I envisioned trying to get all the way to C1-C2… and I realized I could never do that, even if I tried for the rest of my life. One day I stumbled upon a video from Michael Campbell about language learning levels, and I understood that, for my purposes B2, was a perfect goal. At C1 level you're dealing with specialized areas but normal daily conversation are probably not going to get above a B2 level and will usually be even lower. As I listened to the video, I realized that for my purposes I needed to achieve this “daily conversations” level. That shift in mindset made my goal something achievable, which took a real weight off my shoulders.

Adding to that, Bali is kind of an unusual place for a language learner because of the tourism. You've got a lot of Balinese that know a little bit of English so that they can get by in a tourist environment. Even at the orphanage, when I would come in, they were wanting me to speak English so I could help them learn English. And I'm wanting them to speak Indonesian so they can help me learn Indonesian. It's always a struggle for me to try to get in enough Indonesian conversation.

However, Balinese culture is very open. People are friendly and, because of tourism, they're used to westerners. So, the culture is kind of perfect for interaction and being able to communicate and feeling supported by them when you're struggling with their language. They're always wanting to help.

For me, working with kids is crazy — it's much harder than working with PhD students. I never would have thought I'd be working with kids but now I wouldn't trade it for anything. I absolutely love it! In the environment I'm in, the children are so deeply appreciative of the people who care about them, who want them to be better and to learn how to live life and be successful. They still act like normal kids but they are so affirming and appreciative of my being there and it's just a beautiful thing. If I ever need to have my ego stroked, all I have to do is just walk out the door because I've got a million hugs. There are 70 kids at the campus and it's like having 70 grandchildren. It’s nice to give to something that's bigger than yourself. It creates meaning in your life and enriches it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.