How one can become a good foreign-language learner

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 06/06/1999 7:16 AM  |  Life

YOGYAKARTA (JP): Recall how many times that you, as learners of English as a foreign language, asked your English teacher this question: What’s thebest way to learn English? And recall how you got answers ranging from a shrug of your teacher’s shoulders to a 10-minute course of English grammar.

It’s high time that a reasonable answer was given to the question. A goodlanguage learner is one who is aware, and manipulates this awareness, that he is learning a foreign language. This awareness entails the proposition that a good language learner uses the right strategies in the process of learning English. Learners who learn not only the language properly but also how to learn it make them successful language learners. This means that a good language learner knows and makes use of learning strategies.

Learning strategies are observable actions done by students, consciously or subconsciously, when participating in formal classroom interaction. In the inventory of educational theories, learning strategies involve learners’ cognitive, affective, and psychomotoric actions. Repeating what the teacher says, writing notes in a book and talking to oneself are examples of learners’ cognitive actions. Laughing genuinely, looking satisfied or confused, showing enthusiasm or boredom, smiling or complaining are examples of learners’ actions which can be grouped as affective. Hand raising, head shaking or nodding, body turning, standing and walking around are examples of psychomotoric actions.

Research shows that successful language learners use a wide variety of learning strategies. Of these successful learners, adults tend to use more and higher frequencies of learning strategies than children. Students in foreign language classes tend to use more strategies than students in first-language classes.

It is probably your turn now to shrug your shoulders and complain: What does all this have to do with me? Well, below are some hints you might consider to take for more successful language learning. These strategies are by no means exhaustive; they are used to complement other strategies you already know.

The first strategy is centering your learning. One way to center your learning is by overviewing and linking the material you are going to study with material you have learned before. This way, you will be able to selectwhich part or parts of the material you really need to pay attention to andwhich parts you may ignore. Another way is by delaying speech production and spending your time learning to listen well, not many people can resist the urge to speak, in order to concentrate on listening.

Listening well pays well. Many people have the wrong idea that listening is a passive activity. On the contrary, listening with concentration requires the active work of the brain. Listening well strengthens the cognitive process of concept building, prepares the brain better to ensure language production and opens the ears wide for communicative feedback. So much is the importance of the listening strategy. An extreme case is illustrated by this old saying: Nature gives us two ears but one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.

The second strategy consists of arranging and planning your learning. Oneimportant skill in this strategy is finding out all about language learning. I once took a French course which used the direct aural-oral approach and because I had knowledge of this theory, I did somewhat better than the other participants. What you are doing at this moment is another example of this skill. Knowing the theory that learning a language needs practice, to give another example, makes a learner more prepared, more willing, and more enthusiastic to practice a lesson.

Another important skill in this strategy is for you to schedule and organize you learning activities. Included in this strategy is how you use and keep your notes and materials, arrange your room and space, and adjust lighting and temperature. It is good to review the notes as soon as you arrive at home for just five minutes, not less and not more before doing anything else. This kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, you are practicing this strategy. On the other, you are strengthening what you have learned. Reviewing material right after you come home has a far reaching effect in the retention of lesson material.

One last skill in this strategy is seeking practice opportunities. In my initial stage of learning English, I used every possible medium in every possible spare moment to chart the English consonants and vowels: wrap paper, the ground sand, the blackboard, spare pages in my exercise book, dinner tissue paper, you name it. Believe it or not, I did weird things such as talking to myself, counting things in English, reading license numbers of passing cars, and so on.

The third strategy is evaluating your learning. Two skills can be practiced in this strategy: self-monitoring and self-evaluating. Self-monitoring may be in the form of learning from errors, either yours or others’. Many have underestimates the rewards one may obtain from learning from errors. Errors are part of life and it is partly by learning from errors that we live. “”He who makes no mistakes makes nothing,”” so says an English proverb, and “”What is the use of making mistakes if you don’t make use of them?”” A theory famous among modern foreign-language educators goes thus: You cannot learn without goofing. Believe it or not, once you overcome your fear of making mistakes, you will feel more yourself and, lo,you learn faster.

The other skill in this strategy, self-evaluation, consists of one’s assessment of one’s own progress. Such self-evaluation may be in the form of simple questions such as “”Am I reading faster today?””, “”Did I understandthe lesson better today?””, “”How much have I learned of the 10 words I planned to learn when I set out this morning?””, and others. Evaluating one’s own learning makes one better prepared for tomorrow’s learning activities.

The fourth strategy is lowering anxiety. Strange but true, learning a foreign language involves a lot of feelings, and a good language learner isone who is aware of and able to control them. Just recall how you feel whenyou take an English test, face an interview, give a presentation, or simplysit in a group discussion. You may experience feelings ranging from excitement to fear or frustration. Whenever you feel bored, afraid or frustrated, be sure that you take time to control your emotions. There are a number of actions one can take to lower one’s anxiety in doing this. Progressive relaxation (muscle and body), deep breathing, music, and laughter are among these actions that are easy to do.

Another skill in this strategy is encouraging yourself that you can do it. Making positive statements is another action which gives you encouragement. When entering the testing room, for example, just whisper toyourself that the test will be a fun activity for you; that you will enjoy it, and that you will be able to pass it. Then, a good language learner is one who takes risks, and does so wisely. Life, in many aspects, is about risk taking. One who never dares to take risks is bound to lose good chances for success.

All these things done, we are left with one step: rewarding ourselves. From time to time we need to reward ourselves for work well done. It is allup to you what you want to do to make you feel appreciated. I would forget things and give myself a good four hours’ sleep when I feel that I deserve a reward after doing something fruitful.

Finally, the fifth strategy is taking your emotional temperature. The first skill in this strategy consists of “”listening”” to your body. You needto take the appropriate responses to worry, fear, anger, tiredness, and other physical conditions you may have at particular moments. Another skillis writing language diaries. Try this one, if you have never done it, and find how soothing it feels to “”talk”” to yourself, complain to yourself of how unfair the world has been treating you, or tell yourself what needs to be done. If this does not do you good, try the third skill: discussing yourfeelings with others. You have everybody around you, and it is a great catharsis to talk to these people about your problems.

The anonymous saying at the beginning of this article is what wise teachers will say when you ask them: What’s the best way to learning English? Arnold of Rugby has this to add, “”I became increasingly convinced that it is not knowledge, but the means of gaining knowledge, which I have to teach.”” The teacher is one thing, of course. However, it is especially you yourself who will be able to answer your questions.

The writer is a senior lecturer at the English Educational Department, Teachers’ Training Institute, Yogyakarta.

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

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