Hywel Coleman - Every Language Encapsulates Knowledge; If a Language Dies, We Lose Knowledge




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Dec 14, 2017
by Mirva Villa
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Hywel Coleman - Every Language Encapsulates Knowledge; If a Language Dies, We Lose Knowledge

Honorary senior research fellow reflects on multiplicity of languages in Indonesia, its impact on education, and his own linguistic heritage. Hywel Coleman OBE in the Max Reinhardt Library during Salzburg Global session Springboard for Talent – Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World

When Hywel Coleman first came to Indonesia, he arrived straight out of university, having signed up as a volunteer English teacher. This spell led to lecturing in several institutions before he “stayed, stayed and stayed “in the country for more than 12 years. He returned to the UK for 14 years to teach at the University of Leeds, before moving back to Indonesia in 2001, working as a consultant and involving himself in projects with Indonesia’s Ministry of Education. He was awarded the 'Order of the British Empire' (OBE) in 1999 for his services to education in Indonesia.

“In total, I’ve lived in Indonesia for 29 years – it’s my home,” Coleman says, speaking at the Salzburg Global session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World. His interests now are in language policy in education and the role of the English language in Indonesia. There are approximately 700 languages spoken in Indonesia.

These languages range from local languages only spoken by 200 people to more prominent languages such as Bahasa Indonesia, Javanese, and Balinese. Bahasa Indonesia is the country’s sole official language and is used for all government purposes, including in parliament, law courts and education.

“There are several laws which say Indonesian is the only language of education, so the government schools must use Indonesian as the medium of instruction,” says Coleman. “This means that local languages have no official role at all in government or education. “This is a very sensitive issue because some people feel that if local languages are given a role, this will lead ultimately to the disintegration of the nation.”

While there is no historical evidence of that occurring, the fear of allowing local languages to be used in education remains prevalent. This belief remains despite Indonesian children performing poorly in comparison with other countries in international tests like the OECD Program for International Student Assessment.

Coleman believes children not learning in the language they’re most comfortable with is a contributing factor. He says, “The evidence is that if you don’t use the child’s first language, or the language the child is most comfortable with, their learning is going to be negatively affected, but the debate about this is hardly happening in Indonesia."

In Coleman’s opinion, Indonesia’s language policy threatens the survival of several local languages, which he feels would represent a significant loss.

“It’s a problem because every language encapsulates knowledge of the environment and the community in which it is used. If a language dies, then we lose knowledge. We lose knowledge about the environment, about the plants and the trees and the animals, which can be described in the local language, but which cannot be described in other languages.”

“We lose a way of looking at the world: every community, every ethnic group, every language group has a way of interpreting the world, making sense of the world, and we lose that. And if the world becomes more and more homogeneous, what a boring world it would be.”

Despite this concern about the language policy, Coleman believes there are lessons other countries can learn from people living in Indonesia. He says, “Putting aside language policy in school, a lot of Indonesians are naturally multilingual, because ethnic groups mix and overlap, and people are very open to languages. People talk about languages a lot, they joke about languages, and they learn each other’s languages very readily. I think that’s something that in Britain is completely absent.”

Coleman is currently investigating the language repertoires and attitudes of scholars in the pesantren, which are residential, Islamic educational institutions. These madrasas, as they are also known, are not part of the state education system, meaning they are not beholden to the official language legislation. Some schools use Bahasa Indonesia but many use Arabic, English or local languages. Some schools use the national language in the classroom but encourage the use of local languages outside the classroom.

“What really struck me was how all the children I interviewed were nonchalantly multilingual: ‘Yeah, I speak four or five languages, so what? Doesn’t everybody?’ That impressed me,” Coleman says.

Coleman was brought up in a Welsh family living in England. His mother was Welsh speaking, but would only use Welsh when her sisters came to visit. He says, “I always felt excluded, because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I asked my mother to teach me Welsh and she wouldn’t, because she felt that her Welsh was inadequate… I think that left a hole in me somewhere – a gap.

“While in school, Coleman tried, unsuccessfully, to learn French, German and Latin, which left him convinced that he wasn’t able to learn other languages. This belief changed when he moved to Indonesia. “Being in the context where I needed to learn the language to survive and to make friends, I discovered that I could learn languages, and enjoy it, and find it fulfilling. And this was a revelation to me.”

Since then, he’s become more critical toward the role that the English language plays in the rest of the world. He also thinks the language policy in Indonesia needs to be rethought. His key message is: “The world is bigger than Europe, and language issues and language contexts are very, very varied… We shouldn’t assume that what’s appropriate for Europe and North America is relevant at all to other parts of the world.”

The session, Springboard for Talent: Language Learning and Integration in a Globalized World is part of Salzburg Global Seminar multi-year series  Education for Tomorrow’s World. The session is being held in partnership with ETS, the Qatar Foundation and Microsoft. This project was also supported by The Erste Foundation. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session, follow #SGSedu on Twitter and Instagram.