Training Teachers for Multilingual and Multiethnic Classrooms in Indonesia

Training Teachers for Multilingual and Multiethnic Classrooms in Indonesia

Rebecca Fanany

Faculty of Arts and EducationDeakin University Australia


The linguistic/cultural environment in Indonesia is extremely complex, with some 700 locallanguages in use by various ethnic groups located in different parts of the country and a nationallanguage that is used as the medium of instruction in all modern education (and many other)contexts. This national language, bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian), is linguistically related to Malay, whichfor many centuries was a lingua franca in island Southeast Asia, has been developed a result offormal language planning and has also evolved through natural contexts of usage. At the presenttime, Indonesian is extremely dynamic and has changed very rapidly since the expansion of nationaltelevision and through the influence of increased media usage. What is now consideredstandard Indonesian usage, as measured by language use in the formal media such as on television and innewspapers as well as by the language Indonesian speakers consider natural in a range of communicationcontexts, has been strongly influenced by certain regional dialects and local languages, amongothers the Jakarta variety of Indonesian and Javanese, and must be mastered for a person to participatefully in national culture which takes place in Indonesian.

Today, however, a majority of Indonesians still do not speak Indonesian as their firstlanguage. While there are now a significant number of young people who have grown up inIndonesian speaking environments, often because their parents have made a conscious effort touse the language rather than a local language or because they come from different ethnic groupsand speak different local languages themselves, most children still speak a local language as their firstlanguage and are first formally exposed to Indonesian when they begin school. While it is likely that theyhave heard Indonesian before this, especially on television, most of them have never experienced an Indonesian speaking environment. Further, the kind of Indonesian used on entertainment andchildren’s television programming tends to be informal in style and limited in the social contexts itrefers to. In practice, most children will experience formal, standard Indonesian when they begin tointeract with teachers and classmates in the educational context.

Not surprisingly, mastery of Indonesian has always been a central focus of national education inIndonesia because ability to use the national language is an important predictor of success informal education which, in turn, determines the kind of work and eventual socioeconomic statusa person will be able to achieve. Despite this, it has been observed that many students still fail toachieve the level of mastery required to use Indonesia in a full range of social functions,including in the context of education itself, and that this may limit participation in national culture.

Multilingualism in the Context of Education

Much of the research on multilingual classroom and educational environments has concernedsituations where a number of speakers of another language must be integrated in to aneducational system that uses the majority language of the society in question. A great deal of thisresearch comes from the English speaking world and, as such, addresses and investigates thespecific context of language use that dominates those societies. As a result, much of theresearch in this area relates to what has been called “multiculturalism” in education which hasgenerally referred to a situation where students from non-majority backgrounds are presentamong native speakers of English and where concerns have arisen about the imposition anddominance of Anglo-Saxon cultural norms as well as language use on people whose norms and expectations may differ (May and Sleeter, 2010). In the US specifically, multiculturalism is most often discussed in the context of race (McCarthy et al, 2005).

The situation in Indonesia is quite different however. The vast majority of Indonesian students does not speak Indonesian as a first language and, in some parts of the country, also speak one of severallocal languages in use in the same location, meaning they may not share a language with classmates or teachers.However, nearly all of these students are indigenous to the nation and come from culturalbackgrounds that arose within Indonesia or that were established there in the distant past. Theaim of the educational system, therefore, is to give students the ability to use a second language thathappens to be the national language and that will give them access to a cultural mainstreamalongside the framework provided by their first (ethnic) language (Government of Indonesia,2010).  In this context, students have as much claim to Indonesian as to their local language, and bothlanguages contribute to individual identity as a member of an ethnic group and as a citizen ofIndonesia.

While most people simply accept that a certain language is used as the language of instruction inschools in the place where they live, students’ attitudes about language use provide usefulinsight into how young speakers may view the need to master a second language. In fact, manystudents who do not speak the majority language/dialect believe their native language to beinappropriate for the formal educational context (Sciriha, 1996). Others may view use of their firstlanguage to constitute uneducated behavior (Papapavlou, 1998). This interpretation is held bymany Indonesians because of the close association of mastery of Indonesian with success in formaleducation. It is important to understand that such attitudes on the part of students themselveslikely reflect views of the wider community and may in fact be reinforced by the teaching of themajority language itself. In the context of Indonesia, there is some evidence that the widespreademphasis on mastery of Indonesian has contributed to attitudes favoring the language in certain contextsand also associating it with certain views and perceptions (see Fanany and Effendi, 1999).

