Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bilingual Schools in Indonesia

Hi there,

Many Islamic Schools are now bilingual
I decided to write this article as I can see this is an issue that has been on the minds of parents and educators in Indonesia for quite some time. I've met many parents and teachers who feel very strongly about 'bilingual education'. In this article I intend to address a few of the common issues and questions regarding bilingual schools.

My first experience with bilingual education in Indonesia was after my first year teaching there where I was asked to head the English program at a new Islamic School in Tanggerang. The school had previously been running as a Kindergarten only but they were preparing to open their first Primary level class when I joined them. Previously they had tried to establish themselves as a bilingual school but had problems with the teachers understanding what was expected from them. If a bilingual program is to be a success expectations for teachers should be clear. So in the new campus instead of using the term bilingual we started using the phrase full-English and explaining which subjects would be taught fully in English and which would be taught fully in Indonesian, this made expectations clear. For the Primary Grade 1 the following subjects were taught fully in Indonesian SOSE, CIVICS, RELIGION, INDONESIAN and the following were taught fully in English SCIENCE, MATHS, ENGLISH (of course). In addition to this the language spoken on campus and in homeroom time was always English. Instead of having an English Zone/Time we would have an Indonesian Zone/Time which would be whenever the subjects taught in Indonesian were. Any other time it was understood by the teachers, staff and therefore children that English should be used.

It was not long after the program was underway that parents started coming to me with concerns. Will our children’s ability in Indonesian be badly affected? How will their scores in Science and Maths be if they are taught those subjects solely in English? The issue of whether or not the knowledge and practice of their own culture or traditions would be affected did not arise but I have since heard that this is a concern for some parents putting their children into similar schools.

I felt that these things would not be an issue, but if some parents were concerned then naturally I wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing.
Similar benefits can be found by being bilingual in Indonesia

So I set out on my journey to research similar programs to our own around the world, to find data to show what the adverse affects of such a program would be, if any. My quest led me to come across a wealth of data on the French Immersion program in Canada. There are many examples of immersion programs and immersion situations around the world but I think none that are such a good example of what we were trying to achieve than the French Immersion Program in Canada.

The French Immersion program in Canada was started by concerned French Canadian parents who saw that the schooling options for their children were all in an English medium of instruction. To preserve the culture and tradition of their children as well as to make sure their French was fluent and of a native level, the parents set up the first French immersion school in the early 1950s. The schools were so popular and such a success that by the mid 1960s the government had begun funding and opening French Immersion schools around the country. Of course this was not without any scrutiny. Ever since they began, data has been collected on the effects of the French immersion schools on both the French-Canadian children and English-Canadian children that were schooled in them. To some up this 50+ year collection of data we can safely say that the parents at the school I was working at needed not be concerned. According to the results of the French immersion schools, English speaking children admitted into them may struggle with their subject scores for the first few years when compared to the national level but catch up to their non-bilingual counterparts and in many cases surpass them (due to their superior command of the English language, thanks to being fluent in French as well).

This was exciting, and I shared this information with the parents who were already committed to the program as it was but our hearts were all at peace with the program being less of an experiment and more of a tried and tested road to success.

A question should be asked here which is why did the school decide to use Full English before knowing about this data. The fact of the matter is many schools don’t know about the data, they only know about what the market wants, and the market wants their children to be fluent in English as an International language.

The sad thing though is many skeptics of English being used as a medium of instruction in Indonesia don’t know about the data either. There are a lot of opinions floating around on the subject of bilingual education in Indonesia and not all of them are based on research.

Here are some things to think about when comparing the French Immersion program in Canada to the English Immersion program at the school in Tanggerang:

The French Immersion programs in Canada

  • ·         Taught all subjects except for English in French
  • ·         Were Immersing English speaking students in French in French Canada
  • ·         Were making French culture and tradition an integral part of the school program
  • ·         Had French Natives teach the subjects in French

The English Immersion program in Tanggerang, Indonesia

  • ·         Taught half of the subjects in Indonesian
  • ·         Was immersing Indonesian speaking students in English in Indonesia
  • ·         Was making Islamic and Indonesian culture and tradition an integral part of the school program
  • ·         Had Indonesian teachers who spoke English fairly fluently, teach the subjects in English

So it’s obvious that the cultural impact and negative impact on the students’ Indonesian ability in the school in Tanggerang would be much less than that of the French Immersion schools in Canada, this on top of the fact that the French Immersion program shows no long term negative impacts to date, and that’s after 50 years.

