Should English be taught at primary level?

Mochamad Subhan Zein ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 11/15/2008 10:58 AM  |  Opinion

English has been very influential in Asia’s language educational policies and practices for the past couple of years. Assuming children’s superiority in language learning over that of adults, many Asian countries believe that introducing English to primary students is considerably important to ensure their success.

Whereas English is a compulsory subject in Singapore and the Philippines, the language has been used as a medium of instruction for teaching mathematics and science at primary levels in Malaysia since 2003. The same policy is also implemented by India and Pakistan who use English as an official language and introduce it to the children.

Together with China, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea, Japan is committed to providing access to primary levels students to learn English.

We cannot see the same enthusiasm in Indonesia, however. There is no foreign language policy during this time that can equip children with English in order to take part in the global competition. That means English is inaccessible to most Indonesian children.

Early foreign language learning programs need to be introduced as a means of giving every child access — whether by making English a compulsory subject or by using it as a medium of instruction.

Before the policy is established, it is therefore worth considering questions such as: When will we introduce it? What kind of curriculum can be implemented? What kind of teaching method is better? How many teachers are needed? How can we recruit them? How can we make sure they are good enough to teach?

If a policy is introduced, we also need to consider the consequences to the maintenance of the national language. Is there any harm caused to the vernaculars? What about the learning facilities and materials? What are the considerations in terms of financial matters? Is it affordable? How many contact hours should be provided?

Of all those questions, the major challenge that appears in the implementation of the policy is providing enough qualified teachers.

Because the quality of the teachers determines the quality of the students, it is reasonable to rely on language teacher education or teacher training.

When that kind of teacher training program can be provided is a serious concern for the program’s continuity. There is no point in providing such a program if there is no continuity, because it will not cater to teachers’ emerging understanding of the nature of language teaching and learning. It is expected that the training initiated will produce qualified teachers who can provide rich language learning experiences and facilitate oral language acquisition for the learners.

Another issue that should also be addressed is the number of teachers needed. Providing enough English teachers to 135,768 public primary schools from Aceh to Papua is very difficult, given the fact that many schools in rural areas do not have English teachers at all. Here it is worth noting the possibility of hiring native English speakers to provide rich learning experiences and interactions.

Although employing native speakers may appear to be a big financial expense, this idea is affordable. A possible strategy is to initiate exchange student programs or scholarship programs with English-speaking countries, i.e., the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In exchange for their time devoted to part-time teaching at primary levels, participants of the program can study at an Indonesian university and obtain full exemption of tuition fees. They also could receive a good monthly stipend as a living allowance.

With this program in place, not only would it ensure the opportunity for students to have a rich experience with native English speakers but it also would be an innovative way to market Indonesian tourism potential to foreigners.

On the other hand, recruiting local teachers remains a priority.

Universities such as Satya Wacana Christian University and the University of Indonesia are well known for their reputation of producing top graduates in English language and literature. Other universities which offer English majors such as The State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and Yogyakarta National University can also take part. Those universities can initiate cooperation with the government to contribute to the availability of qualified English teachers who are likely to be near-native.

Under a contractual or even full-time employment basis, the newly hired local teachers could be placed in Indonesia’s rural areas to provide rich learning opportunities for the children.

Having examined the importance of English in globalization, a serious action that can equip children with English is necessary to be taken. Once the political will is there, consideration in providing enough qualified teachers deserves full attention, and perhaps the most serious attention.

The writer is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Arts and Humanities, The State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. He is currently enrolled a postgraduate program in TESOL at the University of Canberra, Australia. He can be reached at

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