Should English be taught at primary level?

Mochamad Subhan Zein ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 11/15/2008 10:58 AM  |  Opinion

English has been very influential in Asia’s language educational policies and practices for the past couple of years. Assuming children’s superiority in language learning over that of adults, many Asian countries believe that introducing English to primary students is considerably important to ensure their success.

Whereas English is a compulsory subject in Singapore and the Philippines, the language has been used as a medium of instruction for teaching mathematics and science at primary levels in Malaysia since 2003. The same policy is also implemented by India and Pakistan who use English as an official language and introduce it to the children.

Together with China, Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea, Japan is committed to providing access to primary levels students to learn English.

We cannot see the same enthusiasm in Indonesia, however. There is no foreign language policy during this time that can equip children with English in order to take part in the global competition. That means English is inaccessible to most Indonesian children.

Early foreign language learning programs need to be introduced as a means of giving every child access — whether by making English a compulsory subject or by using it as a medium of instruction.

Before the policy is established, it is therefore worth considering questions such as: When will we introduce it? What kind of curriculum can be implemented? What kind of teaching method is better? How many teachers are needed? How can we recruit them? How can we make sure they are good enough to teach?

If a policy is introduced, we also need to consider the consequences to the maintenance of the national language. Is there any harm caused to the vernaculars? What about the learning facilities and materials? What are the considerations in terms of financial matters? Is it affordable? How many contact hours should be provided?

Of all those questions, the major challenge that appears in the implementation of the policy is providing enough qualified teachers.

Because the quality of the teachers determines the quality of the students, it is reasonable to rely on language teacher education or teacher training.

When that kind of teacher training program can be provided is a serious concern for the program’s continuity. There is no point in providing such a program if there is no continuity, because it will not cater to teachers’ emerging understanding of the nature of language teaching and learning. It is expected that the training initiated will produce qualified teachers who can provide rich language learning experiences and facilitate oral language acquisition for the learners.

Another issue that should also be addressed is the number of teachers needed. Providing enough English teachers to 135,768 public primary schools from Aceh to Papua is very difficult, given the fact that many schools in rural areas do not have English teachers at all. Here it is worth noting the possibility of hiring native English speakers to provide rich learning experiences and interactions.

Although employing native speakers may appear to be a big financial expense, this idea is affordable. A possible strategy is to initiate exchange student programs or scholarship programs with English-speaking countries, i.e., the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In exchange for their time devoted to part-time teaching at primary levels, participants of the program can study at an Indonesian university and obtain full exemption of tuition fees. They also could receive a good monthly stipend as a living allowance.

With this program in place, not only would it ensure the opportunity for students to have a rich experience with native English speakers but it also would be an innovative way to market Indonesian tourism potential to foreigners.

On the other hand, recruiting local teachers remains a priority.

Universities such as Satya Wacana Christian University and the University of Indonesia are well known for their reputation of producing top graduates in English language and literature. Other universities which offer English majors such as The State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and Yogyakarta National University can also take part. Those universities can initiate cooperation with the government to contribute to the availability of qualified English teachers who are likely to be near-native.

Under a contractual or even full-time employment basis, the newly hired local teachers could be placed in Indonesia’s rural areas to provide rich learning opportunities for the children.

Having examined the importance of English in globalization, a serious action that can equip children with English is necessary to be taken. Once the political will is there, consideration in providing enough qualified teachers deserves full attention, and perhaps the most serious attention.

The writer is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Arts and Humanities, The State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta. He is currently enrolled a postgraduate program in TESOL at the University of Canberra, Australia. He can be reached at freemark2twain@yahoo.com

Inter (cultural) national education: Implications for teaching English composition

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 10:59 AM  |  Supplement

International education, an ubiquitous catchphrase in education today, implies intercultural education, the features of which emphasize cross-cultural understanding, tolerance, heterogeneity, appreciation, plurality and inclusiveness.

However, unless critically scrutinized, these features will become meaningless traits that try only to deceive people for the sake of quenching the thirst for capital.

In the case of English writing pedagogy, for instance, teachers of writing still cling to the prevalent monolingualist assumptions that conceive foreign students’ rhetorical convention (i.e. the way one organizes reality) as a big hindrance, hence interference, for the successful attainment of English writing convention.

Their teaching practice is still dominantly shaped by this assumption, perpetuating the privileged status of English rhetorical convention as if it were the most superior to other rhetorical conventions.

There is no other way of emulating English rhetorical convention, except for the students to strictly conform to this convention and discard their way of organizing written thoughts. This is reflected in the textbooks used for the teaching of writing in English, which exclusively adhere to English rhetoric.

Within the framework of inter (cultural) national education, such an imposition to acquiring English rhetorical convention certainly runs counter to the idea of inclusiveness and cross-cultural sensitivity.

On the contrary, it disseminates stereotypes, creating an image of the supremacy of English rhetoric to other rhetorical conventions typical in every culture. It also reinforces the idea of cultural hegemony and exclusiveness.

Such stereotypes are indeed real and widespread among writing teachers who are mostly non-native English speakers, but are pedagogically and politically unarmed to resist the dominant monolingualist assumptions.

English rhetorical convention, for example, is described as direct, linear, systematic and logical, while Asian’s is infamously labeled as circular, digressive, non-systematic and full of extraneous narrative. The latter is to be avoided at all costs when one is writing in English, and the former is to be conformed as the sole norm.

