Teaching English As A Foreign Language (Tefl) In Indonesia

By | Februari 24, 2017

The linguistic situation in Indonesia is complex because more than 400 local languages with thousands of dialectical varieties are spoken as first languages (Nababan, 1982). The national language, Bahasa Indonesia, unifies the various ethnic groups with different languages and cultural backgrounds into an Indonesian nation and it serves as an official language at the national level. To equip Indonesians with an ability to communicate at the international level, English is the first foreign language officially taught to students from junior secondary school. This chapter discusses English teaching in Indonesia and covers three main issues, including the historical development of the teaching of English, the structure of English curriculum, and my personal experience in developing a career as an English teacher.

History of ELT in Indonesia

The teaching of English in Indonesia can be classified chronologically into three major phases. The pre-independence phase covers the period before 1945, and the early independence phase includes the years 1945 to 1950. The third phase, the development period, covers the years from 1950 onwards.

Starting from the early 1600s, the Dutch ruled Indonesia, formerly called the Netherlands East Indies, for about three and a half centuries. The teaching of English, however, can only be traced from early 1900s when there was a move to abolish French as a subject in the Europesche Lagereschool (European primary schools) and to replace it with English (Groeneboer, 1998). English was also taught to students in the meer uitgebreid lager onderwijs (MULO, or junior secondary schools) as a compulsory subject for three to four classes a week. The teaching of English at this time was successful in the sense that many of the MULO graduates could speak, read, and write good English. One reason for the success was the small number of students in the classroom, as only children from families with a middle and upper-class social status were allowed to go to school (Sadtono, 1997).

In early 1942, the Japanese armies ousted the Dutch. As a result, the teaching of Dutch was banned in the entire archipelago, as was that of English (Thomas, 1968). Books and other materials written in Dutch or English were burned. Instead, the Malay language, later on called Bahasa Indonesia, was taught extensively in addition to the Japanese language. Thus, during this period, no formal teaching of English took place. In some places, however, Dutch as well as English instructions were still carried out clandestinely (Groeneboer, 1998).

The selection of a foreign language to serve Indonesians for international communication, however, was not yet decided. The choice eventually fell on English, not Dutch, despite the fact the decision makers at that time had been educated in Dutch language schools (Huda, 1999). One reason for the choice of English was that not long after the proclamation of its independence, Dutch troops had returned to Indonesia to reclaim the new country only to be met by Indonesians resistance. Consequently, when the decision about which foreign language to choose was to be made, Indonesian leaders were not prepared to adopt the language of the enemy (Thomas, 1968).

During this early period of independence, however, the teaching-learning process in schools was not effective and in many cases the schools were closed for some periods because the students joined the revolutionary battles under a body called Tentara Pelajar (Student Soldiers; Mestoko, Bachtiar, Sunityo & Arif, 1986). Only after the Netherlands government acknowledged the sovereignty of the nation on December 27, 1949, did the students return to schools.

One important step taken by the Ministry of Education was the establishment of an Inspectorate of English Language Instruction in charge of the supervision of the
English language teaching (ELT). Mr. Frits Wachendorff, a Dutchman who remained in Indonesia, was appointed to head the body and he first spelled out the objective of TEFL in Indonesia: English was to be a foreign language and it was not and would never be either a social language or a second official language in Indonesia (Sadtono, 1997).

A sharp increase in school enrolment from the early 1950s raised at least two
major problems for the teaching of English: the shortage of qualified teachers and the inadequate availability of English instructional materials (Sarumpaet, 1963; Soedijarto et al., 1980; Thomas, 1968). To address the first problem, second-year university students of any major were recruited to teach in secondary schools (Sarumpaet, 1963). In addition, 2-year evening courses, B-l courses as they were named, were established in a number of cities throughout the country in August 1950 with financial and technical assistance from the Ford Foundation. The courses were to train noncertified teachers who had been teaching in junior secondary schools to become certified teachers. In 1954, Standard Training Centres (STC) were established in Jogjakarta (Central Java) and Bukittinggi (Sumatra), with the aim of producing more qualified English teachers. The students were taught English literature in addition to the English language itself (Thomas, 1968). In the same year, the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) also launched the regular formal day classes called PGSLP and PGSLA (Pendidikan Guru Sekolah Lanjutan Pertama and Pendidikan Guru Sekolah Lanjutan Atas respectively). The former trained the students to be teachers for junior secondary schools and the latter, for senior secondary schools (Mestoko et al., 1986).

