Is English improving lives in a remote Indonesian village?

The house of the English high school teacher in the village in Sulawesi where Pasassung conducted his fieldwork

The house of the English high school teacher in the village in Sulawesi where Pasassung conducted his fieldwork

In a recent post, I reviewed language policy research that shows how compulsory English in China has given rise to new inequities and is far from being a means to fair development. In that context, compulsory English language learning is problematic for reasons of practical feasibility, allocative effectiveness and distributive justice. That macro language policy perspective is complemented by a school ethnography of English language learning in a small village in Indonesia. The study was conducted by Nicolaus Pasassung in 1999-2000 and has unfortunately never been published but the PhD dissertation it resulted in has now been made available here on Language on the Move.

The thesis titled Teaching English in an “Acquisition-Poor Environment”: An ethnographic example of a remote Indonesian EFL classroom grapples with the question why compulsory English language teaching in Indonesian high schools has been such a failure. That question in itself was not novel even at the time of the research: the World Bank, for instance, had funded the British Council to explore exactly that question a few years earlier and their answer had been that the English language curriculum and the English language teaching methods in Indonesian high schools were inadequate. The solution was relatively simple: the communicative approach was promoted as the panacea to Indonesia’s English language teaching woes.

However, as the researcher found when he spent almost a year in a remote village on the island of Sulawesi, the curricular and methodological problems in the junior high school he observed were part and parcel of a much larger complex that mitigated against the success of English language instruction; this complex also included the status of English, the cultural values of the school and wider society and the material conditions under which English language teaching took place.

To begin with, English and contexts where it was used were entirely alien to the village and there was no place for English in the community outside the classroom. Even in the classroom, the language had a tenuous hold. For instance, the thesis includes a poignant description of a lesson in which students were studying hotel dialogues from the prescribed textbook. Neither the students nor the teacher had any experience of hotels and a number of misunderstandings unfold as the teacher tries to teach and the students try to study vocabulary items in English that they have no concept of in their native language: in a village that does not have electricity, “vacuum cleaner” is one such example where the researcher as participant observer is called upon by the teacher to explain what a “vacuum cleaner” might be.

This is one tiny example of a sheer endless list of obstacles that the students face: inappropriate materials, teachers’ limited proficiency, corruption, efforts to maintain a harmonious society where everyone keeps face, limited resources on every level etc. etc. all conspire to turn the compulsory English lessons in the junior high school under investigation into a meaningless waste of time. Not only does compulsory English study under these conditions not produce any results but it attracts a cost: the opportunity cost to spend the time invested into English lessons in a more productive way.

Like Guangwei Hu and Lubna Alsagoff in their review of compulsory English in Chinese secondary education, Nicolaus Passasung, too, recommends, inter alia, to make English language learning in Indonesian high schools an elective.

Would such a move further entrench the disparities between rural and urban populations and between the rich and the poor, as the proponents of compulsory English argue? In the world described by Pasassung, English simply doesn’t matter. Existing inequities are largely unaffected by English as securing a good education including learning English in itself is not enough to advance in a world where personal advancement depends on connections and even bribery. As one villager explains, without additional financial and social resources, his sons have little to gain from their education:

Why should I be bothered sending my children to university and spend a lot of money? A lot of graduates are unemployed. When someone finishes university, s/he only wants a white-collar job and would prefer being unemployed to working in a garden. I do not have anyone who can help my children find work in a government office, and I do not have enough money to bribe them. (quoted in Pasassung 2003, p. 145) Pasassung, Nikolaus (2003). Teaching English in an “Acquisition-Poor Environment”: An Ethnographic Example of a Remote Indonesian EFL Classroom Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Sydney

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Li Jia

    Before reading your post, my husband and I used to discuss what we would do after our retirement. He and I agree to set up a school in a most remote area and I would be in charge of teaching kids English for I used to believe that with a good command of English, one could get easier access to many good chances in society. But now if you ask me whether English could really change their lives, I have to question myself to what extent their lives might be improved by my help with their English.

    It is true that 13 years ago, after my graduation, 50 % of BA and BS students could find a good job, say, working as university teachers, but nowadays anyone who wants to be a university teacher would have to have a doctorate degree as one of the required conditions. Take English major students in China for example. Normally there are 120 students in each grade in my university (which is one of the famous comprehensive universities in China’s 211 Project Lists) , and around 20 of them would be an MA students in future. I really wonder how many of them would finally become a PhD student in future. One or two? So chances would be very slow for them to do their PhD study in future, in other words, less than 1% of English majored students would be able to use English to improve their lives.

    • Thanks, Li Jia! Please don’t let my post detract you from following your dreams! Setting up a school in a remote area is a noble aspiration and I’m sure much good would come of it. Maybe I’ll even join you 🙂

    • Saluton Li Jia,

      Reading from the brief context of the comment, I gather that you are from China. I would suggest you to learn Esperanto and join the Esperantists in China to teach Esperanto in the rural schools. The trend has changed and if you have read the book English Next, you should know the international language would not be English as in the past.

      Esperanto no only have the propaedeutic value,

      Esperanto also has other value. The rural areas lack of resources and English language requires lots of time and resources to learn it, thus, to equip the poor with an international language, Esperanto is the best choice.

