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.