Teaching english in Indonesia: Whose rules should be followed?

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 04/09/2005 2:41 PM  |  Opinion

Setiono, Jakarta

Who owns the English language? Americans, the British, the Canadians, New Zealanders or Australians? There was a time when such a question proved to be well-founded. For the non-native English countries studying the English language, they were once compelled to refer to either British or American varieties as a standard norm (exo-normative standard) that was to be adhered to. Malaysia, for example, took the former, and the Philippines took the later, for different historical reasons in each case.

Nevertheless, times have changed. With the rapidly increasing number of non-native countries speaking English both as an international communications tool and as local varieties, the above question seems to have lost its validity. Braj B. Kachru, a renowned professor of linguistics from Urbana-Champaign, estimated that in terms of the number of speakers and their demographic distribution, the 300 million native English speakers are now outnumbered by 400 million non-native speakers of English, who are spread all over the world.

The global spread of English is seemingly effected by the power of transmutation that this language possesses: English is a symbol of modernization, elitism and prestige in almost all domains; English is the linguistic gate to international education, business, science and technology; and English serves as a “”window on the world””, through which one can internationalize and modernize one’s outlook.

English is now the global language and is used all around the world. To claim that English is only associated with “”Mother English”” (American and British varieties), and that one has to refer to either of these when using English, is already an outdated perspective. It seems that every country all over the world owns the English language. We have, for example, such familiar terms as Singlish (Singaporean English), Japlish (Japanese English), Spanglish (Spanish English), and Hinglish (Hindi English). The emergence of these new “”World Englishes”” gives rise to what Kachru calls the Third World varieties of English, with each having their own norms (endo-normative standards).

In non-native English speaking countries such as India, Zambia, Ghana, Singapore and Malaysia, where English has been institutionalized, codified and virtually nativized, there seems to be no major problems of developing and nurturing local English norms in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary items (choice of words), cultural nuances, and possibly grammar.

The innovations in lexis and grammar have been very rich, and have indeed gained acknowledgement from native English speakers. See, for example, Indian English and Singaporean English. Communication in English among the societies in these countries will not be distorted even if they do not use the exo-normative standards. In fact, their utterances, to a large extent, are still intelligible to native speakers of English.

As English has been used as an auxiliary language in non-native English speaking countries, it has undergone a transplantation in non-American and non-British situations. Consequently, new varieties, styles, registers, and rhetorical models of thinking inevitably emerge, and their authentic and appropriate use in daily conversation cannot be determined and judged by reference to English native speakers, who have become outsiders from the Third World “”Englishes””.

The case of Indonesia, where English is used as the first foreign language (not as a second language), is rather different. English is used primarily as an object of study — a compulsory subject — in a pedagogical domain, the objective of which is to attain native-like proficiency. English is not, however, used as part of the Indonesians’ linguistic repertoire. As such, in order to acquire English proficiently, an exo-normative model (either the American or British varieties) is always resorted to. The strict adherence to these models should not be flouted. Not following these model can be considered deviant or erroneous.

It thus comes as no surprise to learn that much of the content of the textbooks used in teaching English in Indonesian schools does not necessarily conform to either the American or British varieties, whether linguistically or culturally. If observed carefully, one may find that the books contain structural patterns that are grammatically well-formed, but unacceptable from the English native speakers’ vantage point. That is, English native speakers won’t say it that way in their day-to-day interaction.

Furthermore, the books’ contents are loaded with examples and reading passages depicting the learners’ local culture rather than that of the Americans’ or British.

In terms of pronunciation, it is interesting to note that the distinction between American and British pronunciation seems to be no longer valid. Although, prescriptively, these two varieties are always recommended in the teaching of English in non-native speaking countries, both Indonesian teachers and Indonesian students do not really pay serious attention to the accents associated with these two varieties. They instead learn to communicate in English using their local accent, which is typically labeled as “”non-English”” by English native speakers. After all, as one learns and acquires a new language to communicate, the intelligibility of an utterance becomes the prime consideration.

From the above discussion, it seems that English has undergone a process of both linguistic assimilation and linguistic acculturation in the Indonesian context, resulting in what one might wish to dub, by analogy with the “”World Englishes””, as Indonglish (Indonesian-English).

The process of assimilation and acculturation in a new situation is indicative of the English language as a natural language that never operates in a socio-cultural vacuum. This is an inevitable process that is both linguistically and culturally justifiable.

The writer is a lecturer in the English Department at the School of Education, Atma Jaya Catholic University

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