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.

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