Indonesia: Should English be taught at primary level?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Nov 16 17:47:01 UTC 2008

Should English be taught at primary level?

Mochamad Subhan Zein, Jakarta

English has been very influential in Asia's language educational
policies and practices for the past couple of years. Assuming
children's superiority in language learning over that of adults, many
Asian countries believe that introducing English to primary students
is considerably important to ensure their success. Whereas English is
a compulsory subject in Singapore and the Philippines, the language
has been used as a medium of instruction for teaching mathematics and
science at primary levels in Malaysia since 2003. The same policy is
also implemented by India and Pakistan who use English as an official
language and introduce it to the children. Together with China,
Taiwan, Vietnam and South Korea, Japan is committed to providing
access to primary levels students to learn English.

We cannot see the same enthusiasm in Indonesia, however. There is no
foreign language policy during this time that can equip children with
English in order to take part in the global competition. That means
English is inaccessible to most Indonesian children. Early foreign
language learning programs need to be introduced as a means of giving
every child access -- whether by making English a compulsory subject
or by using it as a medium of instruction. Before the policy is
established, it is therefore worth considering questions such as: When
will we introduce it? What kind of curriculum can be implemented? What
kind of teaching method is better? How many teachers are needed? How
can we recruit them? How can we make sure they are good enough to

If a policy is introduced, we also need to consider the consequences
to the maintenance of the national language. Is there any harm caused
to the vernaculars? What about the learning facilities and materials?
What are the considerations in terms of financial matters? Is it
affordable? How many contact hours should be provided?

Of all those questions, the major challenge that appears in the
implementation of the policy is providing enough qualified teachers.

Because the quality of the teachers determines the quality of the
students, it is reasonable to rely on language teacher education or
teacher training.

When that kind of teacher training program can be provided is a
serious concern for the program's continuity. There is no point in
providing such a program if there is no continuity, because it will
not cater to teachers' emerging understanding of the nature of
language teaching and learning. It is expected that the training
initiated will produce qualified teachers who can provide rich
language learning experiences and facilitate oral language acquisition
for the learners.

Another issue that should also be addressed is the number of teachers
needed. Providing enough English teachers to 135,768 public primary
schools from Aceh to Papua is very difficult, given the fact that many
schools in rural areas do not have English teachers at all. Here it is
worth noting the possibility of hiring native English speakers to
provide rich learning experiences and interactions.

Although employing native speakers may appear to be a big financial
expense, this idea is affordable. A possible strategy is to initiate
exchange student programs or scholarship programs with
English-speaking countries, i.e., the United States, the UK,
Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

In exchange for their time devoted to part-time teaching at primary
levels, participants of the program can study at an Indonesian
university and obtain full exemption of tuition fees. They also could
receive a good monthly stipend as a living allowance.

With this program in place, not only would it ensure the opportunity
for students to have a rich experience with native English speakers
but it also would be an innovative way to market Indonesian tourism
potential to foreigners.

On the other hand, recruiting local teachers remains a priority.

Universities such as Satya Wacana Christian University and the
University of Indonesia are well known for their reputation of
producing top graduates in English language and literature. Other
universities which offer English majors such as The State Islamic
University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and Yogyakarta National
University can also take part. Those universities can initiate
cooperation with the government to contribute to the availability of
qualified English teachers who are likely to be near-native.

Under a contractual or even full-time employment basis, the newly
hired local teachers could be placed in Indonesia's rural areas to
provide rich learning opportunities for the children.

Having examined the importance of English in globalization, a serious
action that can equip children with English is necessary to be taken.
Once the political will is there, consideration in providing enough
qualified teachers deserves full attention, and perhaps the most
serious attention.

The writer is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Arts and
Humanities, The State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta.
He is currently enrolled a postgraduate program in TESOL at the
University of Canberra, Australia. He can be reached at
freemark2twain at

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