The high failure rate on the Indonesian language section of the national exam (UN) raises serious concerns, because it mirrors the irony of the pride of using Indonesian as an official national language in education.
This case attests to the failure of native language education in cultivating the passion of promoting the use of Indonesian amid a burgeoning demand for English — a language accorded superior status and high prestige. This is further exacerbated by the focus on establishing international standard project schools (RSBI), which impel students and teachers to use English as the medium of instruction.
With the obsession of internationalizing (some would call it Westernizing) local education, performing well on the English language exam and obtaining a good grade brings a sense of pride among students. Yet this is not the case when the students do well on the Indonesian language exam.
Thus, English proficiency has become the main goal in language education in schools. A good command of this language evokes a feeling of modernity and prestige as well as security for future career options.
A decreasing sense of pride in learning Indonesian among school learners, as evidenced in the failure rate in this language, seems to have sprung from at least three factors.
First, the Indonesian language has been infamously learned and tested in national exams merely in terms of its formal properties (i.e. the understanding of rules), rather than in terms of its functional properties (i.e. its meaningfulness as a conduit for critical expression and exploration).
The former has no communicative relevance for most learners, and students exposed to such formal rules will likely find this emphasis to conflict with their needs. Rather than being used as a communicative medium for self-exploration to promote local culture and challenge the dominance of English, the language is reduced to the learning of rules.
Second, the ascriptions accorded to English always connote a positive image. For example, English is often thought of as the world’s language, an international language, a language of science and technology, and a language of wider communication. This creates the impression that Indonesian is inferior to English, and spoken only as a (traditional) national language in the countryside.
Third, and related to the second point, there seems to be a gradual shift of attitudes toward a language that students feel can represent their social status as a modern society. This shift can be ascribed to the charm the English language possesses.
In the long term, the shift of preferences, motivated partly by the internationalization of local schools, to the English language will cause a language change. This is a natural phenomenon when two languages (Indonesian and English) come in direct contact.
In this situation, it is highly likely that the two languages are in contest, and that language speakers’ attitudes are conditioned and then shaped by the language considered to evoke prestige and modernity.
Although contact among languages is inevitable, the domination of one language over another can still be prevented and even resisted, should there be strenuous efforts from related parties to do so.
In the school context, the challenge for language education in the country lies in how to resist this domination so as to foster bilingualism among learners. Some suggestions follow.
Native language education surely needs reorientation. Instead of insisting on learning the rules, it should aim at the exploration of not only students’ critical thoughts, but also critical practice. This can be carried out by giving students room to express their personal opinions and counter other opinions, both orally and in written form. Language education then should serve as a mechanism for this exploration to occur.
In addition, the prevailing assumption that learners’ native language inhibits the process of learning other languages should be demystified. Teachers need to help their learners understand that their native language (i.e. Indonesian) can strengthen their linguistic ability to learn other languages including English.
Students also need to be informed that solid knowledge of their native language and culture becomes a powerful basis in challenging and even appropriating the dominant language.
In an era when linguistic diversity has become increasingly acknowledged and when student’s linguistic rights have been respected, the inculcation of strategies for negotiating and even challenging hegemonic forces of dominant language through native language education looks promising. In so doing, we can encourage learners to take great pride in learning the Indonesian language.
The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta. He is the chief editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.