Keeping English in Indonesian Schools

Now that the decision to scrap English in lower elementary classes has been overturned, the challenge is to improve the teaching of the language at all levels. (Reuters Photo).

Now that the decision to scrap English in lower elementary classes has been overturned, the challenge is to improve the teaching of the language at all levels. (Reuters Photo).

After weeks of review, Indonesia’s Education Ministry eventually succumbed to societal pressure that English lessons be retained in elementary schools.

This about-face should be good news for parents. But it is not unexpected given the national swing towards English as an important foreign language in recent years, which the government has acknowledged.

Deputy Education Minister Musliar Kasim announced in late September that English would be scrapped for lower elementary pupils in the next school year beginning July as part of a curriculum revamp.

It was part of efforts by the ministry to ease the workload of pupils by reducing the number of subjects from ten to six. It would involve the scrapping of English, science and social studies in favor of religion, nationalism, Bahasa Indonesia, mathematics, art and sports.

With English dropped, pupils could concentrate on strengthening their Bahasa Indonesia — the country’s national language — imbibing national values and picking up knowledge on science incorporated in other subjects. They would study English as a compulsory subject when they reached lower secondary or high school.

But the decision to leave out English was unpopular from the start not only among parents and language teachers but also several education departments in the regions. They debated the issue for many weeks to persuade the government to retain the language.

Parents wanted their children to have a head start in the language, seen as having higher economic value than Dutch, the language of their colonial masters. They feared their children’s English lessons would be disrupted by the new curriculum.

“The scrapping of English is a retrogressive step,” the head of West Kalimantan’s provincial government education department, Alexius Akim, told Kompas daily.

The decision also had language teachers worried about their future as they were specifically recruited to teach English to primary school pupils.

But in a volte-face last month, Musliar announced that English would not be scrapped after all. “Schools would be allowed to offer the subject but as an elective instead. It should not be made compulsory,” he said in a statement to Kompas and the Jakarta Globe.

Unlike previously, when he said that it would be “haram” or illegal to hold English lessons, Musliar made it clear that his ministry would not stop schools from offering the subject to pupils.

A number of principals of primary schools in recent years have taken the initiative to introduce basic English even at first grade in the school system.

English as a foreign language is mandatory only in lower secondary or junior high school, although many schools offer it from the fourth grade.

The interest in English is especially palpable in Jakarta and other major cities, where tuition centers teaching English have mushroomed. Even city kindergartens and play schools offer basic English instruction for pre-schoolers as an attraction.

The swing towards English has been driven by the growing recognition of its importance in economic life and as an international language.

Growing numbers of wealthy and upper- and middle-class families in the cities are sending their children to private schools that focus on English.

But in the rural heartland, the interest is less noticeable. Many rural folk focus on being proficient in Bahasa Indonesia while feeling at home with their mother tongue, one of several regional languages in this diverse nation. If English were to come into the picture, it would be a third language for them.

It is not difficult to fathom why English is not made compulsory in the new curriculum for elementary schools. “If English becomes mandatory, it would not be fair to pupils in remote areas where there is a shortage of trained language teachers,” said the deputy education minister.

With the decision taken to retain English, policymakers are now obliged to take the next step — improve the teaching of the language for the benefit of students at all levels.

There have been studies done on the subject in many schools which focused on the teaching methods as well as teachers’ competency. Professor Chaedar Alwasilah of the University of Education in Bandung wrote recently that the current teaching of English in primary schools “is far from satisfactory.”

In a survey done on schools in West Java, Banten and Jakarta in May, he found that 58 percent of elementary school teachers had neither an English language background nor any training in English for young learners.

The government will have to invest its resources to address the weaknesses in the teaching of English even as expectations of parents for better education for their children rise.

The problem is whether the government would have enough resources to promote the teaching of English, effectively a third language for many Indonesians, and the training of teachers when its major task in the new curriculum is for the inculcation of national values and the strengthening of Bahasa Indonesia.

This is in line with the renewed emphasis on the country’s values that encourage the spirit of nationalism and tolerance and on protecting its linguistic legacy.

But with such an emphasis, will there be enough attention given to the improvement of English teaching in schools?

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times


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