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ISSN : 2092-674X (Print)
ISSN : 2092-6758 (Online)
Asia-Pacific Collaborative education Journal Vol.9 No.2 pp.103-112

English Language and Its Acquisition, Culture and Role in Indonesian Context

Maya Puspitasari
Maya Puspitasari received her Master Degree in TESOL in the University of Edinburgh in 2012. She is a lecturer of English Education in Universitas Bale Bandung in Indonesia. Her research interest is about English education and education policy. Washback effect in the English national exam in Indonesia would be her next topic to be conducted.
Received Date: April, 11, 2013, Revision received Date: July, 19, 2013, Accepted Date: October, 21, 2013


Learning a language is an interesting topic to bediscussed between linguists. Its existence as a means ofcommunication makes language play an important role inpeople’s lives. Universal grammar, cultural context andEnglish as a global language are some of the topics thathave been researched. Universal grammar (UG) is aprinciple of language applied in communication. Then,there is a tendency that language shares similarities withculture. It means that when people learn a language,inevitably they also learn about its culture. How a personexpresses something to others is an example that showslanguage is interrelated with culture. The existence of alanguage also has a relationship to the power of ideologythat a language has. How much power a language has willdetermine how many people use the language. As Englishis a very powerful language, English is spoken in manycountries and there has been a need for people tocommunicate with other nations.



 Language, a means of communication among human, has been used since Adam was created. Language is considered to be a complicated term since it contains sounds, meaning and other structures that only humans use. There is no evidence that all communication is equivalent to human language (Lust, 2007: 11). Therefore, human language is a very unique feature that exists in life. Sapir (1921) in Lust (2007: 10) argued that the symbols in language are auditory produced in organs of speech. It is the organs of speech that create meaningful sound used to communicate by humans to others. Language distinguishes people all around the world. Language relates to the identity of communities everywhere throughout the world. At least there are three languages considered to be the oldest languages in the world; namely Greek, Sanskrit, and Latin. And from those languages, thousands of languages including English have been developed and used by different people to communicate to each other. In this paper, the writer presents a description of the acquisition of a language, the cultural context involved in learning a language and the role of English as a global language.

Universal Grammar and the Perspective of Acquiring Grammar in Second Language Acquisition

 When language is suggested as a means to express feeling, we can say that when humans are born to this world and weep, the weeping represents human’s language to communicate. In an effortless attempt, a baby reflects clearly his intention to communicate with someone else (Lust, 2007: 11). In line with that, Meisel (2011: 13) conveyed that languages spoken by toddlers can be called as a species-specific endowment of humans. It means that even when a toddler is seen babbling, his intention is to deliver a message that is a language.

 The language properties inherent in the human mind make up “Universal Grammar” (UG), which consists, not of particular rules or of a particular grammar, but of a set of general principles that apply to all grammars and that leave certain parameters open; UG sets the limits within which human languages can vary (Cook, 1983). UG is considered as the rule to limit the use of language where people use it as their communication tools.

 In accordance to it, White (1998: 1) defined UG as an innate biologically endowed language faculty or what is known as a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). The LAD planted in the human brain has become the input storage for children to absorb language including grammar. It was Noam Chomsky who declared Universal Grammar. He said that “children have an innate faculty that guides them in their learning of language” (Mitchell and Myles, 2011: 33). Thus, a child has an ability to acquire language since he has a device installed in his mind.

 However, there has been a debate among the linguists and researchers about the acquisition of second language. A particular grammar amounts to a specification of the ways in which it selects from different possibilities inherent in Universal Grammar. The second language learner possesses a grammar of a first language incorporating the principles of UG and specifying a particular set of values for its parameters. The learner might have access to UG either directly or indirectly through the first language.

 Lust (2007: 13) is concerned that parents must pay attention to how children acquire grammar mapped from meaning to sound. Grammar as a part of language is claimed to be a hard subject to learn. Since grammar contains of so many terms and rules, Lust emphasized that children are not able to grab it instantly. However, Nowak (2001: 114) claimed that grammar acquisition is learnt by children spontaneously and without formal training. So the grammar in language can be acquired by children through unconscious learning. Furthermore, the discussion about how English grammar in second language learning is acquired is contentious. Since many languages exist on this planet, the occurrence of second language learning is inevitable. Krashen (1981: 1) claimed that language acquisition in second language is very similar to the process children use in acquiring their first language. He also assumed that second language acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language in which speakers are not concerned with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.

 In line with that, some researchers implied that it has a link with first language acquisition. For example, Chomsky (1986: 55) in Thomas (1991) indicated that language knowledge is articulated and shared richly with others from the same speech community. Meanwhile others suggested that there is no relation at all between first and second language acquisition. White (2003: 124) admitted that “certain aspects of language must be innately present in the first language learner in the form of UG”. There is a tendency that the second language share similar structure with the first one in the operation of UG.

