A recent report by the 2015 Education First (EF) English Proficiency Index (EPI) reveals a rather appalling finding — compared to other ASEAN countries, Indonesia suffers a serious decline in English proficiency. Indonesia ranks below Malaysia and Singapore, yet the status of English differs in these countries. English is a second language in Singapore and Malaysia, while a foreign language in Indonesia.
Singaporeans and Malaysians use English as a medium of communication in addition to other languages spoken in these respective countries, while Indonesians treat this language only as an object to be learned in a school context.
Furthermore, there is no explicit mention as to what constitutes the notion of language proficiency. The notion by no means refers to a unitary ability, as has been generally assumed, but consists of several distinct but interrelated subabilities.
The term “proficiency in language” is a sweeping generalization to claim that Indonesia is experiencing a setback in English proficiency.
The report is also in stark contrast to what today’s education experts are concerned about: Our young generation’s prowess in conversing in English supersedes their ability in speaking in their home languages.
This concern is hardly surprising because Indonesia is suffering from “English fever”, a metaphor used by American linguist Stephen Krashen to illustrate an overwhelming desire to acquire the English language at an early age.
A growing demand for English has paved the way for the establishment of schools bearing the “international” label, with English being used primarily as a medium of instruction.
What’s more, private tutorials offering English for toddlers are ubiquitous.
The teaching of English today is radically different from that in the past. Students today attend schools and private tutorials that offer an international benchmark in terms of curriculum, learning materials and assessment. This clearly speeds up acquisition of the language.
The richness of learning input makes the acquisition of English most effective and efficient. Take the case of teaching English to young learners, a mushrooming trend in our big cities. Many private schools and tutorials provide interesting, child-friendly learning input, as well as a cozy learning ambience where children can practice the language in a relaxed way without fear or anxiety.
This greatly differs from the English-teaching practice in the past where the systematic learning of aspects of language such as grammar and vocabulary prevailed. The main materials from textbooks were unappealing.
Further, the goal of contemporary English pedagogy emphasizes more on language practice –a pedagogical shift from the emphasis on language rules or correctness.
School children today learn English to be the users of the language, with language rules being learnt subconsciously through story books, games, song, etc, while students in past learnt the language to be the “language experts”, with language rules being analyzed and verbally explained — and these students of the past stumbled in English even after years of studying.
Finally, the greatest factor contributing to the rapid acquisition of English among children today is exposure to advanced technology. Children can do web-surfing, finding and reading texts that interest them. Thus they unconsciously acquire vocabulary and grammar at exponential rates.
Interestingly, not many people are aware that the internet has become an important source of input for language development, and has tremendously helped young people improve their English proficiency .
They instead still cling to their faith that it is formal education that can equip children with learning input, and that can help them improve their English proficiency. This belief is understandable because many people stick to the perception that language is consciously rather than subconsciously learned.
The writer is an associate professor of English at the School of Education and Language, Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.