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Jakarta Post

Monolingual bias and English language education in Indonesia

  • Rasman
    Rasman

    English language teachers and researcher

Jakarta   /   Mon, January 9, 2017   /   02:57 pm
Monolingual bias and English language education in Indonesia In this Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010 file photo, an Oxford English Dictionary is shown at the headquarters of the Associated Press in New York. (AP/Caleb Jones)

In the age of multilingualism, can we say that one English language speaker is better than the other? Is there any one true definition of a good language speaker? More importantly, how should we teach English to our students?

Language is not static. Who would have thought a thousand years ago that Latin would be barely spoken today? Who would have predicted that English would dominate? Predicting the future of a language is as hard as predicting the future of politics. Who knows whether in the near future, most people in the world will end up speaking Chinese, or Arabic, or Spanish?

There are complex factors that can affect the dynamic change of a language, but one certainty is that any language is politically constructed. We are made to think that a certain language exclusively belongs to a certain nation. We are made to think that the language that we speak is ours, thus, we are easily irritated if we hear people mispronounce particular words, make grammatical mistakes, or speak in strange and undesirable accents. That is why every nation creates their version of standardized language, the most ‘proper’ language that must be spoken by the society. It is called Received Pronunciation (RP), people often call it ‘BBC English’ or ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘Oxford English’. Does it work? It does, at least for some time. Will it last? It depends. It depends on the power of the nation that imposes the language on others.

English is a language that was particularly imposed on the rest of the world, mainly in British colonies. Since then, there has been tremendous development in terms of its varieties. With the growing number of speakers of English ‘abandoning’ standardized English, it seems that the English language no longer belongs (if it has ever belonged) to the Anglo-Saxons, but it has become the collectively property of diverse ethnicities in almost all countries.

UK has now become more multilingual, with roughly 300 languages spoken in schools in London. People can communicate through various languages, mixed languages, without having any trouble. Based on the latest research from Pew Research Center, Arabic is the fastest growing language in the country, with a total of 1.1 million speakers and Spanish follows in second place.

Then, the question is why do we still teach our students that there are only two varieties of English accents: British and American? Why can’t we be proud of our Javanese, Sundanese, Bataknese, or other local accents? This failure to embrace the multilingual turn in language education could withdraw our students’ participation in the classroom.

The classroom setting is the place where language contact usually happens, particularly between local language or national language and foreign or second language. Although multilingualism has become a global phenomenon, schools are usually the place where languages are contested. Li Wei (University College London) and Ofelia Garcia (New York State University), prominent experts in bilingualism, argue that it is in EFL or ESL contexts where language separation is imposed, by ‘othering the languages of those who spoke them within the nation’. The practice of so-called code-switching is, then, perceived as a linguistic deficiency. The use of home languages is considered the ‘contamination’ of the learning of second/foreign languages.

The problem of this language separation is closely related to monolingual bias. This bias includes labeling students as deficient because they do not achieve a native-like standard. The concept of ‘English language learners’ is in itself problematic since those who learn a language already have their first language. Thus, the outcome of learning is multilingual competence, rather than monolingual competence. Also, the fact that it is impossible to have native-like competence mean that the label of ‘learners’ will continue to adhere to them no matter how effectively they communicate in English. Therefore, Garcia proposes the term ‘emerging bilinguals’ rather than ‘learners’ and ‘multilingual competence’ instead of ‘monolingual competence’. It focuses on language use by the students, how they creatively use their full repertoire to make meaning.  

The mismatch between the more superdiverse world where multilingualism is the norm and the monolingual bias that is still prevalent in educational settings is an ongoing challenge in the field of language education. Failure to address this issue will risk, in particular, the language development of students and, in general, the notion of more inclusive schools. True, some of our schools already have students who draw on multiple codes (Javanese, Indonesian, English) to finish the task, but this is not due to our awareness that English has the same status as Indonesian or other local languages, but it is a sign that English language has a higher status that they do not want to use it unless they are already proficient. Thus, the end goal to have native-like proficiency which is rooted in monolingual bias is still apparent in our classroom and perhaps deeply rooted in students’ beliefs. 

Therefore, it is important for us to be more aware of this bias and let our students know that their accent is acceptable. We have to make sure that our students do not set unrealistic goals but also, at the same time, do not discourage them from improving their intelligibility in speaking the language. This is not about lowering expectations. This is about raising them in every last one of our learners.

 

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The writer holds a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), School of Education, The University of Birmingham, UK. Alumnus of LPDP Scholarship.

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