policy does more harm than good
Opinion and Editorial -
February 24, 2007
Richel Dursin (Maria Richelda B. Langit Dursin- Mahasiswa S2 LTBI)
"Speak English only! If you speak in your home language, you will be
suspended!" This policy is common in schools all over the world, including
Believing that immersion in English is the most effective way to learn the
language, teachers compel their students to speak only in English and ban them
from speaking in their mother tongue. Students who break their school‘s
English-only rule are often suspended, asked to pay a penalty, made to stand
outside the classroom or are taken to the principal‘s office to be reprimanded.
By pushing students to only speak English, teachers believe their students
will learn to read and write more quickly in the language and thus advance in
their studies faster. They also think that the younger these students are
immersed in English, the more proficient they will be in the language. For
them, early age is a strong foundation and the earlier children master English,
the better their chances of succeeding. An old argument is that children‘s
brains are more flexible than adults, thus making it easier for them to learn
The differences in the rate of second language acquisition, however, may
reflect psychological and social factors rather than biological ones. The
measure of success in language learning also cannot be determined only by the
amount of exposure received.
By forbidding students to speak in their mother tongue, teachers are doing
them more harm than good.
Prominent linguist Jim Cummins argues that forcing students to speak only
English in school is disadvantageous to children. Such a policy, he says,
denies students the opportunity to maintain their home languages as
inheritances and as important parts of their cultural identities. Students lose
a vital aspect of themselves when they are coerced to leave their native language
and culture at the schoolhouse door. As a result, they can suffer from the loss
of identity or alienation from their parents, grandparents and other family
By forcing students to discard a part of who they are, educators are
immersing them under water without teaching them how to swim.
Imagine a teacher who keeps explaining a lesson in English to students who
only understand Bahasa Indonesia. Can the students grasp the lesson? Children
cannot learn through a language they do not understand. They listen passively,
stare blankly at the teacher and are unable to actively participate in
discussions and activities.
Worldwide, schools still have a long way to go before children‘s mother
tongues are considered resources to be nurtured rather than problems to be
solved. Educators should keep in mind that a strong home language supports the
learning of a second one.
Instead of enforcing English-only policies, educators should build on the
student‘s language and knowledge foundations in order to provide them with a
fruitful learning experience.
If the home language is strong, the second language will also be strong.
Students learn English or acquire a second language more rapidly and
effectively if they maintain and develop their proficiency in their mother
tongue. When children are able to develop their mother tongue vocabulary and
concepts, they come to school well-prepared to learn English or another
language and succeed educationally.
Studies have revealed that there is a direct connection between proficiency
in the mother tongue and proficiency in the second language. The child can
broaden his or her experience and learn more even through other languages in
his wider environment once a solid educational foundation is laid in his first
language. Research has also shown that many skills acquired in the first
language can be transferred to the second language.
Noted educator Stephen Krashen says it is easier to learn to read in a
language we understand and that once we can read in one language, we can read
in general. Likewise, the skill of being able to plan out a piece of writing
can be applied in the second language once it has been learned in the first.
Thus, when students continue to gain abilities in two languages throughout the
primary school years, they develop a more thorough understanding of language
and how to use it effectively.
Teaching in English only is not a panacea for English learners and the
recognition of the mother tongue is an essential aspect of any successful
additional language learning approach. Teachers have a responsibility to
nurture, not destroy their students’ mother tongues.
Providing mother tongue classes is one way of nurturing students’ home
languages. Teachers do not need to be the only ones teaching in the classroom.
They can ask for help from parents and other members of the school community.
Parents should picture themselves as partners with the school in teaching
children their native language. At home, parents can read to their children in
their mother tongue and provide reference materials in their own language.
Learning does not just occur within the four walls of the classroom.
Another way of fostering students’ mother tongue is by creating a
multi-literate print environment in the classroom. Although monolingual
teachers cannot teach students’ native languages, they can build a
multi-literate community. They can also create opportunities for students to
share children‘s literature in their first language and have some signs written
in different languages. These steps may seem small, but they can have a big and
positive impact on students’ appreciation of their native languages, as well as
their second-language learning.
The writer is a postgraduate student of Applied English
Linguistics and also the Primary Years Program coordinator of Sekolah Bina
Nusantara. She can be reached at email@example.com