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In an interview with The Jakarta Post (Sept. 17), noted education specialist H.A.R Tilaar lamented the government’s ignorance in instilling local cultural values and traditions in children during the early stage of learning. Tilaar’s concerns on the importance of local traditions emanates from a fetish of the Education and Culture Ministry for Western-oriented education.
His warning of an invasion of schools to promote English and other cultures at the expense of a student’s native language and culture is opportune, given the House of Representatives’ plans to revise the Law on Education. One item needing revision is the nation’s early childhood education system.
Without a doubt, efforts to preserve local traditions, culture and language must start from early stages of learning through either formal or informal education. Early childhood education can lay a strong foundation for children to acknowledge their identity, cultural traditions and language.
A strong sense of culture and language is imperative to counter the possible hegemonic forces of other languages and cultures that can suppress and even stigmatize local cultures and languages.
Amid strong political and linguistic pressures that have seeped into early childhood education, empowering children through local language education is highly relevant.
For one thing, local language education has the power to shape children’ attitudes, so they will be poised to resist and to critically interrogate discourses of contemporary globalization by virtue of their own linguistic and cultural traditions.
It can also prevent the stigmatization of local traditions and languages from inimical constructs generated by global, powerful discourses. It is these discourses that have strong and powerful influences on the minority communities to shift their own cultures and languages to other cultures and languages which have more global impacts.
Sociological studies of language have shed light on language and cultural shifts, attributing these shifts to school language, government pressures and higher prestige for the language being shifted to, among other things.
The current demands for the internationalization of education at all levels of school can lead to the imposition of hegemonic thinking and eventual language and cultural shift that do children from minority cultural and language backgrounds a great disservice.
Evidence shows that these shifts put the cultures and languages of minority communities on the verge of peril, thus exacerbating the ecology of cultural and language diversity.
The domination of certain languages used in the classroom as a medium of instruction could be taken as an attempt to control diversity with a preference for uniformity. With current educational practices favoring internationalization through the promotion of English, there is a tendency to restrain diversity by promoting this language as a language with more superior, prestigious and higher status than the students’ own languages.
It thus seems incumbent on policy makers to reclaim the importance of what anthropologists call “local knowledge”. This can be done by revisiting and rethinking the 1951 UNESCO report on the use of student mother tongues as a medium of instruction in schools.
The report stipulates that a child’s mother tongue is the best medium for teaching on the grounds that psychologically learning is more meaningful and comprehensible when conducted in the child’s mother tongue, that sociologically a child’s mother tongue is an expression of identity and that educationally learning becomes easier when conducted in a familiar linguistic system.
Globalization in education, especially in childhood education, shouldn’t be taken to mean that the epicenter of authoritativeness of knowledge traditions lies geopolitically exclusively in the West. It may be the case that the educational constructs and norms borrowed from these traditions are useful for the advancement of early childhood education in the local context, but this doesn’t imply wholesale adaptation.
We cannot assume these constructs and norms apply universally in all contexts. In practice, there may be clashes in ideology that needs to be discerned. The challenges we are facing then are related to how we can recognize these ideological clashes, narrow the gaps these clashes may create, and pluralize the monolingual English norms by infusing local norms and values. Only by doing so can we strengthen our early childhood education.
The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He is also chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.