Teaching English in an FL Context: a Challenge for English Teachers

By Drs. Abdul Muth’im, M.Pd.*)


The context where English is learnt will influence the result of the mastery of the language. In the context of second language (SL), learning English will be more advantageous for the learners because they will have lots of comprehensible input from various language activities and language situations. The same benefits will not be enjoyed by the learners who learn English in the foreign language (FL) context. The language activities and the language situations are not readily available. They must be provided and created. Those who are supposed to be able to provide and create the conditions are English teachers. Can English teachers enable these all to happen? This is the biggest challenge they have to face.

Key words: context, second language, foreign language, comprehensible input, language activities, language situations


The learners who learn English in a second language (SL) context have more advantageous than those who learn it in the context of foreign language (FL). This is what happens to those (e.g. Indonesian learners) who learn English in English speaking countries, such as England, USA, Australia, etc. In the context of SL, though English is not native for them, they still have lots of opportunities to be directly exposed to English used around them. They can directly listen to English used by native speakers (NS) through various language activities such as listening to songs, news, speeches, announcements, advertisements, debates, campaigns, etc. They can also directly speak with the NS to discuss many kinds of interests and different topics. Printed materials are also available in great quantity, so that they can read whatever they like. Filling in forms, taking messages, taking notes, writing application for job or writing letters to the NS in the country are done in English. Of course, this situation gives advantages for the learners to develop their skills in English because “…the classroom target language is readily available out there” (Brown, 2001:116).

The case will be different when the learners learn English in an FL context, for example, learning English in Indonesia. The learners who learn English in an FL context will not have as much advantageous as when they learn the language in a SL context. The main reason for this is that they have limited exposure to English. The circumstance and language milieu available do not support the development of the target language the learners are learning. For examples, the songs, news, speeches, announcements, advertisements, campaigns, and debates they hear are mostly in their own language (e.g. Indonesian). If they speak to people in the market, campus, government offices, bus station, or airport they will not find English used as the means of communication, but Indonesian. The reading materials available are mostly in Indonesian. And the activities of writing are generally done in Indonesian, too. As the result, the learners do not have enough exposure to English for.

The only place where English is probably used and the only time where the learners might be exposed to English is school, or more specifically, classroom. Outside school or classroom, it is a very rare occasion to find people, included the learners themselves, use English. It is no wonder why English learners seem to have difficulty in communication in English, though they actually have learned English for years. That is why “…..efforts must be made to create such opportunities” (Brown, 2001:116) in the classroom.

Learning from Children Acquire FL

Experience has shown that any normal children (the children who are not deaf and dumb) born and raised in certain language milieu will certainly be able to communicate in the language. This means that they have the ability to understand spoken or written language produced by other people. Besides, the language they produce, spoken or written, will also be understood by other people.

For instance, any Indonesian children from any ethnic background such as Banjarese, Dayakese, Javanese, Sundanese, Batakese, or Balinese, are able to communicate in Banjarese, Dayakese, Sundanese, Batakese, or Balinese. It is also true that any American, Russian, Chinese or Arabian children will also be able to communicate in English, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic respectively without deliberately spending special time to go to school to learn the language.

There are two powers that may explain this amazing phenomenon. The first power is what Chomsky called as Language Acquisition Device (LAD), and the second power one is what Krashen describes as exposure to the language and coined as Comprehensible Inputs.

Though this is still hypothetical, with the LAD they own, any children are assumed to be able to understand sentences in their native language (NL) that they never heard before. With the LAD the children are also able to detect whether the pronunciation, the stress, the intonation, the pause, or the juncture used by other speakers of the same NL meet the requirements of sound system of the language. Similarly, with the LAD, they will be able to find out whether or not the orthographical systems implemented by a writer deviates from the language system or not. Also, by that device the children can determine whether a sentence produced is grammatical or not. In addition, with the device the children will be able to grasp whether the words chosen in a sentence are polite, impolite, appropriate, or inappropriate. In short, by that LAD, children will be able to comprehend any spoken or written language they are exposed to; also, with that device they will be able to produce unlimited pieces of spoken or written language.

