Language matters: language and learning in Bima, Indonesia

Each year on the 21st February, UNESCO celebrates International Mother Language Day. If the language you speak at home is the same language that was used in your primary school classroom, then you may not realise the significance of this date nor the importance of language in quality education. But for an estimated 221 million school aged children around the world who are without access to schooling in their mother tongue language, the challenge of delivering linguistically and culturally inclusive education could not be more important.

In Indonesia, the most linguistically diverse nation in Asia, the Australian Government funded Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) program is working to address this issue. Working with teachers in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara province, INOVASI is designing locally driven ways to improve learning outcomes for students whose first language is not Bahasa Indonesia. INOVASI’s Program Manager, Naomi Fillmore, and Education Specialist, Wuri Handayani, discuss why language matters in education and for INOVASI.

A global challenge: language and learning

Despite the fact that three quarters of the world’s population speak two or more languages[1], few school systems reflect this rich linguistic multiplicity. In Indonesia, it is estimated that less than ten per cent of the population has access to education in their first language – among the lowest percentage in Asia[2]. Despite significant investments in education spending over the last twenty years, learning outcomes have not improved at the rate expected and Indonesia still lags behind its regional and global peers.

There is no doubt that language matters in education – domestic and international literature tells us that students whose mother tongue is not used as the language of instruction in schools are unlikely to ever attain the same level of understanding and therefore achievement as their peers. In the Philippines[3], a close neighbour to Indonesia, standardised tests found that by grade three, students in mother tongue-based programs significantly outperformed their peers in control schools.

The Indonesian experience: language and learning in Bima

In the Indonesian context, INOVASI is attempting to address the question of language in education through an innovative pilot in the district of Bima in West Nusa Tenggara. Students and teachers in this remote district face challenges on many fronts. Wider issues of teacher training, remoteness, and lack of resources are compounded by a high prevalence of local languages in homes and communities, resulting in extremely low learning outcomes for Bima’s students. Bima scored the lowest of all NTB districts in reading, mathematics, and science, and more than one standard deviation below the national average for all subject areas[4]. Improving teachers’ ability to better plan and manage the transition from students’ mother tongue to using Bahasa Indonesia as the primary medium of classroom instruction and assessment was identified as a priority to addressing these low scores. Through its GEMBIRA (Gerakan menggunakan Bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar) pilot, INOVASI aims to do just this.

In Bima and in all INOVASI partner districts and provinces, INOVASI uses a distinctive approach to develop pilot activities and find out what does and doesn’t work to improve student learning outcomes. In simple terms, this approach is called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). It sees INOVASI working and learning directly with local partners to explore and identify local problems and co-design locally relevant solutions. This bottom-up way of thinking is certainly not new – conceptually it draws on approaches in the Doing Development Differently and Human Centred Design fields – but INOVASI continues to implement and iterate its own version of this on the ground in Indonesia.

Figure 1 INOVASI uses an innovative approach to pilot design known as PDIA

Pilot planning and design activities for GEMBIRA commenced in August 2017 with teachers from four schools in two chosen KKGs (grassroots level forums for primary school teachers residing in a single school cluster). During a number of activities, including a three-day design workshop, teachers worked together with INOVASI and local facilitators to co-identify root problem causes and effects, using a variety of innovative tools and processes.

Through classroom and playground observations, and interviews with early grade classroom teachers, principals, school supervisors and parents, we found a significant gap between teaching practice, materials, and the first languages of students. Around 90 per cent of teachers in target Bima schools were using local languages as an oral instructional language in the classroom, while the supporting materials and assessment tools were in Bahasa Indonesia. Teachers’ main strategy for bridging this gap was to translate the materials directly – an unsustainable strategy long-term as Indonesian education policy mandates Bahasa Indonesia as the sole language of instruction beyond early grades.


Figure 2 INOVASI’s approach to PDIA includes a thorough ‘synthesis’ stage to understand the underlying cause of a problem before designing a solution. Here, teachers proudly display their ‘fish bone’ analysis of the root cause of educational achievement of minority language students


Armed with a better understanding of the core problem, teachers then worked together and with INOVASI language specialists to collaboratively generate ideas for better support to language minority students.

Teachers spent the next three weeks testing their idea in their own classrooms, and reflecting on them through ongoing Monitoring Experiential Evaluation (MeE). Strategies selected included total physical response (a language teaching method based on the coordination of language and physical movement), contextualised approaches (which use ‘real life’ learning materials found in the local context to help students more easily make connections with the new ideas and skills that are taught) and experiential approaches (which encourage learners to develop the target language skills through exploring their own personal and cultural experiences). A basic model for helping teachers to decide which language to use in teaching different topics, based on learners Bahasa Indonesian fluency level and their prior knowledge of the concept, was also developed and trialled in the pre-pilot.

Figure 3 Ibu  Rahmi from SDN Sila 1 now uses teaching aids she finds in her local community (in this case, small stones) during her numeracy class. By utilising physical, tangible examples that the learner is already familiar with, they can more easily make connections with the new ideas and skills that are taught, regardless of their Bahasa Indonesia fluency

Ibu Tety of SD Sila described the how her students’ newfound confidence inspired her to continue using her new teaching strategies: “Students who used to be passive in class have become more active and energetic. They use Indonesian language often now… and I have become more enthusiastic in teaching. Their enthusiasm has triggered me to search for more ideas to make it easier for them to understand and absorb (the lesson)”.

Teachers also described how they were now carefully considering which language they would use to teach different topics and the learning aids they used to get messages across.

But there were also challenges. Breaking long-standing habits of code switching and direct translation is not easy, and teachers admitted they fell back into using these methods. But now, through the problem identification phase and training given during the design workshop, they understood why these practices were unsustainable.

Next steps

INOVASI will use the findings and experiences of teachers in the pre-pilot phase to inform the design of a full pilot in early 2018, expanding to include an additional eight schools in Bima. INOVASI also expects to implement an additional pilot also focused on supporting language minority students in East Sumba district of Nusa Tenggara Timur province.  It’s too early yet to know if the increased participation in the classroom and confidence in Bahasa Indonesia language will translate into long term increases in learning outcomes. But by using PDIA to co-design solutions with the very people who will use it, we’re confident that we can achieve an outcome that is as sustainable as possible.


[1] David Crystal, How Language Works (London: Penguin, 2006).

[2] Kimmo Kosonen, Language of instruction in Southeast Asia – Background paper prepared for the 2017/8 Global Education Monitoring Report (UNESCO: 2017)

[3] Walter, S., & Dekker, D. The Lubuagan Mother Tongue Education Experiment (FLC) A Report of Comparative Test Results. (Manila, 2008)

[4] Dita Nugroho, Sandra Kurniawati, Daniel Suryadarma, What NTB students know and how the government, school, teachers and parents support them – Indonesian National Assessment Program (INAP) Nusa Tenggara Barat 2016 (INOVASI: Jakarta 2016)


Language matters: language and learning in Bima, Indonesia