When the attitudes of parents are considered, it is generally the case that they prefer that theirchildren’s education occur in the majority language (Hoover, 1978; McGroarty, 1996; Hoover etal, 1997). On the other hand, it has also been found that some parents want the languages theyuse at home to be recognized in school and their children’s language heritage respected(Epstein and Xu, 2003). These somewhat contradictory views are also found in Indonesia, wherelocal languages have an institutionalized role in society and are protected in the nation’sconstitution. The teaching of local languages comes under the local content provision ofthe national curriculum and, although a choice of subjects to fill this slot has been allowed(Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 2012), many schools do teach a local language at the elementary school level.While this practice has generally been well accepted, special problems arise in locations wherethe student body consists of individuals from a wide range of linguistic/cultural backgrounds due to migration and urbanization, for example, or because the area has traditionally been inhabitedby several ethnic groups each with its own language.

Teachers’ attitudes are also important because they may affect students’ performance in school and also impact on the way students view their own and other people’s language use. There is considerable research that indicates teachers often have a negative impression of students who do not or cannot use the majority language (Wilberschied and Dassier, 1995; Garrett et al, 1999; Haig and Oliver, 2003). When teachers have difficulty understanding or interacting with students from different linguistic backgrounds, they may develop negative feelings which can affect the academic progress of the students in question (Byrnes and Cortez, 1996). Such perceptions on the part of teachers have been shown to potentially influence the language acquisition of students (Gardner and MacIntyre, 1993; Cargile et al, 1994). Again, the situation in Indonesia is somewhat different from that in many parts of the world. For one thing, most teachers are also non-native speakers of Indonesian, just as their students are, but they have mastered the language to a high level. This is a prerequisite of their employment and is required to complete the university education that leads to a teaching credential. For this reason, some teachers may be less tolerant of students who seem to have difficulty with Indonesian, perhaps viewing the use of the language as simply a part of school that they, and many other people, coped with successfully. A second issue is that teachers may not come from the same first language background as some or most of the students they have to teach. This situation might occur when an individual takes a teaching job in a part of the country far from where they come from, when they teach in an urban school where many of the students’ families are recent domestic migrants from elsewhere, or when they teach in a school in a part of the country where multiple local languages are used in a small geographic area. In each of these situations, it is assumed that children will gradually master Indonesian in school and the language will become the medium of communication between different linguistic communities. In many cases, this does in fact occur, but the difficulties of teachers in supporting the process of acquisition of Indonesian have not been rigorously addressed.

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Mastery of Indonesian as a Goal of the Educational System

In many educational contexts around the world, mutltilingual/mutliethnic classrooms consist ofsome number of native speaker students from the majority linguistic/cultural groups and another,usually smaller, number of non-native speakers. The aim in these situations is give thenon-native speaker students the capacity to achieve levels of mastery of the majority languagethat are equivalent to those of native speakers and hence to be able to function fully in allcontexts of communication. The situation in Indonesia is different however.  In a majority ofschools, there are few native speakers of Indonesian, and almost all students, as well asteachers, speak another language as their first language. This is further complicated by the factthat some local languages in Indonesia are closer linguistically to Indonesian (for example,Malay), while others belong to a different family of languages and are linguistically unrelated (manylanguages in Eastern Indonesia). Despite this, it has been assumed in Indonesia that every childcan master Indonesian to the level required to participate in national culture and the nationalmainstream.

Despite the fact that research on the variable attainment of proficiency in a second language haslargely been conducted in western language speaking environments where non-native speaker studentsfrom a variety of language backgrounds must be integrated into the larger society, some of thefindings in this area are relevant to Indonesia and to the context of teacher training. The literaturecontains considerable discussion about the extent to which non-native speakers can uselanguage in the same way as native speakers. While this has not been a meaningfulconsideration in Indonesia for much of its history, since so much of the population is composedof non-native speakers, it is increasingly important as children’s exposure to Indonesian nowtends to begin at younger ages, through exposure to television and other contexts of use, and  because there are parents who use Indonesian exclusively or almost exclusively with theirchildren. For this reason, it worth considering that the language facility of bilingual speakers israrely identical to that of native speakers (Coppetiers, 1987; Bongaerts et al, 1997). (Whetherthis is desirable or required is another issue.) This is not to say that the non-native speaker has alanguage deficit but rather highlights the fact that differences in mastery may be apparent and mayalso have the potential to impact on the individual’s ability to communicate appropriately.

