Indonesia debates English proficiency concern ahead of AEC

University of Indonesia LibraryUniversity of Indonesia Library. Photo courtesy wikipedia user Ppsi ui

By: Ardi Wirdana

As the official language of ASEAN, English is likely to serve as the working language of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). English, to quote ASEAN secretary general H.E. Le Luong Minh, “is an important and indispensable tool to bring our Community closer together”.

For Indonesia, where English usage is not as widespread, the thought of having to use English as a daily working language only adds to the general feeling of apprehension over the regional integration. While interest in English in Indonesia has risen considerably over the years, the country has still a long way to go to catch up with the likes of Singapore and Malaysia in terms of English proficiency.

The 2015 Education First (EF) English Proficiency Index (EPI) ranked Indonesia 32nd out of 70 countries in the index, whereas neighbours Singapore, Malaysia and even Vietnam, were placed higher at 12, 14 and 29 respectively.

The index report, which also notes that better English correlates with higher income and better quality of life, has been taken on board by the Education and Culture Ministry officials who say that they will be using it “to determine the next step to improve the English ability of the people”.

A different kind of proficiency

However, experts don’t seem to be buying too much into the index. Setiono Sugiharto, an associate professor of English at Atma Jaya Catholic University, says that it is unwise to compare Indonesia’s English proficiency to those of Singapore and Malaysia.

The headquarter of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) in Jalan Sisingamangaraja No.70A, South Jakarta, Indonesia.

The headquarters of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) in Jalan Sisingamangaraja No.70A, South Jakarta, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia user Gunawan Kartapranata

“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,” he wrote in an opinion piece published by The Jakarta Post.

He further argued that Indonesia is currently seeing an interest and ability in English, especially among its youth, like never before. This positive trend, however, has not been reflected in the index due to the unclear definition of the term “language proficiency” and what it constitutes.

In the 10 last years or so, Indonesia has seen steady changes in the way families view English. With the rapid growth of the young middle class who are more globally connected, Indonesians are becoming more aware of the urgency of English in their lives.

Young families are now demanding that their children be able to speak both Indonesian and English fluently from an early age. Parents now communicate with their children in English and look for schools and other educational institutions that can help them achieve this.

As a result, a lot of new schools are emerging with the label of “international” or “bilingual” school added on to their names, private English tutorials for children as young as toddlers are mushrooming, and the number of English courses in the country is increasing with 4.583 being the latest figure cited by the government.

Setiono explains that these new emerging institutions provide youngsters with a different set of English skills than those measured in proficiency tests – a set of skills that revolves more around daily language practice rather than language rules and correctness.

“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,” he said.

Inconsistent government policies

Unlike Setiono, the government has chosen to take more heed of the information presented in the index, and has added a sense of urgency to the matter by bringing in the imminent AEC into the picture.

The government are anticipating a stream of global and multinational companies into Indonesia under the AEC framework, and are therefore convinced that English language mastery will be essential in order for Indonesians to compete with regional counterparts.

Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir

Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir. Photo courtesy Government of Indonesia

In a bid to give Indonesia’s workers a better chance in the AEC, Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir recently announced that the ministry was preparing a bilingual curriculum that would use both Bahasa Indonesia and English in universities nationwide starting in 2016. The curriculum will make it compulsory for university students to interact in English in order to prepare them to compete in the AEC.

While the idea has been cheered by some university students who find the thought of using English to communicate with friends and lecturers amusing, universities are more critical of the policy. Many complain that they are not prepared for the abrupt change, as many of the lecturers hired by universities do not have sufficient ability to use English as a language of instruction.

The government has been urged to be more consistent in its policies regarding English language learning if it is serious about improving English proficiency in the country.

The removal of English from the primary school curriculum is one policy that the government may need to reconsider. Another one is the new rule on KITAS – the temporary resident card for foreigners in Indonesia, which has been much bemoaned by English courses owners in the country.

The new rule demand that companies only hire foreign employees with an educational background that correspond directly with the scope of the company. English teachers, therefore, must have a bachelor of English degree. This, the English-teaching industry argues, makes it difficult to employ native English teachers as an undergraduate degree in English is very rarely done by students in developed countries.

Is English really an urgency for AEC?

While experts agree that boosting English skills of the average Indonesians should be an agenda of the government, not all are convinced that English mastery will be an urgent necessity in the upcoming AEC.

Ari Adipurwawidjana, an English department lecturer from Padjadjaran University, says that he believes the majority of Indonesian workers will not need English proficiency to excel at their jobs.

“In what other line of work other than the teaching of English is English really necessary in Indonesia? Even if there are positions that require real English proficiency, very few people will be required to do the job,” Ari told Asean Today.

Forcing every student from every major to follow a bilingual curriculum, therefore, would prove to be an unnecessary burden for many.  In most working fields, he argues, a broken form of English would be sufficient to bridge the language gap between different nationalities.

Ari further argues that it is actually more likely that multinational companies that come to Indonesia will have to learn and adopt the Indonesia language and culture in order to penetrate the huge Indonesian market, whose English skills are evidently below par.

He says that English would be important for Indonesians looking to secure employment overseas, but for those content with staying in Indonesia, which is the vast majority of Indonesians, they will have other things to worry about.

“I’m not sure the main problem for Indonesian workers is English proficiency. They have bigger problems, like the poor labour laws. If we want to protect Indonesia workers then we need to fix the labour laws,” he said.

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“As the official language of ASEAN, English …”

Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that English “has not been officially established as the language AEC”. The statement has been revised to avoid any confusion and ambiguity.