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.

Cutting a foreign tongue?

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, October 20 2012, 11:37 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 6

The reasoning for the scrapping of English initially articulated by Deputy Education and Culture Minister for Education Musliar Kasim has brought out more cons than pros. As part of the curriculum revamp, the hasty decision to exclude English lessons — currently a mandatory subject in primary schools — has been vermently opposed by many, as evidenced in the readers’ forum of this newspaper (see Oct. 16 and 17 issues).

This strong reaction against the abolition of English in primary schools is quite understandable. English language teaching (ELT) has enjoyed a long history in this country, dating back to the Dutch colonial period, and the values of the language have seeped into almost every domain of people’s life. Education is no exception.

Omission of English from the curriculum is as harmful for our relationships with developed countries which value English over other foreign languages — Australia, the United States, India to name but three. Opposing English is tantamount to opposing globalization and modernity.

It is not surprising to see that most, if not all, the comments in The Jakarta Post’s readers’ forum are very pro-English and full of well-worn labels such as “lingua franca”, “the window of the world”, “world language” and “the language of wider communication”.

These positive attitudes to English demonstrate people’s awareness of the importance of the language of global access. They also show that people don’t want to be excluded and isolated from the advancement of science and technology dominated by the English language.

Conversely, and somewhat paradoxically, these attitudes show people’s (perhaps unconscious) willingness to allow the hegemony of English to dominate their thinking.

Musliar Kasim’s contention that the omission of English provides an opportunity to master the Indonesian language (The Jakarta Post, Oct. 12) seems, at first sight, to hit the nail on the head, if linguistic hegemony is to be resisted.

The deputy minister’s argument implies the promotion of monolingualism through increased exposure to the Indonesian language at school.

There seems to be resistance to linguistic hegemony behind the call to scratch English from the school curriculum and declare it haram.

If enacted, the policy could backfire, promulgating a new form of hegemony in multilingual, multiracial Indonesian society.

Indonesia is replete with vernacular varieties. History shows that the plummet in use of local languages was down to the zealous imposition of the Indonesian language, primarily through schooling. Clearly, proscribing the use of English in schools and even declaring it haram is an extreme form of resistance, and what lesson does it give to school children?

The case of the English language resistance in Malaysia through the promotion of the “Malay-Only” policy should serve as a lesson for us. Despite calls for using Malay as the national language — a symbol of national unity — and for banning the use of English particularly in education, most Malaysian scholars found the policy counter-productive, not only because it impairs Malaysians intellectually, but also because it has the potential to marginalize other locally spoken languages such as Tamil and Chinese.

In essence, the Malay monolingualist policy is incompatible with the spirit of modernity and tolerance of language groups in the country.

It is clear then that scrapping English from the school curriculum raises more problems than it solves. English lessons are still needed for young students, but with a new goal. This goal is only feasible if we admit that language teaching is political, not neutral or value-free, and that classroom is a manifestation of “cultural politics”.

Rather than simply glorifying the values of English and telling students that learning English offers massive benefits to their future lives, it is far more urgent to help them challenge language by exploiting and appropriating it by virtue of their identities, cultural norms and values, and tradition.

This may sound like a lofty ideal, but with a high commitment to boosting the quality of language education in the country our efforts are more likely to yield fruitful results.

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