So the question of whether or not we should be using English as a medium of instruction in Indonesian schools [that can implement a program properly] is really a no brainer. The benefits are immense. To sum it up though, in a few simple words is worth putting in bold:

If students are taught in an English medium of instruction, they have the best chance of becoming fluent in English and acquire English at an extremely advanced rate.

This eventually means more time for other languages or more time for other subjects and a better overall result in the target language.

What is happening in most schools in Indonesia now regarding the foreign language program is what I’d like to describe as prolonged torture. The children ‘learn’ English year after year never being able to ‘speak’ it. I have written about this before in my article Education, Language and Learning a Language.

This is not because Indonesian students can’t learn English easily, on the contrary they learn English a lot more easily than Thai, Korean, Japanese or Chinese students do, this is because of the similarities between Indonesian and English like the fact that they are both in Latin script.

Since heading the program at the school in Tanggerang I have helped a number of institutions implement successful English immersion programs and advised many more.

To implement a successful language Immersion program does not need a lot of money or resources but it does need dedication, consistency, clear expectations and know how.

I plan to write again soon on the subject of bilingual schools in Indonesia but until then here are a few simple ingredients to have a successful bilingual or even trilingual school:

1.      1. Set aside at least two years to focus on immersing the children in the target language. This will need the dedication (and ability) of all teachers and staff involved and perhaps a separate campus or area in the campus for the levels that are being targeted. A good time would be The first two years of primary school (or the second and third year) or the first two years of Junior High School (SMP).

2.      2. Make sure the curriculum in other subjects is not overwhelming. Some schools double up their curriculums falsely believing that it is what it means to be a National Plus school. The school should commit and believe that the students will succeed in national exams, even though they have studied the subjects in English. This is because they are still Indonesian students that will speak Indonesian no worse than their non-bilingual counter parts. Extra preparation may be required regarding terminology but this is rare. If the issue is approval from DIKNAS, then the two curriculums can be blended to make sure all points needing to be covered in the curriculum according to KTSP (the national curriculum standard) are. Many schools have successfully done this (like Lazuardi in Depok to name one) and their models are available for comparative studies.

3.      3. Make sure the proper order of acquisition is observed (oracy before literacy) and that a time is dedicated for a transition into the new environment in the first few months of the program. The key word is immerse, not submerse. I did this in the school in Tanggerang by allowing the teachers to speak Indonesian to support the emotional needs of the children in the first three months, so rapport can be built up and the children feel safe and secure with their teachers. Another school that I have observed dedicated the first 10 weeks of their Junior High School program to learning English. In those ten weeks students basically learned English all day and for every period, thereby being ready to learn other subjects in English by the end of this period. This is also an option but I feel it is harder to apply and not completely necessary.


Until next time, keep shining, sharing and let’s change some lives!

Kindest regards,



  1. great writing Hugh..
    thanks for sharing ideas

  2. I am an alumni of Islamic boarding school and I can feel many advantages from that program.
    The another great article of you is really interesting.

    1. Thanks Ivan! Hope my articles are useful for you. :)

  3. this is a great article and very useful information. but can I ask your opinior about this matter.
    I found a boarding school in Indonesia which the students and the co-teachers live in the dorm and they communicate English and Arabic to each other, but the teacher don't use it when teaching and learning activity in the school. what is your opinion whether this condition can be called as bilingual education or just ordinary 'bilingual program(the school named the program)'? thank yooou :) waiting for next articles....

    1. Hi Adnin,

      It sounds like your school has named the program well. :)

      What area in Indonesia are you teaching in? Have a great day!

  4. Great article Hugh.
    Oiya, I'm still wondering how to teach debate for lower secondary stduents (junior high). I'd like to introduce debate, but just no idea how to start, lol.

    Any suggestion? Thank u and see u a bit :-)


    1. That's a good idea for an article Sandy. Well my advice would be to get them used to thinking as a team, get them to watch some structured school debates then talk about debate formulas with them. Usually most schools here follow the traditional three speaker team, so get them used to that structure and the duties of each speaker. Debating is all about team work, planning and for the second and third speaker, thinking on your feet. Good luck Sandy, keep me updated on how you're going!