Beside the LAD the learners have, the development of their language also depends on the frequency and intensity of exposing to the language. In other words, it depends on the quality and the quantity of comprehensible inputs they are exposed to. In the case of developing their NL, for instance Banjarese, the learners will not have difficulty in getting comprehensible inputs. Any time the young learners of the NL are exposed to the language: in the morning, in the afternoon, even at night. In short, they can be exposed to the language day and night for 24 hours. They can also be exposed to the language anywhere: at home, at school, in market, in bus station, in airport, in harbor, etc. The exposure to this language then becomes comprehensible inputs for the learners.

Exposing the learners to the language they are learning, is a prerequisite in giving them comprehensible inputs. In an SL context, this is possible to happen because the circumstance, as illustrated above, is rich of the materials needed to facilitate learning. However, those enormous learning materials and activities are not available in FL context. The learning materials and the learning activities must be created and provided. Rivers suggests (1968:161): “students should be given the opportunity, throughout their years of study, to develop greater and greater skill in encoding their thoughts in ever more complicated patterns of the foreign language…”. The question is, “Who will be responsible to provide the opportunity, the comprehensible inputs?”

The Difference between SL and FL

Before answering the above questions, it might be better for us to find out how linguists see the difference between FL and SL. For some linguists, these two terms refer to the same thing, that is, the language acquired and learned after one’s native language. This is what generally believed by North American linguists. However, in British usage, these two terms are distinguished. For them, “a foreign language is a language which is taught as a school subject but which is not used as a medium of instruction in schools nor as a language of communication within a country”. Whereas, “SL is a language which is not a native language in a country but which is widely used as a medium of communication (e.g. in education and in government) and which is usually used alongside another language or languages” (Richards et al., 1987:108).

Based on the definitions above, a question that may arise is, “Is English SL or FL in Indonesia?”. To answer the question, some other questions related to it must be answered first. For example, (a) “Is English taught as a school subject?”, (b) “Is English used as a medium of instruction in teaching other school subjects such as mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, history, or civics?”, and (c) “Is English used as a medium of communication within the country of Indonesia?”.

For question (a), the answer is surely “YES”. This is especially true in junior and senior high schools, for English is one of the compulsory subjects in the school. As a compulsory school subject, like in any other school subjects, the students in these levels have to learn it. They cannot graduate from their schools unless they reach at least the passing grade in English. If they fail, they have to remain in the school for one or two more years. This condition is the same with the condition for other school subjects.

For question (b), the answer is positively “NO”. In Indonesia, though the subjects such as mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry, history, civics and some other subjects are also taught, they are not taught with English as the medium of instruction. Instead, the medium of instruction used in teaching those school subjects is Indonesian. Even, in lower classes of primary school, local language or a combination of Indonesian and local language is used as the medium.The only school subject that ‘might’ use English as medium of instruction is English.

For question (c), the answer is certainly, “NO”. There are no Indonesian people who use English as their means of communication. To communicate with other Indonesian citizens, they mostly use their local language, or if they come from different ethnic backgrounds, they will use Indonesian as the medium, not English.

The description above leads us to a conclusion that English is really an FL, not an SL – let alone an NL.

The objective of teaching English in Indonesia

The objective of teaching and learning English in Indonesia can be found in the English curriculums that have ever been the bases and is till the base for the teaching and learning English in Indonesia: the English Curriculum of 1975, the English Curriculum of 1984, the English Curriculum of 1994, the English Curriculum of 2004, and the English Curriculum of 2006. Though the curriculum used for certain period of time is different, the essence is basically the same. For instance, in the English Curriculum of 2004 for SMA/MA it is formulated that one of its objectives is to develop students’ ability in communication in the four language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. (Departemen Pendidikan Nasional, 2003).

To prove that the objective of the teaching and learning English in Indonesia at present time is not different very much from the objective of the teaching and learning English at the time it was determined as the first foreign language in Indonesian schooling system by the decision makers long time ago can be traced in the Decree of the Minister of Education and Culture No. 096 of 1967 (in Tirtopramono, 1970). The objective formulated was “the mastery of various language skills covering reading, listening, writing, and speaking”. The question is, “Who will be responsible to create such situations? Who will be able to provide such opportunities? Who can the students rely on for that conditions?

