Pragmatism in British schools

A. Chaedar Alwasilah, Canterbury, England | Opinion | Sat, December 22 2012, 2:31 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

The fact that English has become the world’s most important foreign language to learn in schools is indicative of its outstanding contribution to the world’s civilization. Such a contribution must have very solid educational grounds.

Those wishing the Indonesian language to be a lingua franca in the region, say, within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) community, should emulate how English has been taught as the first language in its native land.

In England, English is a core school curriculum, which is always subject to controversial discussion and has been “something of a battleground for years” (Fleming and Stevens: 2010). As everybody speaks the language naturally, they may feel they have expertise to talk about it. Such an attitude is less evident toward subjects such as mathematics and science.

I was fortunate to take a sabbatical leave in Canterbury, England, during which I managed to observe primary and secondary English lessons, interview pupils, teachers, head teachers, prospective teachers and lecturers in initial English teacher training programs. While it is impossible to generalize teaching approaches, methods and techniques across the whole country, nonetheless I would like to share the most remarkable characteristics to ponder.

First, while the curriculum is standardized, teaching methods are impossible to standardize. Teachers are trained to play it safe in interpreting the national curriculum on one hand and accommodating pupils’ needs on the other hand.

As Simon (1994) puts it, there is no pedagogy in England. In England, education has not been considered a prestigious field of study — different from, say, economics, science, etc.

When it comes to education, British teachers seem to believe in pragmatism, where there is no single approach, method, or technique more dominant than the others. Pragmatism allows teachers to use any approach, method, or technique that fits pupils well. However, being pragmatic should not be perceived as a weakness. Instead, it is one of the strengths that has made British education stand out.

Second, English teachers are generally literature-minded people. “When I was child, I loved reading almost anything,” said a primary education major who wants to teach very young children. Teaching English in British schools is tantamount to teaching pupils to gush with a love for literature.

In English classes, it is typical to see a primary teacher — surrounded by pupils — telling a story, which they will read by themselves later in higher grades. The rule is to listen and enjoy the story. Absolutely, story-telling is a requisite part of expertise all language teachers must have.

Third, literature is the stepping stone for learning other aspects of language. While enjoying a storybook or novel, pupils unconsciously decode symbols such as punctuation marks and grammar. Almost all teachers are practitioners of the “literature for teaching grammar” philosophy. Obviously, literature takes precedence over grammar.

By contrast, the majority of language teachers in Indonesia are linguistics or grammar-oriented. You will find more language teachers who prefer teaching grammar to literature. A similar trend is common at colleges. Across the faculties of language and humanities (education), you will find more lecturers who prefer teaching linguistics
to literature.

Fourth, English classes are highly directed toward writing proficiency. A typical English assignment is to ask pupils to read literary pieces and to report to the teacher and the class. In other words, pupils are trained to do literary criticism orally first and in writing second. This mainstream practice of teaching has led to a sound level of literacy, namely a balanced ability to read and write.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia the predominant form of language testing is objective tests. Pupils are trained to choose the correct option and avoid the distracters. It is true that this kind of test challenges pupils’ intellectual ability, but it categorically lacks the rigor to promote creativity. Simply, it does not promote writing ability.

Fifth, considering the wide range of content in literature — from classic to modern or contemporary literature — and its exceptional place in the school curriculum, it seems that English, more than perhaps any other subject can have an extremely humanizing effect (Davies 1996).

From Davies’ survey, English teachers believe it is their duty to do the following: To enrich the child’s experience and to broaden his horizon through literature, to stimulate his imagination, to awaken his sensitivity to human emotions, to help him think for himself and to be able to confront the pressure of the mass media, to develop in the child a sense of tolerance and understanding, to develop a sense of social awareness and to realize their full potential in the broad field entitled “English”.

These teaching commitments show their belief as “the badges of the faithful” to British culture and the humanities in general. It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to describe English teachers as the guardians of British culture.

