We have the right to change English
Hanung Triyoko , Salatiga | Sat, 05/31/2008 12:08 PM | Opinion
The upcoming Asia TEFL Conference in Bali is too important to overlook.
It will be held from Aug. 1-3, 2008, and this year’s theme is Globalizing Asia: The Role of ELT.
What intrigues me most is to what extent this conference will contribute to Indonesian non-native English teachers’ efforts to implement successful English language teaching in classrooms across the country.
Will the conference inspire us to apply new approaches and methodologies based on the belief that English evolves as it spreads, and so there is no more “English” but rather many localized “Englishes”? Are we going to follow up the conference with agreement on ways to help students become proficient in Indonesian English?
For many here, the relation between language and identity is summed up in the familiar Javanese adage, Ajining diri ono ing kedaling lathi (The words you speak determine who you are). Simply put, it’s the essence of the relationship between language and identity.
This conference will perhaps prompt us to seek answers to why very few people are convinced ELT (English Language Teaching) in Indonesia is successful. Many English teachers here base their lessons around strict, unbending ideals of the language, and expect students to conform to these ideals. This can create, whether intentionally or not, a hostile atmosphere that at its heart, threatens the students’ Indonesian identity.
For instance, how many Indonesian English teachers find it funny when students speak English with a marked accent? I’d say far too many. Anybody would be discouraged from speaking a foreign language if all it brings is ridicule and mockery.
As English teachers, the language forms an inextricable part of our social and personal lives, but the extent to which it identifies us varies. It depends on our day-to-day experiences with English and our understanding of the role of the language in our future. A similar model may be applied to our students. Do not expect all of them to want to know the intricacies of English grammar, because not all of them will grow up wanting to be English teachers.
Many teachers try to mold their students into competent English speakers with an ability approaching native English speakers. Some still teach this way, but others are beginning to think critically in light of the different circumstances students now face, and because the use of English in our society has now reached a level that earlier teachers could never have anticipated.
How many English learners in Indonesia face situations where the use of their mother tongue is restricted? The vast majority, one would think. Most students use English when speaking to their teachers or peers, or when reading English textbooks.
And yet they should be allowed the option of reverting to their native language if it’s too difficult for them to convey their message in English, assuming the meaning is not lost in the switch.
And they should be able to turn to a dictionary or friends or teachers or other sources whenever they find it too difficult to understand written English passages.
The need to establish and recognize a local English — Indonesian English or Indoglish — is not without basis. Malaysian English and Singaporean English (Singlish) are already taken for granted, and the debate on whether certain nations or communities can claim ownership of their local version of English is considered moot because of the seemingly unstoppable rise of localized English worldwide.
However, the realization of this dream should start with our willingness to stop prioritizing the “correctness” of pronunciations and accents even when the message remains intelligible and the meaning is not lost.
We should also stop limiting students’ vocabularies to what is published in ELT books, as long as words that make up the new lexicon are widely accepted by the students. Someday, for instance, when the time is right, we may even see abbreviations such as “OIC” for “Oh, I see” in textbooks.
Brutt-Griffler (1998, p. 387) defines non-native English teachers as “non-native speakers” with the “authority” to spread as well as to change English. However this authority to change the language does not mean we can do so whimsically.
It should be used to enable us to express ourselves more clearly when talking to others about our cultures and beliefs. English colloquialisms mean little from an Asian perspective, but the ability to construct our own colloquialisms opens up whole new opportunities for us.
Take for instance the English phrases “Excuse me” and “I am sorry”, which in Bahasa Indonesia both translate as maaf. To native English speakers, there is a world of difference between the two expressions, but for non-native speakers there is a distinct advantage in being able to use one expression to mean two different things.
Many native English speakers feel their language is sufficient for all situations, and hence don’t see the benefits of switching to a localized vernacular in cases like this.
Most of us would agree there are major differences between the English our students are speaking and the English we as teachers speak. However, the differences are subtle, and it’s not that easy to pinpoint any concrete examples of this gap.
This can happen because very often we regard what our students write or say as mistakes or a failure to properly grasp the grammar. We judge them as such because we’ve been trained to compare them to accepted forms which we believe will never change.
Alternatively, we could consider these mistakes part of an emerging localized version of English, a language molded and influenced by the students and their understanding of a foreign language. We should welcome these differences with the hope that our students will eventually speak a similar English to us. The problem is we seldom see these differences for what they really are: the seeds of our very own localized English.
The writer is a lecturer at STAIN Salatiga and a student in the Master’s Program of Educational Leadership and Management, La Trobe University, Melbourne. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org