In the hot constricting air, with hundreds of people in a small school hall, English became a trouble-free language, which looked so easy to understand and acquire.
To the Javanese villagers, whose daily language is Javanese and many of whom do not speak Indonesian, their children’s speaking English on stage — with their plays and songs, poems and jokes — seemed to be a divine revelation.
Some of the girls, wearing veils symbolizing their adherence to Islam, were attired with British flag T-shirts or other symbols of English speaking countries.
The stage backdrop, together with the theme of their performance, was inspired by Western pirate stories and fairy tales.
Simply put, the villagers living near the Wilis Mountain were taken by their children into an intermingled culture, where things were synthesized without anything being dominant.
The audience applauded their performances, openly accepting that which in the eyes of religious bigots might have been regarded as heresy or filth.
Instead of paying attention to certain pronunciations or grammatical mistakes made by the students, our minds focused on a simple question: What is an education supposed to be, especially in Indonesia with its millions of unskilled workers?
Concerning English as the world’s most used language, what can be done to ensure that secondary school graduates, for instance, are ready to enter the rapidly developing field of work without fear of being rejected for their poor language skills?
In our two days’ journey in Pare village, in the Kediri regency of East Java, we found what is theoretically called a “creative minority”.
On both sides of the roads and paths, banners of different sizes told us that this or that house offered English classes or homestay programs for learning English. There were nearly 90 such language centers.
In mostly Javanese cultural settings and surrounded by warm hospitality, we saw students riding bicycles back and forth or walking in pairs or groups talking in English. Their faces showed excitement instead of shyness, confidence instead of timidity.
At the end, after very consciously examining the atmosphere created, as in the students’ performances mentioned above, we could dismiss the spelling or grammatical mistakes on the banners or leaflets and say, “It’s a great place to start learning English.”
Following our return to Jakarta, one of the critical questions that came up was, “Compared to an English homestay program in Australia or Singapore, which is better?” We could also ask, “Isn’t going to Australia and living among native English speakers always a better choice?”
Two pairs of contrasting ideas might be worth discussing. First, linguistically, being among native English speakers is a better choice. Learners can learn the language naturally as it is used by its producers.
Yet, as Lev Vygotsky discussed the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as early as the 1930s, learning needs an intellectual space where learners and teachers interact and where supporting social processes play pivotal roles.
So, there is a very critical question: If a student joins an English homestay program in Australia, for example, does he get a supporting environment, surrounded by smiling and caring people other than his host and teachers? Is the learning and social culture within which he will learn equivalent to that which he has been used to?
Not to generalize, a student of mine aged 17 who joined such an English homestay program abroad for two weeks told an interesting story. Most of the time in his study tour, the student just conversed with his Indonesian friends and host teacher.
After trying two or three times to communicate with the natives he met, he gave up and decided just to enjoy his trip as a foreigner in a foreign country.
Second, regarding prestige and financial aspects, traveling abroad to learn English for wealthy people is never a problem. The students can also learn and practice cross-cultural understanding, something worthwhile for their future life in a shrinking world.
However, as we know well, only a few percent of Indonesians have the chance of going abroad. The availability of cheaper but more focused programs is therefore badly needed.
Relying on the language centers that offer only about three learning hours a week, as they do in Greater Jakarta and other Indonesian towns, has actually become a poor choice since the need for English is rapidly increasing both academically and in the field of work.
That is why the cheap but effective English “crash programs” available in Pare village have now become a reasonable alternative for thousands of students from all over Indonesia.
We might want to leave behind our concept of “perfect” English; Singapore has developed its own English and English “made in Pare” is actually easier to understand and acquire.
Finally, to the wonderful students of SMPN 6 Kediri, who were trained through the Pare method. cheaply but effectively, this far-from-successful English teacher really wanted to say, “Two thumbs up for you and you teachers!”
The writer is an educator and a researcher at Paramadina Foundation, Jakarta.
Khairil Azhar, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, March 17 2012, 11:50 AM