International Literacy Day: How to Teach Children in Two Languages

By jaafarali

To mark International Literacy Day on 08 September, Palladium’s Stephanie Carter and Junaedi Uko explore how teachers in Indonesia are adapting their methods in the world’s most linguistically diverse country.

On a warm and sunny morning in Bima, Indonesia, children’s voices ring out across the grounds of Sarikalampa primary school. Inside one classroom, first grade teacher Nurdiana points to different pictures painted on the blackboard, her students scrambling to call out the different names. The names of the objects are written in the region’s local language, Bahasa Mbojo. As she explains each object using Mbojo, Nurdiana will also purposefully speak in Indonesian every now and then. This is all part of a transitional strategy called a ‘language bridge’, which helps students gradually transition from their local language Bahasa Mbojo to Indonesian.

Indonesia is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, with more than 652 local languages. The constitution mandates Bahasa Indonesia as the sole language of instruction in formal education – a decision driven by national unity and identity. Although the constitution does allow for local languages to be used supplementarily during the early grades, few teachers are trained in appropriate teaching methodologies for second language acquisition.

Indonesia is the most linguistically diverse country in the world, which can create challenges in the classroom. Source: INOVASI

Indonesia is the most linguistically diverse country in the world, which can create challenges in the classroom. Source: INOVASI

Local Languages versus National Language

In Bima, the local language is, obviously, prevalent, with children speaking it at home, to their parents, and in the community. The 2018 baseline data from the Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) project revealed that 92% of children in Bima use the local Bahasa Mbojo language at home.

When it came to the basic literacy test, from those children surveyed, only 18% of students in grade one passed, followed by only 46% of those in grade two and 65% of those in grade three. For third grade students, only 72% passed the syllable recognition and only 66% passed the word recognition portions of the test. These results indicate the importance of getting mother language transition right, as well as the valuable role that teachers play in understanding and mitigating language transition learning issues.

The strong prevalence of local language poses a challenge for teaching and learning activities in the classroom, where the law mandates Indonesian be primarily used. Children still experience difficulties understanding the lessons in Indonesian and reading and literacy is very difficult. Nurdiana faced many of these challenges in her role as an early grade teacher in Bima.

She explains, “Children in the class often experience difficulties when understanding the concept of learning because the lessons are given not in their mother tongue language. In the past, I just mixed up the language in delivering lessons. As a result, when I give assignments both in class or at home, the children cannot finish it because there are things they don’t understand.”

Nurdiana uses specific teaching methods to transition students from their local language to Indonesian. Source: INOVASI

Nurdiana uses specific teaching methods to transition students from their local language to Indonesian. Source: INOVASI

Training Teachers

Nurdiana first began to change her teaching approach when she participated in INOVASI’s Bima pilot, focused on mother tongue-based multilingual education. She realised that teaching children with specific challenges needed an innovative but still structured approach. Not only when it came to using language, but also in the use of learning materials that can support the teaching and learning process.

“I was introduced to a number of new methods…For example, the language bridge approach and how to use Big Books in learning and literacy, as well as several other ways. I then applied this new knowledge in class,” she said.

The language bridge method is applied by first explaining various concepts to children using the local Mbojo language. Nurdiana then gradually and clearly introduced the Indonesian language. When she began to see that children could already understand the concept, Nurdiana would then begin to deliver lessons in Indonesian.

The Big Book approach also helped the reading process in the classroom. A Big Book contains short stories in Indonesian and is made creatively with illustrations that appeal to children. Through this storytelling, Nurdiana then introduced the concepts of learning in the local language.

“Children are always enthusiastic when I use Big Book in class. I made a Big Book with pictures that I made myself. I then explained using language that they understood,” she said proudly.

After some time applying various innovative methods in her class, Nurdiana began to feel there was something different about her students. They became more active in the learning process. Each time she finished telling a story, the children were able to recount it.

“They are excited to retell because they understand what I just told them through the Big Book,” Nurdiana said with a smile.

To help improve literacy skills more broadly for her students, Nurdiana has also worked on setting up a beautiful reading corner in her classroom. She bought the materials herself. The reading corner displays various learning tools that have been hung on the walls of the class, complementing her new approach to language transition. With the right learning techniques, multilingualism has become something to celebrate in the classroom.

The Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) program is a partnership between the governments of Australia and Indonesia, managed by Palladium.