International students — students from multilingual, multiethnic and multicultural backgrounds — who study in universities overseas are often accused of not being academically ready at best, and intellectually deficient at worst when they write an English academic prose in a way that is not considered linear and direct by their professors.

In a context radically different from theirs, these students are both linguistically and culturally conditioned to write to meet the expectations of their new audiences who share distinct rhetorical conventions.

However, inter (cultural) national education, which values heterogeneity, opposes the idea of imposing specific written conventions on students from diverse cultural backgrounds. It strongly rejects a fixed and static understanding of language and cultural identity. It resists the dominance of exclusive ideology used as a basis for teaching written language.

In writing pedagogy, inter (cultural) national education legitimizes different rhetorical conventions the students bring from their home culture. Inter-linguistic/cultural influence in writing in English is not deemed deviant. Instead, it is seen as a valuable resource that demonstrates the vitality and dynamism of language and culture.

The implications of inter (cultural) national education in teaching particularly English composition in whatever contexts it takes place are then obvious.

First, it will be no more relevant to exhort the student to emulate, for example, linearity in organizing written ideas if they are not accustomed to writing using such a convention in their native languages. Such exhortation denies the uniqueness of students’ cultural identity inherent in individual students.

Second, differences in rules and thought pattern organization in written language are not an unwitting error. Students have a variety of strategies in trying what they want to say in order to achieve an effective communicative purpose. Thus, different text constructions can be seen as a depiction of students’ creativity motivated by cultural and ideological considerations.

Third, instead of teaching students to focus mainly on adhering rules and rhetorical convention, teachers’ main task now is to equip students with effective communicative strategies of rhetorical negotiations. Writing is not just simply a matter of text construction, but it is also a way of expressing one’s identities, values and interest. Equipped with these strategies, students are poised to challenge the dominant convention, resist it or modify it to suit their own communicative purposes.

Finally, there should be a flexible means of responding to students’ written products. Overzealous attitude of imposing a single correct standard to be adhered to can stifle a student’s creativity in communicating intended messages.

Admittedly, cross-cultural writing poses a great challenge for teachers of writing. Not only does it require them to understand the complexities of multilingual students’ composing processes, but it also demands that they be ready to accept possible alternatives of style, tone and convention in writing, which may be radically different from English writing convention.

-The writer is chief editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.

English teaching needs revisiting

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 03/17/2007 4:07 PM  |  Opinion

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

On Feb. 14, Kompas reported that Indonesian children must be equipped with basic English skills in order to have confidence in international interactions. To enable elementary students to be able to communicate in English, the Education Minister will soon try out teaching elementary school English using local content, mainly in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Medan and Denpasar.

The idea of fostering elementary learners to be fluent in a foreign language, especially English, is certainly not a revolutionary one. English lessons are mandated under the national curriculum. Yet its objective, emphasis, as well as its real implementation in schools has remained unclear. The extent to which teaching materials are available and support learning remain equally unclear.

What seems conspicuous is that the English proficiency of many elementary school leavers is a far cry from what is expected. This being the case, one might wonder who should be blamed for the low quality of English language teaching in the country.

Rather than seeking scapegoats, it would be judicious to reflect upon the sources that inhibit the teaching of basic English skills.

To start with, the vaguely formulated curriculum has distorted the implementation of English teaching in elementary schools. School teachers have no clear guidance on the syllabus they employ, what textbooks they are to use, and how they are to assess students’ language performance. Put simply, the programs are not clear.

The problems are further exacerbated by the paucity of higher learning institutions that offer training specializing in teaching English to beginners. The corollary is that teachers at these institution receive little training to develop their professional enterprise to the full.

It has become an axiom that to optimally assist learners in learning and acquiring a language as well as successfully interacting with their peers, a highly skilled teacher is required.

Given the peculiar nature of young language learners, it becomes especially true that teaching them calls for special skill, which can be obtained only through specific training, the curriculum of which is exclusively and specifically designed for young learners.

One could argue, however, that a teacher needs a sound knowledge of a language for him or her to be able to teach effectively. This definitely sounds true, but a linguistically competent teacher serves only as a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. A linguistically knowledgeable teacher can, for instance, make the students memorize and fathom detailed language rules (as has been the case in recent English teaching), but it does not automatically mean that comprehending rules make them able to communicate fluently or appropriately.

The fact that school leavers are good at understanding language rules and at verbalizing them, yet are unable to use them in daily oral and written communication attests to the above argument.

The government’s agenda of empowering elementary learners with basic English proficiency is laudable. Youth is considered the ideal time for language learning because students are still in “”critical period”” in which language (especially its phonological aspect) is thought to be acquired with ease.

Moreover, young learners generally lack inhibitions and are not as embarrassed as adult learners when learning a language. Thus the younger the learner, it is argued, the more likely he or she will acquire a native-like accent, and the easier learning process might be.

Nevertheless, teaching young language learners is not as simple as one might think. Young learners easily lose interest and become de-motivated if the learning tasks assigned to them are not suitable to their needs. They will also become indifferent unless they like the way the teacher interacts with them.

As a concluding remark, establishing language programs for elementary learners indeed requires a clear educational framework in terms of human resources development, curriculum and syllabus design, teaching material development and other related variables.

The idea of empowering elementary learners with English language proficiency will remain an illusion unless these crucial variables are taken into account.

The writer is chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.