Evidence suggests children become literate more quickly and easily in their mother tongues. Photo by Antara.


According to UNICEF, children whose first language is a local language are far more likely to be excluded from education than children who were raised in a country’s national language. And if they do make it to school, children with a local language mother tongue get poorer test scores than their peers who speak the national language fluently.


This is a particular problem in Indonesia, where Bahasa Indonesia is the mother tongue of less than 10 per cent of the population.


In 2018, the Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (Inovasi) program, a partnership between the governments of Australia and Indonesia, tested almost 1,500 early grade students in Sumba to explore their literacy skills. This study is one of the few available studies exploring the role of mother tongue on students’ outcomes in Indonesia. Students were tested on their understanding of the alphabet, syllables, and words. They were also asked to complete a comprehension test, where they were required to complete complex tasks, such as understanding paragraphs and demonstrating critical thinking.


Our data confirmed the findings of similar global studies. Students who spoke Bahasa Indonesia consistently got significantly better scores than students who spoke the local Sumba language in their daily activities. The findings were similar for numeracy skills.


Despite the large number of local languages in Sumba, many early grade teachers don’t use local languages in the classroom. In some schools, teachers are recruited from other areas of Indonesia but are still required to teach students in early grades, and as such cannot be expected to have already mastered the local language. On the other hand, the teachers who do use local languages in the classroom often have little training in the teaching of second languages, and have little strategy or purpose in their use of local languages.


How can we expect children to master basic literacy and numeracy skills when they don’t really understand the language teachers use in the classroom?


Our study suggests that greater caution is needed in interpreting the results of national literacy and numeracy tests, as results may not accurately represent students’ actual skills. Promoting mother tongue languages in schools where early grade students don’t speak the national language could have a significant impact on test results.


Mother tongue language education can serve at least three purposes. First, it can ensure that every child can access their right to quality education. It will also contribute to the Sustainable Development Goal on education, which aims to guarantee that children, irrespective of their background (including ethnic and linguistic backgrounds), have a chance to participate in the education process.


Second, a growing number of studies have shown that well designed mother tongue language education programs can result in more effective educational and pedagogical outcomes. For example, UNICEF reported that students whose teachers used their local languages have higher levels of participation, success, enjoyment, and parental involvement in their education, and lower levels of repetition and drop out, especially among girls.


An older study from Klauss (2003) found that children became literate more quickly and easily in their mother tongues. They also learn other languages more quickly and easily. Further, positive impacts were also seen on children’s psychological conditions, such as increased motivation and self-esteem.


There’s a common misunderstanding that if early grade students use local languages it will delay their fluency in the national language. This assumption is not true. Skills in local languages actually help children to learn the national language faster and better. However, if the national language is used alone, or local and national languages are mixed without a clear strategy, children could get confused and it might affect their comprehension of the national language.


Finally, mother tongue programs can help countries with many indigenous languages, like Indonesia, to preserve their languages. These programs can also be an important means of providing a sense of identity to speakers of indigenous languages and their descendants.


Legally, there are no restrictions on the use of local languages in schools. In fact, several laws and regulations encourage the use of local languages. The Indonesian Constitution, for example, dictates that the state must respect and preserve local languages as Indonesian cultural assets (Article 32(2)). The Law on the National Education System (No. 20 of 2003) also suggests that mother tongue languages can be used as the language of instruction in the early stages of education. Further, two Ministry of Education and Culture regulations (No. 22 of 2016 and No. 37 of 2018) state that teachers should respect student differences and can use local languages to deliver teaching materials.


Despite these supportive regulations, and the fact that Indonesia has more than 700 local languages, in practice, the formal education system prioritises Bahasa Indonesia. The use of local languages tends to be restricted to optional courses in elementary grades. Most textbooks are also still written in Bahasa Indonesia. Instead of being a language of academic communication, local languages are mainly used for basic social interactions.


Using only the national language may be not a big problem in areas where Bahasa Indonesia is commonly used in society, such as Java. But, in the areas where the language is rarely used outside school, the practice will potentially exclude children who speak local languages.


The reasons for the limited use of mother tongue languages in education are numerous. As mentioned, there is a common misconception that using local languages in school will delay learning in Bahasa Indonesia. Given the history of Bahasa Indonesia in promoting national unity, some are concerned that an emphasis on local languages could lead to fragmentation. In addition to these challenges, technical issues, such as high cost, lack of appropriate teaching materials, and limited competent teachers all affect the implementation of mother tongue education.


Indonesia is a culturally rich country. Evidence suggests the government can take advantage of this immense cultural diversity to enhance student performance.



The Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (Inovasi) program is a partnership between the governments of Australia and Indonesia, managed by Palladium. Working directly with Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture, Inovasi is seeking to understand how student learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy can be improved in diverse primary schools and districts across Indonesia. Inovasi is working in a range of locations across Indonesia, and uses a locally focused approach to develop pilot activities and find out what does and doesn’t work to improve student learning outcomes.



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