      You can type in Chinese 世界语to look at the activities in China. China is a branch of Esperanto International Teacher Association so as Vietnam and Indonesia.

      We are building ASEAN to use Esperanto as a common language.

      • Li Jia

        Saluton Sinjoro,

        Many thanks for your suggestions. I’m from Yunnan bordering Burma, Vietnam and Laos. Over the past few years, the Yunnan government has encouraged the locals to choose bordering languages rather than English as the only compulsory school subject at school (high school and university). But due to many reasons, such promotion of the bordering languages can not be widely acknowledged by the people in this province. At least the minorities like Dai people would rather choose English and give up learning their own language even though Dai language is very much similar to Thai, Vietnam and Laos languages. So I think whether to teach them English or Esperanto should not come to the first concern. If the future learning groups have their own languages, probably I could first of all raise their awareness of cherishing their own linguistic heritage while teaching them English.

  • Thanks, Ingrid, for blogging about Nico’s research! I hope he’ll get it published soon as it deals with a very important issue for us in Southeast Asia. I’ve been hearing similar stories here in Thailand. It’s amazing how the fact that they don’t need English or have no opportunity to use English outside classroom is considered as a problem or a sign of backwardness that needs to be fixed… Nico’s research challenges the ‘nothing is more important than English” mindset that is widespread here, urging us to continue to question the link between English and development.

    • Nico

      Sorry for this late gratitude (I have always been late due to several reasons amongst other is internet connection problem .
      Thanks a lot Ingrid for blogging my work. You are such of help that I nobody else can be. I have shared it among my networks, and hopefully it will attract people’s interests. The points you highlight are fascinating and capture the important parts of the thesis. The title well-reflects a major issue that requires serious consideration from language education policy makers in Indonesia to rethink of the current English Language Teaching in the context of Indonesia.

      Kimie, Thanks for your support. Hopefully, people in Thailand will be aware of the contribution you make for better development of the country.

      • Thanks, Nico! It’s great to see you on Language on the Move whenever you can make it! All the best!

  • Saluton

    Don’t worry, the government of Indonesia is all the time liberal if compared with Malaysia as there is no act written English must be taught in schools like Malaysia. Now the government of Indonesia has decided to ‘omit’ teaching English.

    In fact, when I talked to my friends in Indonesia, they told me that they can choose to learn many foreign languages like Japanese, German, Chinese, French in the high school.

    The wish of many in ASEAN would be the government can introduce Esperanto in the primary school like in China. Nicole has mentioned a very valid point that give an easy start to the children with Esperanto.

    I wish my government in Malaysia would hear that voice from Nicole.

    • Dankon, Sinjora ENG, for the link to the fascinating article in the Jakarta Post! The comments section is even more intriguing than the actual article …

  • Khan

    Ethnography in its essences is counter-hegemonic. What a fantastic study. Thanks very much Professor for sharing it. I still need to understand how globetrotting academic elites come, touch, and go, leaving their verdicts on very complex issues of classroom dynamics situated in particular history and socio-economic settings- without going to the classes!. Notice the comments on curriculum and methods of language teaching by experts who seem to give the impressions that methods of teaching language are neutral and thereby universal. One of the results of such marketing forces of ELT is that we are surronded by a jungle of terminologies- each new term is projected as the new, the best, the unique, the never- experimented. No wonder billion dollar industry and colleauge have written about these issues. As I have the bad habit of tracing the history, I find myself often snubbed for turning the pages of history of langauge teaching where in the current ELT world, little do I find really new.

  • Fenty Siregar

    Thank you for sharing this information. We need a lot of information about research conducted in Indonesia. Regarding the Indonesian government’s plan to omit English is that English will not be a compulsory subject at elementary level in Indonesia. Officially English is not compulsory in Indonesia; however, we have a “muatan lokal” (local content) subjects in our curriculum and some schools put English under the local content subjects together with local languages. The Indonesian government’s latest view can be read in this link Unfortunately it was written in Indonesia. I will try to find another article which is written in English and post it here.

    Once again thank you for sharing Nicolaus Pasassung’s thesis.

  • Martin Lamb

    I’m glad to have come across this blog, with its many interesting and provocative posts about language life in the 21st century, and especially glad that Nico Pasassung’s thesis got some publicity. It was clearly a ground breaking work, the type of ethnography that we need much more of. I would just suggest though that times are changing, even in quite remote rural contexts. In 2010 I conducted some research comparing the motivation to learn English of junior high school learners in town and villages in eastern Sumatra, recently published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 34/1 (‘Your Mum and Dad can’t teach you!’: Constraints on agency among rural learners of English in the Developing World). My purpose was to draw attention to the fact that many rural learners desire English in the same way as their urban counterparts – for largely imagined future benefits – but have far less chance of satisfying their aspirations. Perhaps things have changed a little though since Nico’s research took place; firstly English is even more entrenched in Indonesian society – it may not have much function in the village, but it’s certainly needed to get out of the village. Secondly mobile technology is giving kids access to English on the web and the opportunity to communicate with other international English users – so both increasing the desire for English and also the means to acquire it.

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