The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

The End of English in Indonesia

Due to the poor acquisition of English by Indonesian students, the deputy education and culture minister Musliar Kasim declared the end of teaching English. Keep in mind that his title includes the word “culture”.


He stresses that since students are unable to communicate fluently in Indonesian, they should learn to master it first before learning other languages, such as English.

Aside from this purpose, the ministry also wants to focus more time teaching religion and Indonesian culture, and cutting back on science and social studies.

To clarify, I have no qualms with learning about culture in schools. After all, schools are social agents that teach children about the norms and mores, usually at the expense of a minority culture. Their country is probably more religiously based than North American countries, and that is their norm, so I can’t be ethnocentric in judging them. However, my nerves bristled when seeing that they are going to reduce teaching time in science and social studies.

I am not a geek for science; I’ve done poorly in it since high school. I am also not a fan of social studies; it was only recently that my interest in politics has sparked, but only because education is controlled by politics, so it is necessary that I know how it works.

Do religion and culture really need to be taught in schools though? Perhaps it is my own bias that is currently being expressed (but I have never stated that this blog would be free of bias), but is religion not a private issue? Is religion not your personal connection with your deity/deities, and is your interpretation of the world and your social context? It just seems bizarre to me that religion should be taught en mass. I had always thought religion was this personal and sacred connection between you and whoever you believe in.

Even if religion and culture do need to be taught, is that not the job for parents to do?

Although, I must admit, some of the things we expect children to know (at least in North America, anyway) are actually brand new concepts for these students. It seems that manners, politeness, courtesy, and basic interpersonal skills (ex. asking how someone’s day is) are out of fashion. Or as some may say, “Chivalry has died”. And when we look at the issue from this point of view, manners and courtesy are part of culture. Perhaps schools do need to teach culture.

But do we need a separate period for the class titled “Culture”? The way this article has written about “more teaching time on religion and Indonesian culture” implies that time will be allotted out of science and social studies to make room for more culture time. How would students be evaluated? What happens if, say, a student fails Culture class?

But I digress. My main peeve with this new Indonesian education policy is the elimination of English.

Although I understand the concerns of not knowing one’s native language, it seems apparent that the ministry has not looked into the abundant amount of research done on the subject of bilingualism and neural development.

Judy Willis, MD, from Edutopia, is a neurologist and a teacher. She wrote:

Compared to monolinguals, bilingual children develop greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making judgement and responsiveness to feedback.

Part of this conclusion stems from the brain activity of a bilingual person. The brain needs to “select” between competing languages to find words that fit the linguistic criteria and conveyance of the meaning of those words. Each language has its own language system that is unique, and for the brain to be able to compare and contrast competing language systems in a matter of seconds is astounding. Think of how often Google Translate produces wildly inaccurate translations of a simple sentence.

In her article, Willis continues to state some of the statistical methodology in obtaining these results.

The key to having “successful” and fluent bilingualism is to start at home. Parents should communicate with their child in their native language to maintain their child’s linguistic competence in their L1 (aka maternal language). Schools should begin their L2 education earlier. Junior high school is the age at which Indonesia begins teaching English. Children aged 7 and under who begin learning an L2 (or L3) can still have a chance of speaking with native-like fluency, but children who are older, like 11 or 12 (aka junior high school age) tend to have more difficulty in obtaining the same fluency.

Eliminating English is not the answer. English is one of the vernacular languages of the world through which we conduct all types of affairs. To end the teaching of English is to put the future if Indonesia at a major disadvantage. Certainly not all Indonesians will stay within the country to find employment. What happens if they decide to work internationally? They can decide to pick up an L2 then, but how much more difficult would it be?

Moreover, Indonesia can consider programs like French Immersion, an education program that introduces the child to French through gradual exposure. There are 3 types:

  1. Early: Start from age 5-6
  2. Delayed: Start from age 9-10
  3. Late: Start from age 11-14

Each category starts their L2 acquisition before their L1. Hence, if your child’s native language is English, they will receive instruction in French first. The program gradually weans them into more English courses so that by the end of secondary school, half their classes are in French, and half are in English.

French Immersion students, especially in the early category, perform with native-like fluency in reading and listening comprehension. However, they do not perform with the native-like fluency in speaking and writing, but they are not serious impediments to their use of French for academic and interpersonal purposes.

Perhaps immersion programs is what Indonesia should try. I am not one for advocating the copying of education programs across the globe, but this suggestion may prove to be a seed for a language program that may flourish in the future.


5 comments on “The End of English in Indonesia

  1. Pingback: Indonsian education | Yirlloww

  2. belligerentbear
    January 27, 2013

    It seems that Minister Kasim has had to respond to the much more isolationist and anti-western stance his country and constituents have taken and the people who suffer will be the generation of children who will be behind all other South East Asian peers who have English in their curriculum. The politics in Indonesia must have become much more anti-west and pro Muslim in the recent decade with the US invasions in the Middle East and Indonesia seeing themselves as one of the main pillars of the “Islamic Brotherhood of Countries”. The Indonesian government may have decided that their future ties in with the Islamic world and not the West. This would explain his emphasis on culture and religion because it will attract the citizens who are much more likely to lean towards pro Muslim sentiments and nationalism.

  3. Chas Spain
    January 27, 2013

    A really interesting post about a complex issue Michelle. Without seeking to endorse the decision in anyway – which I have only read in the Jakarta Post etc – there are clearly lots of layers in language policy – particularly in Indonesia where the mother tongue of the majority of primary students will not be Bahasa Indonesian but another language altogether. Primary students in Indonesia will therefore usually become bi-lingual and have good language facility to pick up a third language in high school.

    Although it is natural for dominant English speaking cultures to imagine English is the language of trade and global communication – in fact Chinese, as well as the languages of other colonisers; Portuguese, French etc, are widely spoken in SE Asia and governments naturally look at where is best to invest education money.
    (also remember the EU is conducted in about 27 languages)

    Sorry that’s more than 2 cents worth!! – it’s an area that strays into my day job. But it’s great to see this posted and you might like to watch a piece by Joe Lo Bianco who does a lot of language policy work including development of Timor’s policy for their mother tongue initiative.

    Culture and religion vs science and maths etc. is a whole other topic. Despite being a very westernised country in many ways – what we would regard rather coldly as ‘subjects ‘ – are indivisible from life in much of Indonesia.
    A rather old text ‘The religion of Java’ by Clifford Geertz is an incredible study from a Western perspective of the extraordinary world of one small town in post WWII Java. Religion/Art/Culture/Society are richly embedded – a difficult thing for recently colonised cultures like Australia and the US to really ‘get’ I think. Extrapolate this work to every island and every village and you could indeed simply study Indonesian culture/religion/place for the whole of your life.

  4. ashibs
    January 27, 2013

    I absolutely agree about the need to keep English rather than eliminating it from school curriculum (much like I am for other languages to be taught at schools here in the States). But I also wonder if the Minister Kasim realizes the gravity of his advocating to eliminate English teaching from primary schools, given that English will be the language of communication amongst Southeast Asians once the ASEAN Economic Community plan kicks in…

  5. larkycanuck
    January 27, 2013

    the world needs to get on the english bandwagon. period.

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2013 by in education, languages, politics, school and tagged , , , , , , , , , .


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