Mother Tongue? Whose Mother?

Since I was a kid I often wondered the origin and questioned the accuracy of the term ‘mother tongue’. If it was meant to refer to the language a person was raised in (usually based on parental heritage), I thought it was rather unfair that the father wasn’t accounted for. In this millennium when a father’s role in raising children are much more prominent, to the point that divorced dads who miss paying child support can end up in jail, it’s even more strange that one’s first language remains being called ‘mother tongue’.

But that strangeness is nothing compared to the fact, as a phenomenon in Indonesian metropolitans has been showing and New York Times pointedly wrote and much discussed about earlier this week, that some Indonesian children fail to speak Indonesian.   

Born from fully-blooded Indonesian parents and raised full-time in Indonesia, these kids nevertheless learn language primarily through education that nowadays may have started as early as in 9 months of age (baby playgroups, anyone?). Many of well-facilitated playgroups conduct sessions in English, and when these tykes later get enrolled in (presumably as well-facilitated) private schools English is affixed as their main language. These schools often request parents to practice the tykes’ English at home. Assuming the tykes only play with their also English-speaking schoolmates, the only figures they can speak Indonesian to on a daily basis is the help—and perhaps the grandparents, on weekends.

Some drama queens who live on the aging class warfare issue have readily called upon this phenomenon another status-fueled society ill derived from the rising number of Indonesian middle class. Oh, yawn. I’m more interested to meet these parents. Who are they really?

Most of them are just regular Yanto and Yanti who grew up learning English in outdated, ineffective manner through 1980s-1990s Indonesian curriculums and later found themselves sorely disadvantaged, sometimes even from Malaysians who were educated well in English, as they pursued career in multinational companies or sought higher-ed scholarships. Now that Yantos and Yantis’s hard-earned income can afford private schools that ensure much better English education, can you blame them for avoiding their kids the same fate? Beyond banal status sometimes gained from parading their English proficient toddler to relatives and neighbors, this is about providing their child more life tools than what Yanto and Yanti received growing up.

The only problem is, these Yanto and Yanti forget to squeeze in sufficient time to speak Indonesian to their kids or, as in some cases, don’t realize that nobody else is teaching their kids the mother (and father) tongue. Indeed it’s a big problem that needs to be effectively addressed, yet no need to raise pitchforks demanding abolishment of those schools offering learning in English. In fact, the entire English curriculum for public schools needs to be revolutionized to ensure all Indonesian children enjoy satisfactory lessons & practices. The world is going more globalized and Indonesian remains spoken limitedly in Indonesia so yes, one needs a good command of English to thrive on global stage. Heck, even the Chinese, driven by the world’s biggest population and a full-throttle economy, are arming their next generations with good English.      

What to do the Yanto and Yanti who can’t afford English-speaking education for their kids? As I found out, it’s not the end of the world. My parents could only afford enrolling me in public schools, but Mom diligently taught me English since I was three using whatever English books and magazines she could find and blasting off the BBC Australia radio show every morning (the reason Waltzing Mathilda is forever imprinted on my brain). When I started high-school Dad enrolled me to an English course and started subscribing to an English-speaking newspaper– although I only read the cartoons and Who’s Who for the first year. I might’ve ended up speaking it more fluently than they do but I absolutely owe my English proficiency to my parents’ almost militant teaching. If they could do it, any parent can, too. It’s a choice.

Another example. I have two friends who are both born in Indonesia from mixed parents (of foreign and Indonesian), schooled in Jakarta International Schools followed by a slew of overseas schools, and returned to Indonesia as adults. One speaks Indonesian flawlessly, the other– even now in 7th year upon repatriation– still speaks it with great difficulty. The only difference was that the first one’s Indonesian parent persistently spoke Indonesian to and with her through the years.

Again, it’s a choice. Every parent has a right to enroll their children to schools with any foreign language yet should be able to find sufficient time to teach and speak Indonesian to these kids. English is undoubtedly the gateway to the world, but before they roam the globe children need an anchor, a root, to tie them over. And that’s what Indonesian language should be to them—or soon it would ironically become someone else’s mother tongue.

As published:

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