Bilingual education dilemma

Setiono Sugiharto ,  JAKARTA   |  Sat, 10/03/2009 2:05 PM  |  Opinion

The boom of so-called “national plus” schools in the country, which sell bilingual education programs, raises serious pedagogical and cultural concerns.

From the viewpoint of second-language acquisition, learners, particularly young learners, are severely disadvantaged as they are excessively imposed to the acquisition of other languages without respect to their own native or local languages.

From the cultural identity point of view, in learning foreign languages learners are often infused with other cultural traits they are not acquainted with, at the expense of their cultural heritages.

Young learners are the easy victims of both linguistic and cultural imperialism, for at this early age they have not yet had the ability to display any resistance or opposition toward any cultural and linguistic threats they face in the presence of dominant languages.

Certainly this is cause for concern that merits our attention in evaluating the mushrooming of bilingual education programs. It should be stated at the outset here that we have misconstrued both the goal and practice of bilingual education in the country.

Children learning foreign languages in bilingual education programs are language-minority children who are positioned as the oppressed and are often coerced to speak in foreign languages they are learning, resulting in well-known slogans such as “English-only policy” or maybe “Mandarin-only policy”.

The insistence on using the learned languages is a sort of “avoidance strategy” employed by the teachers to avoid the linguistic mismatch, which is believed to be detrimental in language learning.

The phenomenon of code switching or linguistic mixing among children who speak two languages is often seen as the manifestation of the linguistic mismatch.

It is deemed a negative interference that is harmful for the acquisition of foreign languages.

The labeled for mixing too often connotes something negative: language confusion and language instability. A more extreme view sees it as a cognitive handicap and a sign of aphasia.

A more serious misconception of bilingual education here is that bilingual education programs are construed as independent programs devoid of other intervening variables such as social, historical, psychological and ideological factors, as well as power-relation factors.

Needless to say, these are factors that have the potential to determine the failure or success of a bilingual program.

The ideal goal of bilingual education should embrace these factors. One viable way of doing so is to encourage children to learn foreign languages while at the same time maintaining their use of their native language.

That is to say, a child’s native language should serve as a solid foundation in learning other languages.

A substantial number of multidisciplinary studies has illuminated that the use of students’ native language facilitates the learning of foreign languages, as the former serves as important background knowledge to learn the latter.

Contrary to popular opinions that code switching is harmful, researches have confirmed that it is a normal bilingual specific behavior.

Rather than being a negative interference, code-switching has proven to be a creative strategy employed by a bilingual child in communication.

As the research evidence accumulates, confirming the positive impacts of the use of a child’s native language in academic achievements, linguistic mismatch has now become a myth.

A child’s cultural identity can also provide a strong support in their learning of foreign languages, as it is the basis for comparison of other cultural norms and values, hence enhancing children’s cross-cultural understanding.

The writer is editor-in-chief of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching, and a PhD candidate in applied linguistics from Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.

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