LETTER: English as a Second Language Still a Pipe Dream

Siswa mengikuti kegiatan belajar-mengajar di ruang kelas darurat bekas parkir sepeda di SDN 03 Serut, Tulungagung, Jawa Timur, Senin (5/11/2018). Pembelajaran di ruang kelas darurat semipermanen itu dilakukan sejak enam tahun terakhir karena sekolah kekurangan ruang kelas untuk siswa kelas dua. ANTARA FOTO/Destyan Sujarwoko/kye.

Not every elementary school in Indonesia teaches English. (Antara Photo/Destyan Sujarwoko)

Before the Indonesian presidential debates kicked off earlier this year, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was challenged by his rival Prabowo Subianto’s campaign team to conduct one of the debates in English. The president politely declined.

Apparently, Jokowi still considers English as some sort of nuisance that contradicts the spirit of nationalism that seems to be the platform of every political leader in this country.

As head of state, though, Jokowi should consider changing his negative attitude toward the “global language” and do more to promote the study of English in Indonesian schools.

The government has been reluctant to teach English in schools, let alone use it as a language of instruction, supposedly to protect the sanctity of the Indonesian language.

As a consequence, English is only taught for four hours each week in high schools and is not even part of the national elementary school curriculum.

Indonesia is the only country in Southeast Asia that has not made English a compulsory subject at elementary level.

The Jokowi government, known for its pragmatism, is going against the grain on this issue. English proficiency obviously has huge benefits these days since the language’s status as a global lingua franca is unparalleled, but his administration has continued to turn a blind eye to the fact.

Countless research has demonstrated that English proficiency can improve the economy of a country and open up more opportunities for its citizens. Shouldn’t Jokowi, a former businessman and the ultimate economic pragmatist, recognize this?

But no, English proficiency is still pathetically low in Indonesia. According to data from English First (EF), an education institution that runs English courses all over the country, Indonesia is ranked a lowly 51 out of 88 countries in English proficiency, lagging far behind Singapore (3), the Philippines (14) and Malaysia (22). We are even outclassed by Vietnam (41).

But the EF data, sad as they are, still do not give a complete picture of English proficiency, or lack of it, in this country.

They do not include statistics from rural areas, where internet connection is still scarce and English courses are even harder to find.

Nonetheless, the EF data correspond to my experience teaching English for almost 10 years at tertiary level. At my university, the Sultan Thaha Saifuddin State Islamic University in Jambi, fewer than 10 percent of students can reach the standard TOEFL score of 400.

Lack of government support lies at the root of this problem. Students in rural areas and from low-income families simply don’t get any other opportunity to study English aside from at tuition-free state schools – where English is not much more than an afterthought.

As a result, these students are often unable to apply for government scholarships or funding, including for the prestigious LPDP scholarship to study abroad or the Youth and Sports Ministry’s student exchange program, because they require a high level of English proficiency.

Students from rich families who live in major cities do not have this problem. Where they live, English courses are widely available, private schools are everywhere and schools with an international curriculum are a dime (or thousands of dollars) a dozen.

This privilege is the main contributor to the remarkable performance of students from Jakarta’s private high schools in the last National Exam. Almost all of them scored over 90 in English, unheard of in other parts of the country.

It is high time for the government to turn this inequality on its head, starting at the elementary level.

The government must make the study of English compulsory in all state schools. Children’s natural talent to absorb foreign languages should not be wasted. It is scientifically proven that the most effective age for learning a foreign language is 10 or under.

More hours should be dedicated to learning English in high schools. Some textbooks could be written in English to familiarize students with globally-recognized academic and scientific terms.

In no time, we should be ready to use English at schools not just as a language of instruction, but as a language of communication.


Muhammad Beni Saputra is a lecturer in English at the Sultan Thaha Saifuddin State Islamic University in Jambi. 





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