From the discussion above there are some lessons for language teachers and educators in general in Indonesia. Government officials from the Education and Culture Ministry have reiterated the intention to revitalize Indonesian as part of the core primary school curriculum.

By emulating the British system of teaching English, we expect that Indonesian language teachers would become guardians of Indonesian literature in particular and culture in general.

The writer, a professor at UPI, Bandung , was a visiting researcher at Christ Church University, Canterbury, England.

Linguistic imperialism vs human rights

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, December 22 2012, 1:42 PM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

The recent report on the moribund state of Sekak — a vernacular spoken by the Sea Tribe People of the Bangka Belitung province — is only one piece of evidence that evinces the possible demise of the nation’s local geniuses.

With only 150 adult speakers over the age of 35, (Kompas, Nov. 20), and while the threshold level of a survived language should reach 100,000 speakers, this vernacular will slowly but surely vanish in the future.

It has been reported that the primary reason for the decreasing use of the language is due to the fact that young speakers prefer to communicate in the Bangka-Belitung-Malay dialect with their families. In a situation where one language is preferred over another due to its acclaimed status as a unified language or a language of national identity, linguistic imperialism can come into play.

First introduced by English linguist Robert Phillipson, linguistic imperialism — as one form of linguicism (analogous to racism and sexism) — creates inequalities in terms of power and culture between languages.

Therefore, in the case of Sekak vernacular and other countless vernaculars spoken in many provinces in Indonesia, these vernaculars are often stigmatized and suppressed in favor of Indonesian (derived from a Malay dialect) as a national language. This showcases a specific instance of linguistic imperialism.

In the Indonesian context, linguistic imperialism can be either externally or internally driven in a contact language situation. Externally-driven linguistic imperialism occurs due to the vociferous promotion of Indonesian as a unified language and the primary language used in school instruction. The obligatory use of Indonesian in schools among students from multilingual backgrounds exemplifies this kind of linguistic imperialism. Another instance is the exposure to print environments like mass media, which vehemently uses the norms of correct and good Indonesian.

Internally-driven linguistic imperialism, by contrast, takes place when a speaker of one language vernacular (first language) admirably recognizes the superior status of Indonesian (second language) as a lingua franca within the nation over his/her first language and shifts his/her preferences to the second language, thereby excluding his/her first language in daily communication with peers and family.

Admittedly, it is the former kind of linguistic imperialism that is most tangible. The latter is actually the psychological manifestation of the former.

Yet, linguistic imperialism should not be understood narrowly as the dominant and hegemonic use of Indonesian over its vernaculars. The fact that one vernacular is dominantly used or regarded as prestigious for cultural and political reasons and excludes, and suppresses other vernaculars can also be considered linguistic imperialism.

It seems sensible to say that most vernacular languages in Indonesia, given their limited numbers of native speakers and their ancillary status, belong to minority languages that are prone to subjugation and exclusion.

Despite efforts to upgrade their status as equal to Indonesian and foreign languages, these efforts rarely receive support from the state. Also, their existence is hardly recognized, let alone preserved through various documentations.

Unlike gender, race and religion, all of which constitute fundamental aspects of human rights whose existence must be respected and acknowledged, language is seldom considered an essential trait that should not be subjugated and marginalized.

Yet, concomitant to the acknowledgement of equality in terms of gender, race, and religion, the rights of minority languages along with their speakers have now been loudly voiced through research in the area of linguistic human rights.

Of greater relevance to the use of one’s native language in education is what is known as educational linguistic human rights, which appreciates and respects the students’ rights and freedoms to use their native languages in the context of school.

An important insight from this that deserves serious attention is that it has been argued that educational human rights can serve as a way to prevent linguistic imperialism and to promote positive policies related to minority languages.

In the absence of policies on minority languages, insights from research on educational human rights certainly offer valuable input on the conservation of local geniuses long neglected by the government. The problem, however, is whether we have political will and are committed to investing serious effort into doing so.

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