Rising to the challenge
of bilingual education

Rachel Davies, Sydney, Australia

The debate surrounding the application of bilingual education in Indonesia seems to be growing; and sometimes growing in its intensity so that it is becoming rather heated. This debate is good but we must all work to ensure that the debate does not become overheated and actions become irrational.

It does seem as though some people that are getting involved in the field of bilingual education are doing so without enough knowledge and ability and this often leaves their actions flawed and in turn rather irrational when we are hoping to deliver the best aspects of bilingual education to schools and colleges.

Recent articles in this newspaper have highlighted the way in which schools have been opening up in Indonesian cities that have been effectively laying claims to bilingual education but are nowhere near delivering such a sophisticated model of education. It seems that the title of ""national plus"" school has come to be inappropriately claimed in a rush to be ""competitive"" and gather students.

Such a condition cannot be acceptable and nor should it be accepted by those responsible for overseeing schools in Indonesia. When the aim of bilingual education or the title of ""national plus"" school becomes little more than a marketing epithet, then a truly absurd point has been arrived at: A point that is neither beneficial to the development of bilingualism nor quality schools in Indonesia.

It has been suggested that new, private schools are being allowed to commence operations entertaining and applying the notion that the English language can and should supersede the first language of Bahasa Indonesia; this is utterly wrong and surely cannot stand. At a time when the government of Indonesia has apparently been toying with the idea that expatriates in Indonesia may need to prove their ability to speak Bahasa Indonesia it seems contradictory and nonsensical that Indonesian schools may be being allowed to set aside and even be dismissive of the mother tongue.

The impact of such a policy in a school can be deeply damaging and lasting and far from the genuinely valid reasons for bilingualism in schools and also the development of better private schools. Bilingualism (and that is true bilingualism not some unacceptable misappropriation of it) does not promote any ideas of usurping a language. Fundamentally such an idea exposes a school and its students to a very dangerous condition.

Students that are literally ""thrown into the deep end"" of a schooling system that demands that they use a second language without sufficient support for such usage are left in a predicament in which they will struggle to learn anything. They may be left feeling inadequate and even foolish simply because they do not have the linguistic wherewithal to rise to the challenge of bilingual education.

Children that are entering a program of bilingual education, critically, require the strong support of their teachers through instruction and their school through curriculum design and planning to rise to the challenge of such education. Children that do not get this kind of support can quite literally be left traumatized and damaged by an education that was not right for them.

At the heart of true bilingualism are ideas of liberation and opening up other possibilities and skills for students. Language can, and should through bilingualism, come to be a liberating force for students but where bilingualism is applied recklessly and without sufficient planning and competence a lack of language can become a shackle that inhibits growth and real development for the child.

The eighteenth century German writer Goethe once wrote that ""whoever is not acquainted with foreign languages knows nothing of his own"". Such an analysis is strong and deeply critical but it does have value and it has value that bilingualism in education recognizes. The aim is not to degrade, denigrate or dismiss a language but instead is to set two languages side-by-side as a duopoly of vehicles via which students may learn.

This is without question at the center of any school worthy of the title ""school""; namely providing students with opportunities to learn. These opportunities may come in diverse forms and ways but critically they must be based in what is best, appropriate and needed for the students to grow and learn. It is unlikely that heavy-handed imposition of a foreign language will be best for students.

Predicating the application of bilingualism on ideas that ""English is the foreign language used internationally and so is essential"" is that kind of heavy-handedness. It has even been possible to hear it claimed that people who are able to use and think in English are better thinkers than those that only use Bahasa Indonesia. This sets in motion a notion of English being superior which again is not at the core of true bilingual education.

To set about offering bilingual education is not to set about ""beating up"" another language and be disparaging about its value or worth to the student. The simultaneous development of two languages is the goal. Make no mistake, the development of two languages side-by-side and hand-in-hand is by no means a minor challenge; it is considerable and significant and so sets up a great need to plan, prepare and execute in a very careful and considerate manner.

Care and consideration for the students' development are, naturally enough, central and critical but in addition care and consideration for the mother tongue should not be neglected. For example, it is possible to hear high-school students in Indonesia be quite dismissive of their mother tongue; only recently one student in her mid-teens told me that she ""doesn't want to study Bahasa Indonesia in school"" because she ""doesn't need it in her future"". This suggests a dismissal of a language that bilingualism should not be the instigator of.

The value of the mother tongue should not be undermined by bilingualism. Bahasa Indonesia is part of what it means and is to be an Indonesian and to recklessly push it aside would be and is wrong.

The Canadian writer Kildare Dobbs wrote ""My country is the English language""; this literally represents pride in a language as a cultural and key aspect of who you are. Indonesian children in Indonesian schools should get the chance to feel such pride in their own language; placing English, and so bilingualism, alongside that should be done respectfully and wisely. Skill in two, or even more, languages liberates and enhances the students but we should not risk imprisoning them when languages are imposed and done badly.

The writer is an education consultant and can be reached at [email protected]

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.