At the tertiary level, also in 1954, three programs called perguruan tinggi pendidikan guru (state teacher training colleges) were set up in Malang, Bandung, and Batusangkar. By 1961, each of these colleges became a fakultas keguruan dan ilmu pendidikan (FKIP; faculty of teacher training and education) when linked to the nearest university. At this time, too, all types of teacher education including the B-l courses, STC, PGSLP and PGSLA were integrated to the faculty of teacher training and education (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1970).

In the mid-1960s, however, attention to the teaching of English in Indonesia declined markedly due to an unfavorable political climate, when the communists were powerful. The concern for improving ELT in Indonesia regained its momentum when the new regime took control of the country after the failure of the Indonesian Communist Party’ s coup in September 1965. In 1967, the MEC issued a decree stating the aim of English teaching in Indonesia (Huda, 1999). In 1968, an English Language Project was set up consisting of two sub-projects: the English Teachers Upgrading Project, which was to upgrade the secondary school teachers of English, and the English Materials Development Project, which was to prepare materials for the upper secondary schools. Since then, several projects on in-service English teacher upgrading have come and gone (Sadtono, 1997).

Concern for the quality of ELT in Indonesia also inspired some Indonesian academics to set up a forum for teachers of English to share ideas regarding ELT. An association called Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in Indonesia (TEFLIN) was launched in 1973 at Gajah Mada University in Jogjakarta. Since then, TEFLIN seminars and conferences have been conducted throughout the country and in the last few years, the conferences have been attended by teachers and experts from neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Australia.

The curriculum was standardized in 1975, and updated in 1984 and 1994. Revisions have been made to the instructional objectives, the teaching approach, and the syllabus design. The teaching of English under these curricula is discussed in the next section.

The latest development in ELT in Indonesia is the teaching of English to primary school students. The 1994 curriculum allows the teaching of English to primary school students starting from their year 4 if it is deemed necessary, provided that qualified teachers, instructional materials, as well as other resources are available. Unfortunately, a survey indicates that teachers assigned to teach English in primary schools are, in fact, rather incompetent (see Suyanto, 1997).

The ELT Curriculum

The objective of English teaching in Indonesia, as first spelled out by Frits Wachendorff, was not elaborated until 1967, when the MEC issued decree number 096/1967 (Huda, 1999). This decree stipulates that the objectives of English teaching
in Indonesian secondary schools is to equip the students with language skills that enable them to
• Read textbooks and reference materials in English, which constitute 90% of all available reference materials;
• understand lectures given by foreign lecturers as part of the affiliation programs with universities abroad or to communicate with individuals and students from overseas;
• take notes of lectures given by foreign lecturers, and to introduce the culture of Indonesia to international communities;
• communicate orally with foreign lecturers, individuals and students in oral examination and discussions (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1967, cited in Huda, 1999, p. 127).

These objectives represent an order of priorities of the four macrolanguage skills, with reading skills being on top, followed by listening, writing, and speaking. This priority order was maintained in the 1975 curriculum and the 1984 curriculum, except that the skills were no longer limited to academic purposes only. The 1975 curriculum, for example, described the function of English teaching in secondary schools as the facilitation of the development of advanced science, technology, culture, and arts, as well as to enhance international relationships (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1975a, 1975b). In addition, the number of vocabulary items that students should master in order to develop these four language skills was specified: 1,500 words for the junior secondary school (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1975b, 1987) and 4,000 words for the senior secondary school (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1975a, 1986).

In the 1994 curriculum, a slight change occurred in the priority order of the writing and speaking skills. In earlier syllabi, writing was placed third, after reading and listening, and speaking was last. In the 1994 syllabus, the order was reversed, with speaking placed third and writing placed last. This change was intended to meet the needs of students and parents as expressed in a survey (Huda, 1999). Moreover, the expected number of vocabulary items was substantially reduced to 1,000 words for junior secondary school and 2,500 words for science and social science streams at senior secondary school. A target of 3,000 words was set up for the students of senior secondary school majoring in the language stream. Grammar and other elements of language, such as pronunciation and spelling, were to be taught only to support the acquisition of the four language skills, not for mastery of the language elements (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1993a, 1993b).

The 1975 curriculum specified that English should be taught with the audio-lingual approach with an emphasis on the teaching of linguistic patterns through habit-formation drills. As such, the syllabus was created mainly on the basis of structure. Structural items were presented according to the degree of complexity and frequency of use (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1975a, 1975b).

The teaching approach was changed when the use of the communicative approach was introduced in the 1984 curriculum. However, not enough information of the teaching procedures was available to the teachers, with the result that the approach was misinterpreted and implemented incorrectly. One serious misinterpretation was that the communicative approach meant a focus on the acquisition of oral communicative competence (Huda, 1992).

