Is the use of English as the language of instruction at universities in Indonesia effective?


In 2021, the British Council Indonesia published a report on the results of a study in response to the policy of using English as a medium of instruction (EMI) which is being widely implemented by several universities in Indonesia as part of higher education internationalization programs.

EMI policy ‘requires’ all forms of communication, be it instructions from teachers, materials, as well as interactions between teachers and students in class, to be carried out only in English.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this EMI policy does not always work effectively. A Swedish study even concluded that EMI, under certain circumstances, can have negative consequences on students’ academic performance .

What about in Indonesia?

Compromise for prestige

A study report from the British Council Indonesia found that the policy of implementing EMI in Indonesia spread more quickly in more prestigious institutions as an effort to maintain their prestige and was generally welcomed by teaching staff positively and enthusiastically.

However, in general, the implementation of EMI is not going well because many students’ English language skills are still inadequate.

A 2013 study in Indonesia , for example, found that although lecturers and students recognized the importance of having English language skills, they experienced difficulties when suddenly transitioning to using only English in class.

In addition, the majority of lecturers do not understand how to adapt their teaching methods to English. A 2018 research at teacher training schools in Indonesia found that although some lecturers felt confident implementing EMI policies, their writing skills in English were still inadequate. The syllabus they write in English reflects errors in the use of grammar and word choice in English.

As a result, policy implementation is not optimal. Both teachers and students mix Indonesian and English in class.

Not automatically fluent

English education experts also criticized the EMI policy. They refute the opinion that the use of English alone in class will make students automatically fluent in English. Ernesto Macaro, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oxford , England, for example, stated that this belief cannot be proven .

Miles Turnbull from the University of Prince Edward Island , Canada and Jennifer Dailey-O’Cain from the University of Alberta , Canada, also added that this policy actually harms students . They argue that for bilingual or multilingual students (speaking more than one language, as in the Indonesian context), code-switching (switching from one language to another) occurs naturally and cannot be avoided.

The policy of using only English in classes at university level can actually lead to discrimination against students whose English language skills are inadequate and prevent students from maximizing their academic knowledge .

A study in Israel showed that the use of English alone in class overlooked the fact that students actually process the knowledge they learn in class through more than one language . This policy forces students to think in only one language and ‘turns off’ the function of their other languages. In fact, they use these languages ​​to try to understand learning and make their learning process more meaningful.

Lack of confidence in language

The policy of using only English in class can also result in lack of self-confidence in language because usually students’ use of other languages ​​(such as their mother tongue, local language, and national language) is considered a weakness or deficiency, and is even prohibited from being used.

In the context of Indonesian higher education, this means that the EMI policy ‘forces’ students to abandon their other languages, or in other words, to abandon their bilingual or multilingual identity.

In fact, Lourdes Ortega, a language researcher from Georgetown University , United States (US), stated that everyone has the right to feel confident in their linguistic abilities and in using the languages ​​they have.

Translanguaging method as an alternative

The studies presented above prove that EMI policies in Indonesian classrooms are ineffective.

Research also shows that English language teaching policies in universities in Indonesia must take into account the multilingual and multicultural characteristics of Indonesia.

Translanguaging teaching methods can be an alternative that is more suitable for these characteristics. Translanguaging , popularized by Ofelia Garcia from the City University of New York , USA and Li Wei from the University of London , UK , can be defined as “the process of using all linguistic and cognitive resources, including one’s native language, to understand academic content presented in another language . ”

Yvonne Freeman and David Freeman from the University of Texas , USA provide an example of how translanguaging teaching methods can be applied in the classroom.

In explaining a concept, the lecturer can ask ” What is Concept X in your own language(s) ?” (“What is the concept of X in your own language?”) and “ What are some examples of this concept in your real life?” (“What are examples of this concept in your life?”).

Another example, for example in an English class, the lecturer can ask, ” What is folktale in your own language?” ” (“What are folktales in your local language?), ” What are some examples of folktales in your local language? “ (“What are examples of folklore in your local language?”).

Students are allowed to write notes in their language, as well as compare concepts in English with concepts they can understand in their own language.

Instead of forcing students to only use English in class, this translanguaging concept can provide several benefits, namely: (1) Helping students hone their English language skills; (2) Help students understand the content they learn in class; and (3) Appreciate and maintain other languages ​​they have, as well as local knowledge that sometimes cannot be translated or expressed in English.

Author Bio: Billy Nathan Setiawan is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at the University of South Australia