In daily life, I speak Lao so I’m not sure how well the average Lao person speaks English, but tourists in Luang Prabang say it’s not spectacular. Not to feel inferior though, most populations in most countries are struggling with English. Yet, considering the opportunity and the need, Luang Prabang could rise above the rest.
A student in the backwaters of Phongsali has an excuse. Try as they might, they might not find a native-English speaker to converse with in years. As the rare alien stumbling through some rural town, I’ve had the experience of being snatched up by the eager student who had been waiting for eons for someone like me to pass through.
Working and studying in Luang Prabang as many young people do, you wouldn’t have to stumble far to find an opportunity to communicate in English. It’s a strength, not a weakness that one would be exposed to any variant of world English. The exposure to the world through tourists is a living university of diversity. It just takes the initiative.
In most tourist cities, vendors, waitresses and receptionists can function fairly well with a basic level of English. They’ve mastered what’s required of them to do the job and there isn’t a great incentive to go further. Employees who operate according to their supervisor’s orders are not likely to take much initiative on their own and even with hours of idle days during the low season, most seem to educate themselves simply with Thai dramas played at high volume.
It’s not fair to compare. Isolated experiences can’t typify a population, but one encounter I had in which English competency went far beyond check-in and check-out was in Ho Chi Minh City. I found that the average receptionist in any number of budget hotels could talk like lawyers. “I’m sorry, but we can’t take responsibility for your lost camera as I explained that we do have a safety deposit box and that this is the appropriate precaution against theft.” They could negotiate prices as easy as eating a bowl of noodles which they sometimes simultaneously did. My feeling is that their language abilities reflects their perceived need and their perceived need is pretty high.
In another unfair comparison, I met some avid communicators in Yogjakarta in Java. Borobodur is nearby and tourists come from around the world. The average service industry worker has minimally passable English, but one student in particular struck me as being unusually proactive. He set up an English club at his university and through online social networking like couch surfing, would invite a steady flow of travelers to join and converse. He taught Bahasa Indonesia through Skype with someone in France and worked with several academics doing research. He was inquisitive and dug into conversations in a way that showed he had no only mastered language, but culture as well.
In Luang Prabang, students work in guesthouses to make it easier to pass their classes. The potential for not only language learning, but of experiencing and interacting with the world is right under their noses. Without fluency, language remains quaint and tourists leave without a deep understanding of this country.
Some day soon we will see schools promoting international business and international communication, but it all begins with a conversation, an open mind and the recognition that language is the bridge. It’s a bridge that we can cross as soon as we dare to take that first step.
When we say there aren’t enough teachers, we recruit and hire them, but when we say there aren’t enough competent teachers we’re talking about finding something that can’t be cooked up on short order. It requires a generation or two to create competent teachers. When regenerating a forest, seeds must fall, sprout and grow. Leaves must fall and accumulate inch-by-inch to create a topsoil thick and rich enough for the next generation to take root. This is not so different from an education system.
Old-growth forests are accumulated biological histories so it’s hard to know how they start and how they develop, but in some rare cases land is reduced to ground zero as is the case of volcanic eruptions. Some thirty years Mount St. Helens in Washington State collapsed on itself and erupted violently enough to wipe out every identifiable living thing in a gigantic swath of destruction. It became an ecological lesson on how once destroyed, nature is not something easily regenerated.
The first plants have to colonize bare ground and must survive without soil. Lichen can live on rocks and are called pioneer species because they scrape out the first foothold for other species to follow. Then shrubs give shelter for the seedlings of taller trees to germinate which eventually top the low growth to form forest cover. This process can take centuries.
With Mount St. Helens, scientists believed that regrowth could be sped up with the introduction of outside species, but evidence shows that “biological legacies” in the form of fallen trees, buried seeds and surviving amphibians were instrumental as restarters of green cover.
Ecology is not simply a metaphor for human systems. Natural cycles of devastation and regeneration help us to understand how culture and education are also fragile ecological systems that are sustained by more than superficial elements. A human knowledge base depends on resources, parents, communities and a consensual commitment to learning. The life source of this cycle centers on the quality of the teacher. There will always be books and repositories of knowledge, but in the case of survivors of the Khmer Rouge, it was only a handful of tenacious artists that could pass on centuries of cultural knowledge on the verge of disappearing. They were biological legacies, resilient as lichen and as important as the last genetic evidence in a seed bank.
A healthy education system is like an old growth forest that is fertile from the deepest roots to the highest forest canopy and one that can provide homes for the widest variety of species. In contrast, plantations are easily started and appear green from a satellite image, but monocropping will eventually leach the soil of its nutrients, only to export its wealth away without natural regeneration.
To see the future, we can take a look at our schools and make a quick assessment. What do the students and classrooms look like? Is it a virgin forest full of life or a factory for agricultural products? What do the teachers look like? Do they look more interested in sowing seeds and cultivating growth or more concerned about production rates and output? The reason why this difference is important is because the real and significant difference is something we will see in 20, 50 or 100 years.
2015 is just around the corner. That’s when the ASEAN economic community (AEC) will be inaugurated, meaning closer and more competitive economic relations and the use of English as the official language among the ten countries. Some countries like Singapore and Malaysia saw this coming and have been ready for years. Others have been scrambling in an attempt to get English operative. The value of English appears unquestioned. That’s why it is of great interest to look at a country that is contemplating a retreat, not from economic integration but from English language education.
The new July 2013 curriculum for Indonesia has been reduced to six key subjects; religion, nationalism, Indonesian language, math, art and sports. Science and social studies are to be integrated into Indonesian language classes. This is in response to the present curriculum which some say is overwhelming students with too many subjects. One major reason to cut English is the low performance of the official language, Bahasa Indonesia.
Before dismissing this policy as uninformed or parochial, it is worth looking closely at the argument. Even language experts at the World Bank attest that learning a second language is best done after the first is learnt well. A large body of research is now showing that children are learning best when they begin with their mother tongue. Second languages are gradually phased in as the language of instruction only after literacy has been reached in the first language.
If this is so, the true argument is not that literacy in Indonesian should precede English instruction, but students should be literate in mother tongues before instructed in Indonesian. Most do not hear Indonesian in their homes. For 80% of the population it is not their first language.
Bahasa Indonesia is a standardized Malay dialect selected in 1928 as a unifying language, but is only one among 700 languages in Indonesia. Javanese alone is spoken by 84 million people. 18 languages in the archipelago have over one million speakers. As an official language, Bahasa Indonesia has been used as the language of instruction for almost 90 years now, but what is alarming policy makers is that Indonesia ranks 58 out of 66 countries for student reading ability. This is one proof that children being made to learn in a language they don’t understand doesn’t work. Using mother tongues for instruction not need be at the expense of national unity. If anything, it facilitates learning, lays the foundation for mastering the national language and ultimately is in the interest of nation building.
Education policy in Indonesia does support native languages, but leaves promotion and teaching to the provincial authorities. With only two hours a week, it is unlikely that students get a good native language education and left to their own defenses, it is becoming apparent that many teachers use the hours for something else.
Sometimes the scramble for English makes us think that the earlier we immerse students in it, the better. The idea of language immersion holds some water, but not in every case. Babies don’t learn to swim just because they are thrown into the pool. Regional competition is the mantra for AEC, but too eager to reach the finish line, we might need to look at where are respective starting blocks are.