Cutting a foreign tongue?

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, October 20 2012, 11:37 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The reasoning for the scrapping of English initially articulated by Deputy Education and Culture Minister for Education Musliar Kasim has brought out more cons than pros. As part of the curriculum revamp, the hasty decision to exclude English lessons — currently a mandatory subject in primary schools — has been vermently opposed by many, as evidenced in the readers’ forum of this newspaper (see Oct. 16 and 17 issues).

This strong reaction against the abolition of English in primary schools is quite understandable. English language teaching (ELT) has enjoyed a long history in this country, dating back to the Dutch colonial period, and the values of the language have seeped into almost every domain of people’s life. Education is no exception.

Omission of English from the curriculum is as harmful for our relationships with developed countries which value English over other foreign languages — Australia, the United States, India to name but three. Opposing English is tantamount to opposing globalization and modernity.

It is not surprising to see that most, if not all, the comments in The Jakarta Post’s readers’ forum are very pro-English and full of well-worn labels such as “lingua franca”, “the window of the world”, “world language” and “the language of wider communication”.

These positive attitudes to English demonstrate people’s awareness of the importance of the language of global access. They also show that people don’t want to be excluded and isolated from the advancement of science and technology dominated by the English language.

Conversely, and somewhat paradoxically, these attitudes show people’s (perhaps unconscious) willingness to allow the hegemony of English to dominate their thinking.

Musliar Kasim’s contention that the omission of English provides an opportunity to master the Indonesian language (The Jakarta Post, Oct. 12) seems, at first sight, to hit the nail on the head, if linguistic hegemony is to be resisted.

The deputy minister’s argument implies the promotion of monolingualism through increased exposure to the Indonesian language at school.

There seems to be resistance to linguistic hegemony behind the call to scratch English from the school curriculum and declare it haram.

If enacted, the policy could backfire, promulgating a new form of hegemony in multilingual, multiracial Indonesian society.

Indonesia is replete with vernacular varieties. History shows that the plummet in use of local languages was down to the zealous imposition of the Indonesian language, primarily through schooling. Clearly, proscribing the use of English in schools and even declaring it haram is an extreme form of resistance, and what lesson does it give to school children?

The case of the English language resistance in Malaysia through the promotion of the “Malay-Only” policy should serve as a lesson for us. Despite calls for using Malay as the national language — a symbol of national unity — and for banning the use of English particularly in education, most Malaysian scholars found the policy counter-productive, not only because it impairs Malaysians intellectually, but also because it has the potential to marginalize other locally spoken languages such as Tamil and Chinese.

In essence, the Malay monolingualist policy is incompatible with the spirit of modernity and tolerance of language groups in the country.

It is clear then that scrapping English from the school curriculum raises more problems than it solves. English lessons are still needed for young students, but with a new goal. This goal is only feasible if we admit that language teaching is political, not neutral or value-free, and that classroom is a manifestation of “cultural politics”.

Rather than simply glorifying the values of English and telling students that learning English offers massive benefits to their future lives, it is far more urgent to help them challenge language by exploiting and appropriating it by virtue of their identities, cultural norms and values, and tradition.

This may sound like a lofty ideal, but with a high commitment to boosting the quality of language education in the country our efforts are more likely to yield fruitful results.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.

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