To answer the questions, Harmer (2003:66) suggests “as teachers we are ideally placed to provide comprehensible input since we know the students in front of us and can react appropriately to them in a way that a course book or a tape, for example, cannot. We know how to talk as just at the right level so that even if our students do not understand every word we say, they understand the meaning of what is being said”. If this can be facilitated, ” … the opportunity to use the language they study for real communication purpose” (Krashen and Tracy, 1984:17) will be widely opened.

The requirement of good English teacher

What kind of teacher that can create opportunities for their students to develop their English? What kind of teacher that can provide comprehensible input in great number? It is only good teacher that is able to accomplish this great job. No one, but teacher, more specifically good teacher. Then, what characteristics should a good language teacher have?

A good language teacher in accordance with Brown (2001:430), should have four characteristics: (1) technical knowledge, (2) pedagogical skills, (3) interpersonal skills, and (4) personal qualities.

Why should an English teacher have technical knowledge? Why should an English teacher have pedagogical skills? Why should an English teacher have interpersonal skills? And, why should an English have personal qualities. What do they cover cover? A good language teacher who has technical knowledge, in accordance with him, (1) understands the linguistic systems of English phonology, grammar, and discourse, (2) comprehensively grasps basic principles of language teaching and learning, (3) has fluent competence in speaking, writing, listening to, and reading English, (4) knows what it is like to learn a foreign language, (5) understands the close connection between language and culture, and (6) keeps up with the field through regular reading and conference/ workshop attendance.

A good language teacher must also have pedagogical skills. This means that he (1) has a well-thought-out, informed approach to language teaching, (2) understands and uses a wide variety of techniques, (3) designs and executes lesson plans efficiently, 4) monitors lessons as they unfold and makes effective mid-lesson alterations, (5) perceives students’ linguistic needs effectively, (6) gives optimal feedback to students, 7) stimulates interaction, cooperation, and teamwork in the classroom, (8) uses appropriate principles of classroom management, (9) uses effective, clear presentation skills, (10) adapts textbook material and other audio, visual, and mechanical aids creatively, (11) creates brand-new materials when needed innovatively, and (12) uses interactive, intrinsically motivating techniques to create effective tests.

A good language teacher should also have interpersonal skills. This means that he (1) is aware of cross-cultural differences and is sensitive to students’ cultural traditions, (2) enjoys people; shows enthusiasm, warmth, rapport, and appropriate humor, (3) values the opinions and abilities of students, (4) is patient in working with students of lesser ability, (5) offers challenges to students of exceptionally high ability, (6) cooperates harmoniously and candidly with colleagues (fellow teachers), (7) and seeks opportunities to share thoughts, ideas, and techniques with colleagues.

Finally, a good English teacher must possess personal qualities, too. This means that he (1) is well-organized, conscientious in meeting commitments, and dependable, (2) is flexible when things go awry, (3) maintains an inquisitive mind in trying out new ways of teaching, (4) sets short-term and long-term goals for continued professional growth, and (5) maintains and exemplifies high ethical and moral standards.

Kinds of English Learners

What kind of learners that need the presence of teacher that is able to provide adequate comprehensible inputs in class the most? To answer this question, let us see how linguists define kinds of students. Seen from their ability, according to them English learners can be divided into three categories. They are: beginning level, intermediate level, and advanced level.

The first level is beginning level. The students in this level as described by Brown (2001:98-110) are the students who have little or no prior knowledge of the target language. The phonological system, the orthographical system, the syntactical system, the lexical system, and the discourse system of English are far from their repertoire of language experience.

Whereas the second level, i.e. intermediate level is described as students who have progressed beyond novice stages to an ability to sustain basic, communicative tasks, to establish some minimal fluency, to deal with a few unrehearsed situations, to self-correct on occasion, to use a few compensatory strategies, and generally to “get along” in the language beyond mere survival. The last group of students is labeled advanced level. They are described as students that move up the development ladder, getting closer and closer to their goals, developing fluency along with a greater degree of accuracy, able to handle virtually any situation in which target language use is demanded.