One aspect of appropriate communication relates to the perceptions of other speakers. While itmay be the case that a variety of language is considered acceptable and functional by linguists,this does not necessarily mean it will be perceived that way by members of the public with whomthe speaker must interact. In the case of school students who must master a second language,they will have to fit into and interact as adults in a society that has certain expectations forlanguage use and certain preferred varieties of the majority language (Cook, 2002).

Observations in Indonesia suggest that the preferred variety of Indonesian is an extremely dynamic form of the language that is heavily influenced by certain local language elements as well as borrowings from English that draws much of its form from usage in the capital, Jakarta. This variety of language is used in the media, by influential speakers, by professionals and by those with a high level of education. This is not to say that this variety of Indonesian is in common use in Indonesian-language interaction in every part of Indonesia. In fact, many localities have a distinctive variety of Indonesian that is used in those places when Indonesian is required. This may be quite different from the “national” variety that tends to be high prestige and that is often imitated by speakers from other parts of the country. Interestingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is within this dialect of Indonesian that there tend to be an increasing number of native speakers.

There has been little discussion of what constitutes an adequate level of language mastery bynon-native speakers of any language, although some work has been done from the point of view ofcomprehensibility (see Jenkins, 2000; Perdue, 2002). The most appropriate goal in terms oflanguage mastery may, in fact, be relative, depending on what the individual in question needs thelanguage for (Cook, 2002). However, in the context of school level students in Indonesia, it isaccepted that fluency in Indonesian is required, even if it is not possible to define exactly what this means.

Indonesian mastery can be seen as a continuum, ranging from near native ability at one end tomostly passive ability at the other. There are speakers beyond this continuum at both endshowever. Interestingly, especially among older speakers, those with the greatest facility inIndonesian created the usage that became the basis for today’s native ability. For those at the otherend of the continuum, it may be extremely difficult to use Indonesian in a communicativemanner, especially in ways that can be understood by speakers from other linguistic groups, asthe use of the language across Indonesia tends to be highly colored by local conventions andinfluence from local languages, regardless of the origin of the speaker.

For school students, the level of mastery of Indonesian has important consequences. A highlevel of facility in the language is required to successfully complete any level of formal education,with demands rising with the level of schooling. University study requires near native ability in thelanguage, as does any kind of employment in the formal sector. Again, however, the problem arises of defining near native ability. What this means for a person who mightspend his or her whole career in the region of which he or she is a native may be very differentthan for a person who intends to seek employment in Jakarta or a part of the nation he or shedoes not come from. In other words, near native fluency in Indonesian is relative, depending onthe specific social context of interest. For this reason, it may be more meaningful toconsider near native ability in Indonesian, which is generally agreed to be demanded as one outcome of the educational process, in the context of function, where teachers are charged withdeveloping fluency in students that will allow them to interact as adults in a variety of naturalcommunicative contexts relevant to them. It probably must be accepted, in the case of Indonesia, that these contexts will vary depending on the student’s aims and ability.Nonetheless, the demands on teachers in Indonesia are very great with respect to language.

First, students’ lives take place in a multilingual society. For many, their exposure to Indonesianmay come largely through the media (where usage is not interactive) and in school. When they are not in school, they may have few or no opportunities to hear Indonesian in use in naturallanguage contexts. In many cases, however, language teaching is based on the external goal ofallowing non-native speakers to interact with native speakers (Wilkins, 1976; Cook, 2002). Evenin light of the specific characteristics of language use in Indonesia discussed above, the fact thatteachers may be the main language model for students cannot be overlooked. Second,knowledge of a new language, especially when the language must be used by non-nativespeakers in real situations that matter, changes the way in which those involve think andconceptualize information. In the case of Indonesia, giving students the ability and understandingto conceptualize information in accordance with the cognitive framework of Indonesian hasalways been an important aspect of the educational system (see Fanany and Effendi, 1999).

