Int’l standard school and the fallacy of English acquisition

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 03/27/2010 12:39 PM  |  Opinion

The recent hullabaloo over the enforcement of the education ministry’s 2009 decree targeted at international and national schools with the label “international” only serves to highlight the fact that education will never be free from government intervention.

In an effort to ensure quality control, government intervention is mandatory to regulate the mushrooming practice of so-called national schools with “international” standards and to protect the basic rights of citizens to quality education.

As a regular legal process for school evaluation, the issuance of the decree should not be viewed as detrimental.

In the longtime absence of assessment of education practices offered mainly by privately run schools with the label “international”, the decree is a part of the government’s initiative to continually monitor the practice of schools offering international curricula.

The decree calls for the inclusion of such subjects as religion, civics and the Indonesian language in the curricula, all of which must be conducted in Indonesian.

From a purely political standpoint, the introduction of these subjects can be construed as one of the alternatives to helping boost the spirit of nationalism among students studying at international schools.

Viewing the practice of international education in the context of nation-building, deputy education minister Fasli Jalal, in an interview with The Jakarta Post (March 18), stated, “It is impossible for Indonesian students at international schools to have a strong national attachment to the country if they do not learn Indonesian, religion or civics.”

It is completely understandable that the enforcement of the decree has sparked confusion among educators.

The label “international” connotes the West, and as such school subjects must be conducted in English rather than Indonesian.

It may seem rather odd for us to figure out that the schools, which are ostensibly international in standard, use Indonesian as the language of instruction.

It is also important to note here that although many schools claim to run bilingual programs, in practice the use of English is favored over the use of the local students’ native language.

This is clearly motivated by business orientation. Issuing a policy of insisting local students use English (via teaching instruction in English) is more of a sell for parents who wish for their children to master conversational English.

Irrespective of the political motive, the clearest educational benefit we can reap from the 2009 ministerial decree lies in the inclusion of the students’ native language in the learning process.

Quality education in the students’ native language surely facilitates the acquisition of English. At first, this may sound counterintuitive.

Language specialists have, in fact, cast doubt on the facilitation effect, arguing that the psychological mechanism for such an effect is non-existent.

However, with insight from empirical research, we can be confident that English can be acquired in a bi-directional way. The rationale is quite simple. When we encourage students to learn and read civics, for instance, in their native language, we give them what American educator Stephen Krashen calls “the knowledge of the world and subject matter knowledge”.

Knowledge gained in the students’ primary language serves as background information and as such provides a shortcut for learning a second language.

In terms of literacy proficiency, a student highly proficient in reading in their primary language will eventually become proficient second-language readers.

Here, literacy transfer from the primary language to a secondary language takes place, the reason being that reading strategy applies universally from one language to another.

For students with limited English proficiency, reading in the primary language is much easier than reading in a language they are not familiar with.

There is no need to worry, however, that literacy proficiency in the primary language restrains literacy acquisition of the second language, given the universal reading strategies the students employ. Once you can read, Krashen says, you can read.

There is indeed a blessing in disguise in the enforcement of the decree, in that as the eventual goal of most international-standard schools here is the mastery of conversational English, the enforcement of using Indonesian in certain subjects can help speed up the acquisition of academic language in the students’ primary and secondary languages.

Research demonstrates that the acquisition of academic language is strongly related to the students’ literacy skills. The more literate a student is, the greater their acquisition of academic language. Taking a more extreme view, we can say that literacy proficiency is the basic condition for the acquisition of academic language.

In addition to empowering students with solid background knowledge necessary for the acquisition of academic language in English, competence in the first language is believed to contribute to an awareness of biculturalism; that is, an avoidance of the state of “bicultural ambivalence”, shame of the students’ own culture and rejection of other’s cultures.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta and chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.

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