Is omitting English a solution?

Nugrahenny T. Zacharias, Salatiga, Central Java | Opinion | Sat, November 03 2012, 10:29 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

When reading the article recently posted in The Jakarta Post “Govt to omit English from primary schools”, I could not help but think of my 3-year-old son Ben.

If the government scraps English in the elementary school curriculum, schools that provide alternative inputs for English acquisition will disappear and eventually the possibility of acquiring English formally for young learners like Ben will be wiped out.

From the article and the discourse surrounding the plan, the underlying reason for such a drastic curriculum revamp is unclear, if not empirically unfounded.

Deputy Education and Culture Minister for Education Musliar Kasim stated two primary reasons for the omission. First is because “elementary school students haven’t even learned to understand the Indonesian language yet” and second, it is because the growing trend in teaching English in kindergartens.

When skimming the articles as to why this move came about, one thing is obvious that the policy is simply based on assumptions.

The government assumes that children cannot learn two or three languages at the same time and thus, the teaching of English needs to be postponed until they have mastered Indonesian, although this might be hard to measure.

The concern about English exposure that might lead to low Indonesian proficiency, or lack of it, looks understandable. In a country with hundreds of local languages, a strong lingua franca, Indonesian, is crucial to unify the many ethnic groups and local languages.

Second, although not stated in the article, there has been a widespread belief that the enthusiasm to learn English, especially in big cities, might correlate to low nationalism. Those who speak English or code-switch between Indonesian and English are deemed to have a relatively lower nationalism than those who only speak Indonesian.

The new focus on character education for elementary school students also shows fear that exposure to English might adversely affect the characters of young Indonesian learners. Implied in the belief is a one-dimensional view of language and identities, which insists that cultivating good Indonesian citizens can only be done through the teaching and learning of the Indonesian language.

However, being immersed in an English-only culture while I was pursuing a PhD degree in the US taught me otherwise.

It was during my time in the US, surrounded predominantly by monolingual English speakers and the English-language culture that I felt truly Indonesian. In fact, my heightened awareness of being an Indonesian sparked a fear of losing my Indonesian self and the Indonesian language. This phenomenon is supported by David Nunan and Julia Choi, two notable linguists.

In their recently published book Language and Culture: Reflective Narratives and the Emergence of Identity, they say that “most people are unaware of their culture or identity until they are confronted with other cultures and identities”.

My experience, as well as Nunan and Choi’s argument, may challenge the one-dimensional view of one language, one identity the education ministry is adopting. Exposure to other languages, including English, in elementary schools may instead strengthen students’ characters as Indonesians.

I support inclusion of English in elementary schools also because I believe children can learn more than one language at once as literature on bilingualism and multilingualism has convincingly shown.

Chomsky attributed the flexibility children acquire languages in early age to the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in their brains and thus, believes that children have the “innate” ability to learn languages.

So, should English in elementary schools remain? My answer is yes and no. Yes, elementary schools (in this case public schools) need to continue to offer English as a school subject or, if possible, medium of instruction.

The New York Times (Oct. 28, 2012) published a study titled “Low English levels can hurt countries’ progress” by Charles Anderson, who says that countries with poor English-language commands tend to have lower levels of trade, innovation and income.

The report concludes that English is a key to innovation and competitiveness. However, my strong belief in our children’s need for English does not mean that English teaching and learning in elementary schools should not be reevaluated and revisited.

As a mother, I do not want my children to grow up speaking fluent English but unable to speak Indonesian and dishonoring Indonesian values and ethics.

There is a need to renew paradigms in English-language teaching departments, which produce English teachers. The teaching of English is not a medium to emulate Western values and cultures but to use English to promote our culture and values to the world, or the so-called English as International Language (EIL) pedagogy.

The initiative to scrap English from public elementary schools evinces evidence of the government’s lack of awareness of the way English is now taught and presented in the classroom.

Omitting English, especially because of mere assumptions, is not the way to develop competence in Indonesian or to enhance desirable characteristics in young Indonesian learners.

The writer, a Fulbright scholar, completed her PhD in Composition and TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). She teaches at the faculty of language and literature, Satya Wacana Christian University, Salatiga.

Will the real language policy stand up?

Fenty Lidya Siregar, Wellington | Opinion | Sat, November 03 2012, 7:42 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The Education and Culture Ministry’s plan to scrap English from the elementary school curriculum has highlighted a number of pros and cons. Despite the controversy, I personally agree with the government’s policy.

However, will the real language policy stand up? Bernard Spolsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics in Bar-Ilan University’s department of English, employed the same question as one of the subheadings of his book Language Policy.

I think this is a question that our government and people have to answer, especially about the status of English in the overall language education policy of Indonesia.

According to Spolsky (2004), language policy consists of three elements, namely language practice, which focuses on how language practices are done; language management, which means any form of formulation or proclamation of an explicit plan or policy to modify or influence a language practice; and language beliefs, which are the beliefs about language and language use that lie behind each policy.

He adds that language policy is also about choice. Should this choice be formulated in the form of laws or explicit policies, it will remain a dream until there is an agreement of language beliefs among all stakeholders.

In the case of dropping English at the elementary school level in Indonesia, the success of the policy’s implementation will not depend solely on the government’s choice, but also the practices and language beliefs of the community.

What are our community’s language beliefs? Do we believe that learning English should start early since the earlier one starts to learn a language the better? Is it true? I think many people will say that is true. Well, I think it is not true in the context of Indonesia, especially for this moment.

First, in the Indonesian context, starting to learn English at the elementary level is not about a choice to learn early or not, but it is about preparing all the things needed prior to that start.

Andy Kirkpatrick, a professor of English as an international language at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, states that it is not necessary to start teaching English early in order to gain a high proficiency. He also argues that it is actually harmful to start teaching English too early in the great majority of ASEAN contexts as there are inadequate resources, a chronic and severe lack of suitably qualified and linguistically proficient teachers and the learning environment is anything but supportive. I think Indonesia also fits within these contexts.

Second, most of the time teaching of English comes at the expense of something else, particularly local languages and cultures. Many parents send their children to an international school that uses English as its medium of instruction or bilingual schools so that their children can speak English with American or British accents. Thus, these children are prepared to sacrifice fluency and literacy in their first or national language for English proficiency.

I used to teach in a private kindergarten and all the pupils in that school learned English from kindergarten level A, or the lowest level at that school, but they never learned any local languages.

Their parents were so happy when their children spoke English all the time. I often questioned why these parents were so proud when they themselves could not communicate with their children in English due to their own low English proficiency. I do not blame these parents because family language policy is also about one’s choice. They can also afford the international school fees for their children’s education.

Nevertheless, do these parents realize that learning a language is not about learning a language but it is purposely to be able to communicate with other people?

Most Indonesians do not use English daily. We communicate in Indonesian or another mother tongue. For most Indonesians, the Indonesian language is not their first language due to the widespread use of other local languages.

I agree with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the first language serves as a bridge to literacy and fluency in the second and third language. It will not get in the way of learning a second language or a foreign language. He adds that ensuring children to gain both literacy and fluency in their first language is an excellent investment in their linguistic future.

Thus, omitting English from elementary school curriculum in Indonesia does not mean ending the children’s future. Should the time spent for teaching of English be used to enhance the children’s proficiency in their mother tongue and grow their love of their culture, it will not be in vain.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the school of linguistics and applied language studies at Victoria University, Wellington