When I joined a community service program (KKN) prior to COVID-19 in 2020, in an outlandish area in West Sumatra, I found some teachers at primary schools running their classes in the local language.
They opened their morning classes by greeting their students in their native tongue. The teachers then began to display hand-drawn pictures of animals and everyday objects in front of the class, as their students eagerly shouted descriptive words of the picture back to them in both Indonesian and Minangnese.
In a country that has managed to keep its more than 700 unique regional languages alive, this cultural diversity has also posed its own set of problems in education. Some students, particularly those that prefer their native language in day-to-day life, find the transition to schooling in the Indonesian language to be difficult.
That is why many education experts have called on the Education, Culture, Research, and Technology Ministry to promote the simultaneous use of local and Indonesian languages during the early stages of education to further boost the accessibility of education, especially that of young children in remote areas. They believe that the use of the Indonesian language in schools in remote regions instead of students’ native tongue could discourage them from participating in class and lead them to eventually drop out, as most won’t understand the language of instruction.
When teachers in schools use the national language, it sounds foreign to students because it is not their native tongue that they use daily. As a result, the children don’t understand the subject material that is being taught. They end up staying silent and become too embarrassed to answer questions. It is important for young children to be fluent in their native tongue first and use their first language to introduce them to the Indonesian language.
A 2019 UNESCO report, asserted that children who are offered first-language education are more likely to enrol and succeed in school while their parents are more likely to communicate with teachers and actively participate in their children’s learning. The same review said that children who abruptly receive formal education in a second language in early education do not master either the second language or their native tongue fully.
I had my own experience while teaching elementary school students during the KKN programme, suggesting that schools needed to prepare for mother-tongue education. Prior to and while teaching the students, all materials in the class had been translated into the students’ native tongue (Minangnese) and re-contextualised for the region. When I read there was a camel in a regular textbook, I changed it to a cow or goat for textbooks because camels are rarely seen there. However, they will eventually be introduced to camels or any other animals once the children’s foundation in their first language is strong.
I reckon that the use of students’ native tongue is also crucial to preserve local languages as the increasing use of the national language and globalisation have threatened their existence. Based on data released by the Education Ministry, 13 out of Indonesia’s 719 languages had become extinct as of 2015, while 75 languages are endangered, and the number of speakers of 266 languages has decreased. This is really bad news.
I had the chance to meet a colleague who lamented that most of his students no longer wanted to speak their native languages in their hometowns and were moving to either Indonesian or English, which they perceived as higher in status than their own home languages. This is just a handful of instances of how language users valorise one language over another.
Another example can be seen from the influx of foreign language terminologies, like those in English, flooding social media. Indeed, using English-sounding words on such a site may bring intellectual satisfaction to the users, as people associated with this language will be perceived as more educated and modern.
Language is not merely a means of communication. It is a channel that connects people of different backgrounds and unites people from the same place. The root of a language lies in its place of origin. Knowing one’s mother tongue not only helps communication with kith and kin, but it also teaches us about our culture and traditions.
Preserving the mother tongue, however, does not mean that we veto our children’s foray into a foreign language, particularly English as an international language of communication. This is so much about the way and strategy. Due to globalisation, English has become a gateway to the world and in the urge to keep up with this development, our mother tongue is becoming degraded. It is somewhat fashionable in upper echelons to converse in English, which is also flaunted as a status symbol.
To get their children admitted to English schools and, later, in order to keep up with the standards of the institution, English becomes the primary language spoken at home. The mother tongue takes a backseat only to be spoken with elders or hired help. English is indeed important, but it can be learned simultaneously with one’s native language during early childhood. The sooner a new language is introduced, the quicker a child picks it up.
During the first five years of life, a child has a lot of potential and inquisitiveness to learn new things and during this period, languages can be mastered quickly. The best way to introduce a new language to children is by speaking with them. Books and television can also be used as effective tools. The more they hear, the faster they begin to speak. Over time, however, the reluctance to learn another language increases in children. When they are older, if they are already comfortable in a certain language, they don’t want the pain of learning anything new.
Learning new languages widens people’s perspectives and makes them more tolerant and broad-minded. It can also improve one’s creativity and thinking. It is the keenness to learn that bridges the barrier between the past and the present.