Opinion

Should college students
learn Indonesian?

Why do you need to study Indonesian in college? Don’t you think you have studied it enough in school? Such questions are often raised by international students studying on our campuses. For them, it is not sensible, just an unnecessary repetition.

By way of comparison the undergraduate curriculum in Australia, England, France, Japan and many others do not require them to learn their own national language. For them learning the language in K-12 is enough, unless they want to be an expert in the language: a linguist, literary critic, fiction writer, or philologist.

K-12 education has provided them with relatively strong literacy skills to perform college tasks. In the UK, English, along with mathematics and science, constitutes the core curriculum. English, evidence suggests is a vital foundation for developing a high-level of literacy.

At home, the present law on higher education (Law No. 12/2012) confirms the status of Indonesia as a mandatory subject. The law explicitly states that the undergraduate curriculum must include Indonesian language along with religion, Pancasila (state ideology), and citizenship.

When drafting the bill, specifically Chapter 35, especially Article (3) regarding the four core subjects, the lawmakers should have reflected on what they learned from their college experience and listened to more knowledgeable academics. Such a reflection would have informed them of what went right and wrong with those courses.

Their inclusion suggests that the four subjects are unconditionally essential. By implication, our graduates are expected to demonstrate a very high degree of understanding and mastery of those areas. More importantly though, they are to have the high literacy skills which will enable them to develop civic commitment, national identities and democratic citizenship.

Why very high? Because those subjects have been learned in elementary and secondary schools, repetition at college level suggests the four subjects are core subjects for post-secondary education. Students have to take them, like it or not.

Among the four subjects however, it is the freshman Indonesian course that puzzles many international students. Mandatory teaching of Indonesian at the college level suggests two things. First, ostensibly there was motivation to reinvigorate language loyalty and nationalism in general.

Lawmakers took it for granted that such learning will enhance nationalism and college students would take pride on the national language.

The truth is that the attitude among the youth, especially freshman students, towards the national language is far from positive. Language attitudes develop early and two credit hours of freshman Indonesian will not change anything. They are potentially sheer repetition of the high school subject.

The most logical rationale for mandatory teaching of Indonesian in college is a collective assumption among lawmakers that the teaching of Indonesian in schools — from elementary to high schools — is not enough. Or, put bluntly, language education fails to provide Indonesians with the high literacy skills of their counterparts in Australia, England, France and Japan.

Early this year the Directorate General of Higher Education issued a policy on mandatory journal publication for college graduation. The policy sparked protests from private universities. The protest manifests the theory that our graduates lack academic writing skills.

Inclusion of Indonesian as a core subject in college is probably meant to provide students with the skills to write a BA or Master’s thesis, which are — as a matter of comparison — not required in many other countries.

It is self-apparent that K-12 needs to be redesigned with a new paradigm. Indonesian as a school subject needs to be taught in such a way that no repetition is necessary at college level. Removal of the course from the college curriculum would prove the success in teaching in schools.

Education, regardless of subject, level, and student age, is facilitated through language. At a philosophical level it is urgent to redefine Indonesian language for national education. Indonesian must be at the center of all education. Success in Indonesian language teaching would be a step in right direction.

In the UK, Dixon’s Growth through English (1967) inspired English teachers to observe themselves and their teaching activities. Teaching English, consisting of composition, language, literature, and poetry, flows together in a holistic way.

A British primary school, for example, develops students personal response to literature and their enjoyment of literature as a way of liberating the imagination and exploring experience. By corollary, children’s literature is the bedrock of primary education.

In Indonesia, the focus of teaching Indonesian language at primary level should be on developing enjoyment in reading, and at secondary levels on literacy in general. Through this paradigm of teaching and learning, our high school leavers will be ready to develop a tertiary level of literacy, namely the ability to transform and reproduce knowledge.

The writer, a professor at UPI Bandung, is currently a visiting researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University, England.

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