ELIMINATING ENGLISH AT PRIMARY LEVEL: SO WHAT?

Posted on October 21, 2012

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University of Wisconsin–Madison

University of Wisconsin–Madison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it worth it? Points to ponder for Indonesians . And Malaysians, too!  Below an excerpt from Jakarta Post, 19 October 2012, an pinion by Nelly Martin, Madison, Wisconsin, US.

The government’s decision to omit the teaching of English from elementary schools is huge. When I first heard of the news on my Facebook page, I was shocked. The impact will be linguistically enormous and I envision a huge gap being created. Those who go to public schools will be linguistically cornered. Those attending international private schools will have more opportunities. As I was reading the news, I assumed that the government would only be able to eliminate English from public schools. As stated by the Deputy Education and Culture Minister for Education Musliar Kasim, in terms of international schools typically using English as their language of instruction, the ministry had not yet decided what to do (The Jakarta Post, Oct. 12).

I question whether the government has the authority to command these schools to eradicate English from their school subjects. However, this should be not the focus now. What concerns me more is that there is a misperception about learning a second language at a young age. We must understand that the core of the problem is not the lesson; it’s more about the techniques to teach it. Like it or not, we need to fully realize that there are still a number of teachers who teach their young students using a grammar translation-based method.

English for some people is all about grammar. Instead of “playing” and “having fun” with the language, students are forced to sit down, translate word by word from English into Indonesian and to rote learn all the patterns and tenses. If this learning situation continues, I share the deputy minister’s opinion that it will only burden the students. Some people residing in Indonesia told me that it’s about nationalism; these young students need to learn about their own culture before departing to learn about others. Nationalism is not related to the languages we learn to speak. We see a number of Europeans speaking many languages and still retaining their national pride. Since we were children, Indonesians have instilled the idea that language equals nationality.

In any event, the point is clear. It is not English as a school subject, it is not the language and it is not about nationalism. It is about the technique. I don’t want to blame it on the teachers, but teaching English with a more communicative approach in a less threatening environment should again be promoted. We need to raise our own awareness that every child has their own right to learn the language in a more playful way, from the likes of learning through songs, playing dough and playing scavenger hunts. I am more than sure that there are innumerable teacher trainers based in Indonesia who will share these fun techniques to learn English, so that these young generations will learn English without being pressured. This idea is not new, but I am afraid to say that its application may be hard to come by, as we are now reading this shocking news from the government. What will we miss if the government’s decision is carried through? Learning a second language has a peak time frame.

In linguistics, it should be well noted that the ability to acquire a language is biologically linked to age. It is referred as the “critical period hypothesis” (Lennerberg, 1967) that claims that there is an ideal period of time to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment wherein students learn the language effortlessly. That being said, if this certain period of time is passed, language learning becomes much more difficult. While it’s still debatable and controversial in the field, some studies have shown that learning a second language at a very young age will cognitively and socially benefit children. Not only are they are able to converse with a wider audience, but they may also be cognitively advantaged. In a similar vein, The New York Times article on March 17 this year confirms that learning a second language is “a command system that directs the attention processes that we use for planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks”.

Additionally, an article written by Housen et al., (2011) says that teaching and learning English in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) context that balances between the L1 (first language) and L2 (second language) prominence and appropriate techniques will equip students with a highly proficient language skills. English nowadays is a global language that can contribute to people’s success in securing a better life and a better education. Simply put, it entails some incentive motivation. Language and education and nation should be seen as a dynamic notion that requires our open mindedness. Learning another language and another culture shouldn’t equate with not being nationalistic or unpatriotic. It should be noted that it is one of the government’s tasks to guarantee citizens better lives by providing a good space to learn other languages and other cultures, among others. How are we going to provide for those who are “linguistically unlucky” and unable to secure better jobs just because their competitors speak excellent English? This is more than a language problem. This is a social problem.

(The writer is a doctoral student in second language acquisition, and Fulbright presidential scholar at University of Wisconsin-Madison, US.)

 

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