Opinion

Most Indonesian schools
struggling with bilingual
education issue

Eric E. Hallett, Jakarta

In previous articles, Alex Tubagus and Jan Dormer addressed issues about bilingual education predominately within the domain of National Plus schools or their equivalent. This provides an extremely useful perspective of one segment of the education market, but fails to recognize that most schools offering bilingual instruction in Indonesia fall far short of the National Plus level and are struggling with entirely different challenges.

These mostly private and local schools have no native speaking teachers, let alone poorly qualified ones. They have no long-term strategy for teaching in English. Their teachers are embarrassed when corrected by students as the teachers attempt to provide simple instruction in English. Yet, all of these schools have a mandate from their stakeholders (administrators, parents, universities) -- use English in the classroom or lose your students to schools that do.

This leaves the door wide open in schools across the nation to what Jan Dormer describes as ""highly damaging"" bilingual education. Teachers overextend themselves linguistically and use improper grammar and sentence structure which confuses the students. Precious classroom time is used to incorrectly translate vocabulary without proper supporting materials. Students learn a random mix-and-match of academic words and terms without learning the accompanying language skills to express those words in discussions. And the list goes on.

The problems challenging schools at the National Plus level are worthy of debate and our consideration. I am suggesting, however, that another important issue on the bilingual agenda for Indonesia be considered as well. That is, the simple fact that most Indonesian schools are headed for disaster with their bilingual programs because a ""survival of the fittest"" environment is forcing them to undertake instruction that is beyond their capability. They simply cannot implement a sound, balanced bilingual curriculum without adequate resources and properly trained teachers, which they do not have.

As educators we often look to well-developed, successful bilingual programs in developed countries as role models of success and how things should be done in Indonesia. However, we must not forget that these types of programs are also partially or completely subsidized by local and national government funding, or financed by well-to-do parents and corporations in societies with high per-capita income. The same access to resources for providing quality bilingual education is just not available to most parents and students in Indonesia.

In a previous article I argued that government standardization of bilingual education would help alleviate some of the problems that schools are facing and help level the playing field. This argument assumes that government funding would also be available to help schools adhere to required criteria for program standardization. My assumption may be somewhat overambitious given the ongoing inability of the Indonesian government to adequately finance many programs that are needed in areas like education and social welfare.

With high-cost, quick fix solutions from the government beyond reach at the moment, ambitious educators are considering alternative ways to provide bilingual education in schools which are not able to afford the salaries of native-speaking teachers and costly, imported curriculum. They are embracing a more long-term outlook for implementing bilingual instruction which includes the training of existing teachers with limited language skills and the progressive development of a local bilingual curriculum over time.

There are going to have to be compromises in how we approach bilingual education if Indonesia wants to keep pace with the rest of the world, and if bilingual education in Indonesia is to be made available to the majority of the population.

For example, these alternative seeking educators must necessarily allow Bahasa Indonesia and English to co-exist in the same classroom and be used to discuss the same topics as teachers work their way toward higher levels of fluency. Unlike some ""immersion"" models of instruction that suggest using only one language at a time in the class, this approach allows both teacher and student to increase their understanding of a topic in two languages while accommodating their shortcomings in English fluency at the same time.

School administrators and parents are going to have to drop their expectations about the levels of English used in the classroom and encourage teachers to begin using simple, directive English to begin with as they improve their conversational skills and vocabulary over the long-term.

Eventually, these types of compromises will provide a way for the majority of Indonesian schools using English in the classroom to play catch-up with their more resourceful National Plus counterparts. Unique challenges require unique solutions, even if the solutions are not ideal.

The cost to Indonesian society of isolating bilingual education in one resource-laden segment of the education market is too great. We need to also address the challenge of providing instruction in English to a broader range of students who attend less privileged, but equally important schools. Without this widening of our focus these schools are indeed going to find themselves once again unable to provide good educational value which will contribute to the ever increasing gap between socio-economic groups in Indonesia.

The writer is the Principal Consultant and Adviser to IPECS Consulting Indonesia, a communications consultancy specializing in bilingual education. He can be reached at ipecs@cbn.net.id.

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