Indonesia has made remarkable progress in ensuring that its youth gets a decent education over the years since independence. Statistics on literacy levels published by the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) in its annual Indonesian socio-economic survey make interesting reading. In 2010, 98.3 percent of Indonesians between the ages of 15 and 44 were classed as literate. People aged from 45 and up were considerably less literate on average: only 81.7 percent of these older Indonesians are labelled literate.
Dramatic increases in literacy levels have occurred across the country, and these figures prove just how big the improvements have been. However, there are still some pockets where literacy remains much lower than in the rest of the country. In Papua province fully 30 percent of the population between 15 and 44 are still illiterate even today. And in Nusa Tenggara Barat, illiteracy rates are also much higher than the national average. It is true that literacy levels have increased in these areas too, but much more clearly needs to be done.
While Indonesia can be rightly proud of its rapid economic development, some parts of the country are missing out on many of the benefits. While the level of development in Nusa Tenggara Barat and Papua is a lot lower than in the west – schools are less well-equipped for one thing – perhaps there are other factors at work in producing lower outcomes in these areas too. And maybe it’s time for some more imaginative efforts to improve education for the Indonesian kids who are still missing out in 2011.
The eastern part of Indonesia may be poor in terms of money and development, but it’s one of the richest parts of the world in terms of its linguistic diversity. There are over 240 languages spoken in Papua and West Papua provinces alone.
On their first day at school, many of the kids from Indonesia’s east don’t know a word of Indonesian. Arriving at school, they sit in classrooms where the teacher begins a lesson in a language they do not understand and – not surprisingly – fail to learn very much about the science or mathematics or whatever it is that the teacher is trying to instill. As a Unesco report from 2003 states, “it is an obvious, yet not generally recognized truism that learning in a language which is not one’s own provides a double set of challenges: not only of learning a new language but also of learning new knowledge contained in that language.”
Multilingual mother tongue education programs let kids start their education in the language they know best. As they begin using use their own language for learning, they are also introduced to the new official language and begin communicating in that as well. At the same time, teachers help learners develop their academic vocabulary in the new language so they can both understand and talk about more abstract concepts. In the best programs, learners continue to develop their ability to communicate and to learn in both languages throughout primary school.
Evidence from other parts of the world shows that multilingual education (MLE) programs work, not just in providing greater achievements in maths and science and so on, but also eventually in the national language too. In a study conducted in Guatemala, children who were being taught in their mother tongues first outperformed the Spanish only kids in all subjects except Spanish in years one, two and three. By the fourth year of primary school they were also doing better in Spanish. Similar results have been found across the globe.
The Indonesian language has been a great success in helping to forge a coherent national identity in such a diverse country as Indonesia, and it is understandable that policy makers feel some trepidation about regional solutions, especially in places like Papua where separatist impulses are common. But Papua is different from, say, Aceh where a strong regional language provided an alternative lingua franca to Indonesian. In Papua, the only regional lingua franca is the local version of Indonesian which shares many features with local varieties of Indonesian spoken in places like Ambon and Manado. MLE has even been successfully introduced for minority Malay language speakers in southern Thailand where separatism is a huge concern for Thai authorities. The Malay language education programs in Thailand encourage greater integration into Thai society by teaching Malay using Thai script and thus paving the way for literacy in Thai through a language the kids already know.
International experience shows that good multilingual education programs using local languages better engage kids in learning, reduce grade repetition, and lead to higher achievements not just in other subjects but also in the national language. They also lead to more engaged citizens, and they’re worth a try in Indonesia too.