Sat, 04 Aug 2001

'Local English' anyone?

By Simon Marcus Gower

SERPONG, Tangerang (JP): "Indonesian English" may be described as an emerging concept; but there can be little doubt that such a thing does exist. Throughout the world there are vernaculars of the English language being spoken.

This is not a new or unusual phenomenon. Whether English is the native tongue, or a second or foreign language, there is always the likelihood that subtle regional or geographical differences will emerge.

One only has to think of the birthplace of English to see how familiar and well established the emergence of different vernaculars is. Take one speaker of English born, bred and educated in London and another born, bred and educated in Manchester (a distance of less than 300 miles between the two) and one is quite likely to encounter two very different forms of the same language. One would note different phrases, pronunciation, intonation and grammatical structures, that can be quite confusing.

So great can this vernacular difference be that an unfortunate situation may arise in which two speakers (and indeed native speakers) of the same language may be rendered unintelligible to each other. Here we reach the farcical situation that the great writer George Bernard Shaw humorously observed as existing between Americans and the English, of two groups of people "divided by the same language."

So what? Regional differences in the English spoken by native speakers are hardly any concern for Indonesian learners and users of English. This would be a nice myth to entertain but the notion that we cannot learn from other people's experiences and models is a foolhardy one.

Undoubtedly, if we simply accept that different vernaculars exist and we do not exercise caution and considered awareness of their differences, we risk undermining the quality of the language-learning that we are either entering into or guiding.

It would simply be wrong and detrimental to consider that the pursuit of a "standard" level of English, which may be defined by native speakers cannot be attained. No native speaker, whether a teacher of the language or just a user, would ever expect a learner of the language, as a second or foreign tongue, to attain the same degree of accuracy and proficiency that a native speaker naturally and endemically achieves.

Any notion that a learner of a foreign language must achieve the level of ability that a native speaker is naturally gifted with is unrealistic. But this does not mean that standards cannot and/or should not be set or targeted.

Standards are indeed set for learners. These standards require that learners attain a sufficiently high level of skill in the language that they are communicatively competent; and hand-in- hand with this communicative competence goes the need to attain a reasonably high degree of accuracy in the target language.

Consistently, where there is a lack of accuracy in the language the so-called "inter-language" will emerge. It is this form of the language that paves the way for intermediary types of English such as Indonesian English.

Indonesian English may be deemed as acceptable internally, or domestically, but this acceptance undermines the very point and value of learning English in the first place -- which is, of course, to become communicatively competent on an international level.

Whilst it is true that the listener to an intermediary language such as Indonesian English may be able to compensate for deficiencies in the language and, as it were, fill in the blanks and read between the lines to more fully discern the message being sent -- the question that has to be asked is, is it reasonable or right to expect the listener to make this kind of compensation?

Goodwill on the part of the listener to make allowances for mistakes may be pleasant and well meaning, but surely there is the danger that the real message and meaning could be altered or even substantively changed in the process of compensating for deficiencies.

A few examples of Indonesian students studying and communicating in English-speaking nations serve to illustrate the risks and shortcomings of a lethargic acceptance of inter- language. One student spent his student life living and studying in the United Kingdom. He enjoyed a full and varied social life, meeting many new friends and traveling up and down the country.

However, though he was well liked for his ever-sunny disposition and enthusiastic enjoyment of student life, he could never attain any depth of conversation or relationship with the people he met. Polite attentiveness was their very English manner towards him but, in truth, many of them did not really understand the English he spoke.

Similarly, in a more candid and confidential moment he admitted that his comprehension of much of what was said conversationally was limited to, at best 50 to 60 percent.

This meant that he found himself consistently nodding or gesturing agreement or consent when, in fact, he found himself mostly lost and lacking in understanding.

The example of another Indonesian studying at postgraduate level illustrates the need for establishing and pursuing a standard English rather than some inter-language. Naturally, working at the postgraduate level this student was expected to write and even publish papers on his topic. However, to achieve publication it was understandably necessary for this student to seek out editorial help and guidance.

Editing and proofreading of papers is a common enough experience in academic life but those that were called upon to edit and proofread this student's writing suffered a high degree of strife. So difficult and arduous was the task of checking his work that many began to conjure up excuses (such as full schedules, "no time, sorry"). The task proved to be both hugely time-consuming and a significant creator of headaches.

The student exhibited an interesting and varied vocabulary but, as with so many Indonesian learners of English and indeed so many users of Indonesian English, this student made consistent and irritating small, but significant, grammatical errors. His grasp and use of articles was poor. He rarely, if ever, used prepositions correctly. He seemed to be largely ignorant of the verb "to be" and made numerous mix-ups when using pronouns and even simple gender classifiers like "him" or "her."

Here was someone who could claim a reasonably high degree of communicative competence and who would readily and easily be identified as a user of Indonesian English but this was creating problems. The standards that he had achieved had not been good enough.

Fortunately, there were enough good-hearted people to spend that extra time to get his papers up to standard. But there were as many people who were simply overwhelmed by the extent of correction required who simply gave up and said "no" -- they would not compensate for his shortcomings.

In the wide and challenging world of globalization there will be more people that fall into the latter category than the kind- hearted former category.

This should be a foreboding notion to those who accept that Indonesian English will suffice or can serve a useful purpose in preparing the way for the ever-increasing globalization of our world.

If English is to be the lingua franca of the global age, an internationally recognized standard is going to be far more useful than a regional, unusual and therefore marginalized form of the language.

Critics of the government's national curriculum abound and it is easy to look upon material in the national curriculum as prime examples of the inter-language of Indonesian English. But those critics who complain that the grammar of English has been over- emphasized in schools would do well to measure their pronouncements on the value or otherwise of Indonesian English as a legitimate inter-language.

Typically such inter-languages represent a "bastardization" of the original language and whilst the "new" language that emerges may be amusing or idiosyncratic, if its communicative value is limited then it would be irresponsible and even reckless for educators to condone its learning and/or development.

Dr. Simon Marcus Gower is coordinator for English at the junior and senior high schools of St. Laurensia School, Serpong in Tangerang, West Java.