Archive for March 13th, 2013

March 13, 2013

Bahasa Inggris

by Tabitha Kidwell

A student sent me this text message this morning:

Miss, i’m sorry i can’t attend your class today. I spewed all foods that went to my stomach since yesterday and I don’t feel good today. Sorry I do not send you any license, because i did’t went to doctor, i only use pills to cure it.

I found this message quite clear and even a little charming… but it’s full of errors. This comes from a second year English major, and it is a good illustration of just how low the English levels are here. Now, I do have some very strong students, and students at other universities are typically stronger. Even though it grants an equivalent post-secondary degree, my school is actually classified as a “school of higher learning,” a couple of steps down from a university, so the brightest students typically go elsewhere. Many Indonesians speak better English than my sick student, particularly in the cities. The vast majority, though, cannot string a sentence together. This includes many English teachers – there is no qualifying test to become an English teacher, so out in the villages, even if English is part of the curriculum, it’s the blind leading the blind. Even test prep schools put up signs like these:

...apparently not very well

…apparently not very well

Now, I don’t think people need English just so they can fit into some American imperialist master plan. They don’t all need to be fluent native speakers. But, nationwide, Indonesia does need English. English is the official language of ASEAN and the lingua franca of the region. The latest scholarly research in science and engineering is available in English only. The TOEFL and other language tests are de facto gatekeepers for the best universities worldwide. The lady selling fried bananas on the side of the road in a tiny village might not need English, but if her children don’t learn it in school, they’ll never get out of that tiny village.

It’s important to remember, though, that almost everyone in Indonesia is bilingual, speaking both Bahasa Indonesia and a local language like Javanese or Sundanese or Sasak. That puts them way ahead of the US. In fact, I would bet there are far more people in Indonesia studying English than Americans learning any other language. So Indonesia still has a long way to go… but at least they are better than the US!