Posted by: SDN Pondok Bambu 10 Pagi | July 29, 2009

Language skill: A key component in int’l education

by Simon Marcus Gower

The Russian psychologist and great thinker on human intellectual development, Lev Vygotsky proposed that “”thought is born through words.”” His suggestion was that thoughts do not just find expression through words but, in fact, thoughts actually come into existence because of and via words.

This proposition is, quite conceivably, debatable and there may even be those that see it as a point that may lead to quite confrontational contention. However, even though we may debate and question where our thoughts are sourced from, there can be little doubt that having more words (a larger vocabulary) at our disposal is a significant benefit when we try to show and demonstrate our thinking.

There is perhaps no more prominent and vital arena in which this “”need for words to show thinking”” is required than in formal education. Our language is vital and this is accentuated in international schools. It is simply not enough to know for oneself that one holds the ability to think and problem-solve; in formal education the key to success is one’s ability to actually show and demonstrate intellectual ability and this draws our attention to and heightens the need for linguistic ability.

In any educational, or for that matter business, setting our ability to manipulate and utilize language both effectively and efficiently is likely to prove an advantage. Just think of two students sitting a written examination that requires essay-type answers: time limits, nervousness and a general sense of being in a stressful environment are likely to impose on their thinking. But the student that can quickly and readily access the words needed to assemble the essay answer is going to achieve far more than the student that fumbles for the words and has difficulty articulating his/her answer.

This “”need for words to show our thinking”” is brought into even sharper perspective in the context of international schools and international education. Jakarta, like many another cosmopolitan city metropolis, is now a location that has a significant number of international schools active within its city limits. Increasingly, too, Indonesian students are getting the opportunity to attend these schools.

International schools are noted as being schools that can typically offer high standards in terms of both their campus facilities and their teaching faculty and therefore it is reasonable to conclude that it is a good thing that more and more Indonesian students are getting the chance to attend such schools. However, as with most things in life, a certain degree of caution and attention to detail is wise and advantageous.

A significant detail with regards to international schools is the language that is used throughout the school (often referred to as “”the language of instruction”” although this expression seems less than desirable as it seems to predispose the learning process as one that requires teachers to instruct and students to passively follow and this is really not desirable for any school setting). The language used within a school is a critical consideration.

The language that a school uses will, effectively, be the medium through which thoughts are conveyed and from which actions are initiated. Typically this language will be English and this immediately adds to the considerations for Indonesian students attending international schools. Though English has been given much attention by schools and students alike in Indonesia, it does still have to be recognized that English is a foreign (or second) language here.

Sometimes Indonesian students can be encountered whose English language development has been so great that, to some extent, English has come to supersede their “”previous”” first language of Bahasa Indonesia. When we encounter cases like this we may, reasonably enough, conclude that these students are well placed to attend international schools; but this is by no means the norm here.

The “”language setting””, the “”mother-tongue”” does still remain Bahasa Indonesia and so quite often students will need support to attend international schools in which the “”language required”” is English. This, though, should be natural and a typical feature of an international school. International schools will quite consistently have a student population that is “”multinational”” in its constitution and therefore the English language will often not be the first language of many students originating from non-native English speaking nations.

This can even create quite puzzling scenarios in which people from many nations are drawn together by the common thread of English within a school. A classroom may be encountered in an international school in which diverse nationalities come together in study in the English language — for example the teacher may be Dutch while his/her students may be Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian.

In such diverse classrooms the challenge of learning English is great, but provided the right kind of support is given to both the teacher and the students, the students may succeed. But this “”support”” is essential. The capacity to utilize the language with acumen is self-evidently going to assist and drive on the students’ studies.

Giving students, who face language challenges, the remedial support they need to skillfully manipulate the language for their academic needs is an essential ingredient of international education. It is, also, only fair to the students in terms of their intellectual and psychological welfare too. Sometimes, regrettably, students may be encountered that are suffering unduly in their education. Forced to attend international schools by zealous parents and not getting the language support they need, they can be lost.

Worse case scenarios include students that are depressed, totally lacking in confidence and even traumatized because they are attending a school environment that is largely out of their reach because of the foreign language that is being used.

It needs to be realized that attending to school study needs, receiving so much information and being expected to utilize and produce from that information is a considerable challenge even when one is working in one’s first language. Students that are studying in a language, that is second or foreign to them, may face an even greater challenge. Although consistently teachers and examiners exercise awareness of students that are working from a different language, students still do need to be able to achieve comprehension and conveyance of their message and thought.

Language skills can, therefore, be critical. Without such skills students can effectively be left behind in their general education. For example, late-teenagers stuck in elementary levels of English cannot conceivably successfully study mathematics or sciences in English. All good international schools will retain an awareness of students’ language needs and maintain policies and practices to meet those needs.

The writer is an education consultant and adviser


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