Among these three groups of students, it is apparent then that the group of students who need a lot of comprehensible input from the teacher is the beginners. This is especially true for the students who live in remote areas and in the outskirts of a town in which they just start to learn English and have experience with it when they are in Junior High School (SMP/MTs). Krashen and Tracy (1984:56) argue “classroom may be a very good place for second language acquisition, especially at the beginning and intermediate levels”.

The age of the learners in this level ranges from 12 – 13 years. In this age, they have already had an established competence for their NL (e.g. Banjarese) and SL (Indonesian) rules. The comprehensible inputs they have been exposed to are mostly either in their NL or their SL. Only the students who live and study in elementary school in towns have the opportunity to be exposed to English earlier. Since, some elementary schools (SD/MI) in towns, especially the “favorite ones” have English as one of the local content courses (mulok) in their schools, though the quantity and quality of the comprehensible the students get are still questioned by many people.

There are some reasons why English teacher should pay more attention to this group of students. Brown in the same book argues that:

· in communicative language teaching, the teacher becomes a central determiner in whether students accomplish their goals,

· the students’ capacity in and retaining new words, structures, and concepts is limited,

· in an FL situation, some negotiation might be possible in the NL, allowing for a small amount of student control,

· it is important not to let your classes go to excess in the use of the students’ native language.

· beginning students are highly dependent on the teacher.

· every ear and eye is indeed focused on you (2001:99)


As it has been discussed earlier that the only place and the only time for students to get exposure is when they are in class having English. That is why all the hopes and expectations are put on the teacher’s shoulders? Especially, when the learners are still in beginning level. This means that their success or failure in mastering English for most parts is English teachers responsibility. They depend on the teachers’ readiness to face the challenges. This is the greatest challenge for English teachers (in also English lecturers, of course). Are we ready?

*) Lecturer at English Department, Faculty of Teacher Training and Education, Lambung Markurat University Banjarmasin

October 30, 2008


Brown, H. Douglas. 2001. Teaching English by Principle An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Second Edition. San Fransisco. Wesley Longman, Inc.

Departemen Pendidikan Nasional. 2006. Kurikulum Bahasa Inggris untuk SMA/MA. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka.

Harmer, Jeremy. 2003. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Third Edition. Printed in Malaysia. Longman.

Krashen, Stephen D and Tracy D. Terrel. 1984. The Natural Approach Language Acquisition in the Classroom. San Fransisco: Pergamon Press.

Richards, Jack, John Platt, and Heidi Weber. Longman Dictionary Applied Linguistics. Consultants: Professor C.N. Candlin and Professor John Oller Jr. Printed in Hong Kong: Longman Group.

Rivers, Wilga R. 1980. Teaching Foreign Language Skills. Chicago. The University of Chicago Press.

Tirtopramono, Pramono. 1970. “Two Aspects of English Language Instruction in Indonesia” in Roy Cherrier (ed.). English Language Testing Report of the RELC Fifth Regional Seminar. Singapore: RELC.

1 Comment

  • agus Wj

    Don’t worry too much with our FL environment., just be happy, haaaa… English belongs to everybody in this world !! (as stated in your other article), so everybody can learn it everywhere in this world too :_)). Here I specifically address your article in connection to acquisition of L2 pragmatic competence (my field).

    Though SL environment has been claimed to be prominent, it has left questions such as to what extent classroom environment in the target language help FL learners, how much social environment give input, how different classroom and social environment affect FL learners and non FL learners, and to what extent social differences of learners influence their strategies to acquire input. It seems that the quality to be pedagogically adequate input for learners has been taken for granted.

    While FL instructional setting has been suggested to supply learners with limited input, still it has benefit. Feed back and correction to input- that are not possible in non-instructional setting-can be maximized by teacher’s model and guide, awareness-raising activities, and peer collaborative activities for generating L2 acquisition. Taguchi’s (2008) study reveals that pragmatic comprehension developed over time regardless of environment and learners in a FL environment are not necessarily disadvantaged in pragmatic development. Although formal classroom settings has limited opportunity for input, pragmatic comprehension could develop naturally by providing learners with adequate resources for such development. Kasper and Rose (2002) confirmed that foreign language setting is useful, as students’ universal interaction competence and teacher input jointly enable them to enhance pragmatic competence.

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