The Education and Culture Ministry’s plan to scrap English from the elementary school curriculum has highlighted a number of pros and cons. Despite the controversy, I personally agree with the government’s policy.
However, will the real language policy stand up? Bernard Spolsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics in Bar-Ilan University’s department of English, employed the same question as one of the subheadings of his book Language Policy.
I think this is a question that our government and people have to answer, especially about the status of English in the overall language education policy of Indonesia.
According to Spolsky ( 2004 ), language policy consists of three elements, namely language practice, which focuses on how language practices are done; language management, which means any form of formulation or proclamation of an explicit plan or policy to modify or influence a language practice; and language beliefs, which are the beliefs about language and language use that lie behind each policy.
He adds that language policy is also about choice. Should this choice be formulated in the form of laws or explicit policies, it will remain a dream until there is an agreement of language beliefs among all stakeholders.
In the case of dropping English at the elementary school level in Indonesia, the success of the policy’s implementation will not depend solely on the government’s choice, but also the practices and language beliefs of the community.
What are our community’s language beliefs? Do we believe that learning English should start early since the earlier one starts to learn a language the better? Is it true? I think many people will say that is true. Well, I think it is not true in the context of Indonesia, especially for this moment.
First, in the Indonesian context, starting to learn English at the elementary level is not about a choice to learn early or not, but it is about preparing all the things needed prior to that start.
Andy Kirkpatrick, a professor of English as an international language at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, states that it is not necessary to start teaching English early in order to gain a high proficiency. He also argues that it is actually harmful to start teaching English too early in the great majority of ASEAN contexts as there are inadequate resources, a chronic and severe lack of suitably qualified and linguistically proficient teachers and the learning environment is anything but supportive. I think Indonesia also fits within these contexts.
Second, most of the time teaching of English comes at the expense of something else, particularly local languages and cultures. Many parents send their children to an international school that uses English as its medium of instruction or bilingual schools so that their children can speak English with American or British accents. Thus, these children are prepared to sacrifice fluency and literacy in their first or national language for English proficiency.
I used to teach in a private kindergarten and all the pupils in that school learned English from kindergarten level A, or the lowest level at that school, but they never learned any local languages.
Their parents were so happy when their children spoke English all the time. I often questioned why these parents were so proud when they themselves could not communicate with their children in English due to their own low English proficiency. I do not blame these parents because family language policy is also about one’s choice. They can also afford the international school fees for their children’s education.
Nevertheless, do these parents realize that learning a language is not about learning a language but it is purposely to be able to communicate with other people?
Most Indonesians do not use English daily. We communicate in Indonesian or another mother tongue. For most Indonesians, the Indonesian language is not their first language due to the widespread use of other local languages.
I agree with Kirkpatrick’s argument that the first language serves as a bridge to literacy and fluency in the second and third language. It will not get in the way of learning a second language or a foreign language. He adds that ensuring children to gain both literacy and fluency in their first language is an excellent investment in their linguistic future.
Thus, omitting English from elementary school curriculum in Indonesia does not mean ending the children’s future. Should the time spent for teaching of English be used to enhance the children’s proficiency in their mother tongue and grow their love of their culture, it will not be in vain.
The writer is a doctoral candidate at the school of linguistics and applied language studies at Victoria University, Wellington