This ability comes with time and exposure, but for teachers especially in the early grades of school, managing learning among students with very different cognitive strategies and worldviews that cone from local languages may be a major challenge. Third, non-native speaker students are unlikely to develop language mastery that approaches that of the native speaker, but they can become proficient users of the second language. This occurs on a large scale in Indonesia, and teachers serve as models for students of how non-native speakers can use a second language effectively and functionally in contexts that matter. This places an added responsibility on teachers. They must demonstrate to students an appropriate use of language; they provide an example of people who were successful in mastering the language to a high level; and they must  be aware of the students’ specific cultural and linguistic perceptions that derive from their first language. In Indonesia, this last point is of particular interest because it is not uncommon for teachers to come from a different first language background than students, which may mean they have less understanding of students’ cognitive framework.  All of these issues are important in the context of teacher training for the multilingual, multiethnic classrooms that are the norm in Indonesia.

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Language Awareness in Teacher Training

Despite the importance of linguistic diversity and how common it is in many societies around theworld, teachers are usually not given the background to address it in their classrooms and areoften unaware of the problems students may have in mastering a second language (Yiakoumetti,2011). In the context of Indonesia, this is especially important as virtually every teacher will face asituation where students come from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds that mayimpact significantly on their mastery of Indonesian. For this reason, training that is aimedspecifically at the Indonesian language context (as opposed to general training in linguistics)would be of particular value for Indonesian teachers. Ideally, such training would be a part of allteaching courses because, in Indonesia, Indonesian is taught as a subject intended to developmastery in students but is also the language of instruction for other subjects.

From a linguistic point of view, future teachers in Indonesia must understand the nature oflanguage and dialect use in the nation and also the roles and characteristics of standard andnon-standard language. While most Indonesians are aware of the linguistic and cultural diversityof the country, it is likely that many do not have a practical understanding of how this situationmight affect issues like classroom management and teaching practices, on the one hand, butstudent learning and achievement on the other. Similarly, students of teaching must understandthe functions of different linguistic varieties that they may encounter in the community. While theymay be adept at understanding and even using such varieties themselves, it is likely that manydo not have an awareness of the communicative function of such forms of language. Finally,future teachers must understand code switching, not just as a linguistic phenomenon, but as astrategy used by speakers of more than one language, dialect or variety to communicateeffectively. While knowledge of the dynamics of code switching in the community of the studentsis important, teachers must also be prepared to use their own ability to code switch to assiststudents. While interaction in Indonesian schools is generally required to occur in Indonesian, itmay be acceptable, and even desirable, for teachers to occasionally switch between formalusage of Indonesian and less formal, non-standard varieties that may be better understood bystudents. In this way, teachers’ capacity to code switch can be used to transition students tomore standard, academically appropriate varieties of Indonesian. In addition, it may be possible andappropriate for teachers to use a local language at certain times, although this may have thepotential to disadvantage some students, especially in locations where more than one locallanguage is in use, and hence must be approached with caution.

The linguistic difficulties students may face in having to use Indonesian in school, especially without much reinforcement in the community, should not be underestimated. Every language leaves its own impression on a person’s cognitive processes, which means that the framework and structure that come naturally to a speaker of a given language are unique to that language.  Even languages that are linguistically close may be very different in terms of the natural usage of speakers. This translates into differences in use that are amply demonstrated by the national languages of Indonesia and Malaysia, which are closely related and in fact share a common ancestor in the Malay that was a lingua franca in the region in the past. While most people are probably aware of the problems inherent in learning new vocabulary, grammar and syntax, the impact of interference from a speaker’s first language is often overlooked. For this reason, it is not uncommon for language learners to translate words or phrases from their first language into a second language, even when they have been taught explicitly or by example that the resulting utterance is not natural, colloquial, or even grammatical in the target language. The same phenomenon applies across dialects and varieties of a single language as well. In Indonesia, this is manifested in the many varieties of Indonesian in use across the country and contributes to the regional identity of language use. In the context of school classrooms, the issue is observable in the differential mastery of students which may vary within one class, within one school, and between schools of between regions.

