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Public responses to the government’s plan to remove English from primary schools vary. Basically, there are two opposing views: the nationalist view and the global view. The former supports the government’s move on the following grounds.
First, primary school ages are golden ages for developing pupils’ love and appreciation toward the Indonesian language. All over the world, the early years of schooling are understood to be very critical for teaching the first language.
Second, primary schooling is aimed at developing students’ character. Respect, deference, discipline, tolerance, love, sensitivity and a sense of beauty are culture-laden, and to be specific they should be first-culture laden.
Third, for the majority of pupils in this multicultural nation, Indonesian is the second language, their mother tongue being an ethnic or local language.
Ostensibly for the majority of pupils here, English is in fact a third language.
Nationalists criticize the globalists for speaking for the minority and ignoring the majority. When three languages are spontaneously learned, the pupils are confused by a barrage of linguistic input. This linguistic confusion does not lead to effective learning.
There is evidence that the current teaching of English in primary schools is far from satisfactory. My survey, as reported in this paper (The Jakarta Post, May 19) with English teacher respondents in West Java, Banten and Jakarta, revealed that most elementary teacher respondents (58 percent) had neither English language backgrounds nor any training in English for young learners.
According to the current policy, English is a mandatory local content subject for grades 4-6. However, many schools introduce English to grades 1-3. Despite the lack of resources, the show goes on to please parents.
In other words, the exclusion of English from primary schools should not have generated such public objections. In general, the pupils do not get enough learning from English classes.
The nationalists believe it is better for primary schoolchildren to concentrate on learning the Indonesian language rather than a foreign language. First-language mastery is a head start for second- or third-language mastery.
The globalists, on the other hand, hold that English is the world’s most important language for science and technology. They argue that it should be introduced to primary school pupils. If the argument is for the mastery of science and technology, teaching primary English is not the answer.
Teaching and learning in primary schools is play-based. Learning Indonesian meaningfully is the surest way to decode the linguistic symbols for understanding textbooks on various imminent school subjects, such as geography, science, math, etc. in secondary school.
All secondary textbooks are written in Indonesian, and this is the way it should be. Indonesian should be promoted as a language of science technology, especially for high school children.
Practically speaking, students do not read English textbooks and other printed media for science and technology until they go to college. In other words, what is essential for primary pupils is to develop a strong love of reading.
National education should promote Indonesian as the national language. It also means using the language for intellectualization. Both the developmental and intellectual effects of language are transparent but nowhere are they more powerful than in school settings.
At this juncture, it would be wise to compare how the British National Curriculum for English guides teachers to carry out their tasks. The following guides are also relevant for teaching Indonesian language as a core subject here.
First, a personal growth view. Through language, pupils are encouraged to be creative and imaginative individuals. Reading fiction, travel writing and writing creative works are the right pathway to personal development.
Second, a cross-curricular approach is adopted. All school subjects are facilitated by the medium of the Indonesian language — a fact that tends to be easily accepted by many.
It positively means that all teachers become language models for their pupils to emulate.
In primary schools, where teachers teach almost all subjects by using a topic-based approach, they can teach almost anything related to social studies, science, mathematics, civics, the arts and so on.
Third, an adult needs emphasis. This is relevant particularly for high school students. Beyond school, graduates will have to work for a living, where they will communicate with different people from different backgrounds.
Pedagogically, language teachers should teach pupils how to communicate effectively, including the mastery of vocation-based language forms.
Fourth, a cultural heritage model is adopted. Every nation takes pride in its own great works of literature. By engaging primary pupils with Indonesian children’s literature, children will potentially read great literary works later on in life. Creativity does not come from nowhere. Reading fiction will open an otherwise locked door to creativity.
Fifth, a cultural analysis view. At an appropriate age, pupils should be encouraged to be critical of the social and cultural context of the Indonesian language, particularly the value systems that are necessarily embedded in our culture.
The writer, a professor at the Indonesia University of Education (UPI), Bandung, is currently a visiting researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University, England.