However, many classroom teachers still emphasize the teaching of English structure. Two factors may be responsible for this: the final national examination, which still gave greater emphasis on grammar mastery, and the syllabus (Huda, 1992). The syllabus was designed in such a way so that each instructional unit consisted of seven components: structure, reading, vocabulary, speaking, writing, pronunciation, and spelling. The fact that the structural component was placed at the beginning of each unit led to the impression that structure was still the emphasis of English teaching. To resolve the problems, the curriculum was again revised in 1994, and this version is still in use. In the revised curriculum, the teaching approach is called the meaningfulness approach (pendekatan kebermaknaan), but this is nothing more than the communicative approach redefined to suit the situations of ELT in Indonesia.

The syllabus design adopts a variable focus model (Ministry of Education and
Culture, 1993a, 1993b) in which structure, notions, functions, and situations are the guiding principles of organization (Huda, 1990). At the junior secondary level, the linguistic forms are the organizing principle; notions and language functions are presented to provide contexts of use of the presented structural items. At the senior secondary school level, the notions and language functions gain greater emphasis and the linguistic forms are gradually deemphasised.

Another significant feature of the new syllabus is the integration of language components and language skills. Unlike the 1984 syllabus, in which language skills and language components—structure, vocabulary, and spelling—were taught separately, the 1994 syllabus integrates them in the form of themes. Thus, themes are the central components that tie language components and language skills together. In addition, the syllabus also contains recommended topics derived from the listed themes, functional skills to be developed, examples of communicative expressions, and lists of vocabulary items to be taught. The teachers are then free to design their own instructional materials for classroom teaching. After being used for a few years, the curriculum was found to have three major weaknesses: some communicative expressions were not in line with the theme, several functional skills overlapped, and a number of the stated teaching objectives were vague. In response, a slight revision of the syllabus was carried out in 2000 (Ministry of National Education, 2000).

Despite the high expectations placed on the English curriculum, the time allocated for teaching English is minimal. In junior secondary school, it is taught in four sessions of 45 minutes long per week for the three class levels (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1993a). In senior secondary school, it is also taught in four sessions of 45 minutes per week for the first and second year students. For the third year students, it is taught in five sessions a week for the students of science and social science streams and 11 sessions a week for the students of the language stream. Each session lasts 45 minutes (Ministry of Education and Culture, 1993b). As a result, some students receive little exposure to English communicative situations, which in turn leads to poor results of the overall teaching-learning activities.

Despite the ideal guidelines on what and how to teach English prescribed in the syllabus, the students’ achievement of the stated objectives is still far from satisfactory. In the final examination of the year 2000, for example, the national average score of the junior secondary school students was 5.27 on a scale of 0 to 10. At the senior secondary school level, average scores of 5.04, 4.08, and 4.65 were obtained from the students of the science, social science, and language streams respectively (Directorate General of Primary and Secondary Education, 2001). Apart from the weaknesses of the test materials (Alwasilah, 1997) leading to a dispute of the valid ity and reliability of the results, which in turn led to a recommendation for the abolition of the examination (Ebtanas, 2001), these figures indicate that the teaching of English in Indonesia is not yet successful.

Several causes have been cited for the poor results. In addition to the limited time allocated for English teaching as discussed in the previous section, another serious problem is the low competence of teachers. A survey carried out in 1990 indicatedthat 37% of English teachers at junior secondary schools in Indonesia were senior secondary school graduates without any training in TEFL (Huda, 1999). In-service training must be provided for them. Also, preservice teacher training institutions should produce secondary school teacher candidates who are competent in both the English language and teaching skills. To do this, institutions must improve the professionalism of their lecturers so that they can train their students to be competent teacher candidates. In the next section, I turn to what I have done to improve my role as an English teacher as well as an English teacher educator.


English has been described as the first foreign language in Indonesia and it is officially taught to students in the secondary schools. The history of English teaching
in Indonesia is actually traceable to the early 1900s when modern schooling was first introduced. Efforts to improve its teaching have been made since the arrival of Indonesian independence in 1945; these efforts have included the standardizations of the curriculum carried out in 1975, 1984 and 1994. The most recent curriculum, the 1994 one, is still in use. It advocates a teaching approach called the Meaningfulness

However, an evaluation of teaching to date indicates that it is not yet successful. This fact stands as a great challenge for every one dealing with ELT in Indonesia. For this reason, effort to improve the quality of English teaching is highly appreciated, in particular the improvement of the professionalism of English teachers.


Braine, George. (2005). Teaching english to the world: History, curriculum, and practice. Mahwah and New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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