In addition to linguistic factors that may support their teaching in the multilingual, multiethnicclassrooms of Indonesia, there are social aspects of language use that are necessary for futureteachers to understand. One of these is the social, cognitive, and linguistic impact of students’first language. This is especially important if the teacher comes from a different linguisticbackground from some of the students. While most Indonesians understand implicitly that manypeople speak a language other than Indonesian at home, it is likely that many have neverconsidered the impact this has on children’s ways of thinking and their perceptions relative tocommunication. Coupled with an understanding of the linguistic nature of the local languages inthe community, this kind of awareness can facilitate teachers’ interaction with students andmake their teaching more effective in terms of outcome. A second social aspect of language usethat may be relevant to future teachers is an understanding of the relative status of differentlanguages or dialects in the community in which they will work. We understand that theperceptions of the public about the prestige or status of different languages differ, and, inmultilingual communities, there is usually a view among members of the public about whichlanguages/dialects are prestigious and which are not. Because language users internalizetheseviews from extremely young ages, they are often set by the time children reach school and havethe potential to affect certain users’ perceptions and willingness to use both the first and secondlanguage. Similarly, interaction between students from different language backgrounds may beaffected by social perceptions associated with language. In addition, teachers must be aware oftheir own language use as a speaker of a regional variety of Indonesian. Since there is no“neutral” form of a language, teachers must understand how their language use may beunderstood by students, both in terms of content as well as in terms of social informationconveyed. This may be of particular important for those future teachers who end up working in apart of Indonesia where language use is different than in the region of origin.

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It is often taken for granted in Indonesia that school students will master Indonesian, and it is the case that a majority of them do to some extent. This is not to say that every student will become a fluent speaker of Indonesian or will be able to use the language in a functional manner relative to his or her own social context. When the lack of mastery is noted, it is often in the context of criticism of educational policy or funding for schools (see, for example, Alwasilah, 2013). What this means in practical terms for the children involved is often overlooked however. An inability to communicate in or fully understand the national language means that they are likely to be locked out of employment in the formal sector and may also have great difficulty interacting with people outside their region of origin. This can have a potentially lifelong impact on earning power, social status, and mobility. Psychosocial impacts often result from such communication difficulties and are often seen in Indonesian in urban contexts among domestic migrants (Fanany, 2013). A second issue worthy of consideration is the impact that inability to communicate in Indonesian has on the ability of students to achieve to a maximum level in other school subjects. In Indonesia, the issue of mastery of Indonesian relates not only to language subjects and communication in the broader sense but also to learning in general because school takes place in Indonesian in addition to teaching Indonesian. In other words, even as children are learning to read, write and speak Indonesian, they are also using the language as the medium to study other non-language subjects. A student whose mastery of Indonesian is poor may well have comparable difficulties achieving in other non-language subjects where the content might not present a problem if it were presented in the student’s first language. While there is no data available to elucidate the situation, it would not be surprising to find that inability to use Indonesian underlies many of the problems students experience that ultimately lead them to leave school without graduating. Economic difficulties are most frequently cited for this situation. However, it is the case that people at the lower end of the SES scale often experience multiple disadvantages, and language is often one of them (see Fanany and Fanany, 2012).

What this means, in practical terms, is that every Indonesian school teacher is a de facto language teacher and must understand and be able to apply both linguistic and social knowledge about language use in Indonesia in general as well as in the specific community in which he or she works. Language diversity is the norm in Indonesia and constitutes the main characteristic of the multilingual, multiethnic schools and classrooms of the nation. Language is a proxy for culture, and culture shapes thought, perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. Addressing this complexity in their teaching practices is a major task for Indonesian teachers and one that cannot be assumed will take care of itself. For this reason, all teachers must be specifically prepared to work in a multilingual, multiethnic setting and must be given the tool and knowledge to do so effectively.


The situation in Indonesia is extremely complex with respect to language use in thecommunity. In addition, all students are expected to master Indonesian through formaleducation, and near native ability in the language is required to participate in national culture,further education, formal employment contexts, and a whole range of other areas. The situationis further complicated by the fact that a majority of Indonesians are speakers first of one of thenation’s more than 700 local languages and second of the national language. For teachers, whoare themselves examples of successful mastery of Indonesian, there are special demands interms of managing classrooms composed of students from different linguistic/cultural backgroundswho must be taught Indonesian as well as in Indonesian.

Even with an understanding of the dynamics of the language situation, this is a challenge forteachers and one which can best be approached through a combination of training in thelinguistic and social aspects of language use in the community and an awareness of the specialabilities they already possess that can be used to assist students to achieve the desired levels ofmastery. Having come from the same kind of multilingual, multiethnic background as theirstudents, Indonesian teachers may be able to make use of their own experiences and facility incode switching and variant language use in the classroom. Nonetheless, this will not be possiblewithout a strong grounding in the specific characteristics of the community in which they willwork and also in the linguistic and ethnic diversity of Indonesia as a nation. One aspect of thismust certainly be a rethinking of certain elements of how Indonesian mastery have beenperceived while a second will necessarily include training in how to make use of the linguisticdiversity that already exists among their students to support mastery of the national language.


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