 Zdorenko and Paradis (2006: 244) were sure that for young second language learners, an entry to Universal Grammar for the target input could have shorter time than it is for older second language learners who really depend on transfer from their first language for a longer period of time. But it does not mean that language teachers should not teach grammar in the learning process. Teachers may conduct formal grammar teaching if the students have known the limits of conscious grammatical knowledge (Krashen, 1992: 410).

 The paradigm of correlation between first and second language acquisition has been varied. When Bardel and Falk (2007: 460) argued that the acquisition of a non-native language is qualitatively different from first language acquisition, I have different opinion in the context of Indonesian language. Unlike other languages such as Indian or Chinese, English and Indonesian languages share some similarities. The similarities sometimes lead to errors made by students to arrange sentences that are grammatically correct in English.

 Initially the effect of the first language grammar comprises a base for the new developing grammar constructed with the involvement of Universal Grammar” (Bardel and Falk, 2007: 461). It has a tendency to happen in the Indonesian context. In terms of syntax, the structure of Indonesian sentences is similar to English. Both structures have comparable parts of speech. The order of subject, verb and then object is also known in Indonesian. It is called subjek, predikat dan objek (subject, verb and object).

 The errors made by the learners are located in the use of the verb. The different verbs based on subject and time often create confusion. In the Indonesian context, there is no change of verb whenever the act happens. It also applies to the subject. The verb will not be modified because the subject is changed. Let’s see some examples below:

 Saya menulis sebuah buku kemarin.
 S        V              O           adv
 I wrote a book yesterday.

 Susan sedang menulis sebuah buku sekarang.
 S              V                    O             adv
 Susan is writing a book now.

 Andy akan menulis sebuah buku nanti malam.
 S          V                  O              adv
 Andy will read a book tonight.

 Saya telah menulis sebuah buku.
 S             V                  O
 I have written a book.

 From the examples above, we can see there is no changing in the forms of verb in the Indonesian context even if the subject and the time have been replaced. However, the situation is different with English. In English, especially in writing, the verbs will be modified based on the factors of subject and time. That is why the learners’ errors occurred in grammar rules of English. Since the rule of grammar in English is quite similar with Indonesian particularly in syntax, therefore the learners often compare their second language (English) to their first language acquisition.

 Concurrently, White (2003: 127) claimed that second language learners should not be able to acquire the second language value of a parameter where:

 a. “The first and second languages have different values for some parameter, and

 b. The input undetermined the second language grammar”.

 Despite what White suggested, the circumstances are rather different from first language acquisition of Indonesian. Hawkins (2001:349) stated that generally older second language speakers only respond similarly to native speakers if their first languages have similar patterns as English. Zdorenko and Paradis (2006: 228) also emphasized that movement of first language seems to take a role in second language learners’ acquisition of English. So the reason why the errors occurred is because Indonesian language shares similar pattern with English. Whenever Indonesian students use English, they will compare it to the Indonesian pattern. The most common problem is that the students find difficulties in changing verbs when the tense and the subject are changed. For example, the students often are not aware of the addition of ‘s’ after the main verb when it deals with the third person singular (he, she or it) in the simple present tense. The teachers should work hard to correct the errors since it happens all the time in the classroom. They should make sure that the students make the sentences carefully and warn them about the rules in English grammar several times. Sometimes giving so much practice to write English sentences properly may reduce the errors made by the students.

English Language and Culture

 As one of the elements of language, culture can be taught separately in learning a language. Culture refers to “humanly acquired knowledge that provides interpretive frames which allow us to assign meaning to human activity” (Joseph, 2004: 379). Hoffman (1989: 118) mentioned that language and culture are interdependent because they are symbolically interpreted in defining the systems of meaning. While we learn a language, we are also supposed to acquire the social and cultural context.

 The relationship between language and culture tends to be linear. Therefore, Hoffman (1989: 120) defined that language is “tied of ethnic cultural identity and relative isolation from the host culture”. In accordance to Hoffman’s statement, Byram (1989: 40) expressed that language and the variety of language (sociolect or idiolect) are one of cultural identities that people encounter in their daily lives.

 By learning a language, there are at least four purposes that can be achieved in terms of culture; namely gaining significant features in the environment, rehearsing information to be learnt, formulating a plan or articulating the steps to be taken in solving a problem (Mitchell and Myles, 2004: 194). Moreover, Hoffman (1989: 119) expounded that cultural adaptation, acculturation, and cultural change must influence and are supposed to be influenced by the ways in which language is used by its language community members.

 Thus, Harumi (2002: 36) suggested that when someone is learning a foreign language, the teacher should be someone who has a close relationship with the culture of the language. So, a language course must be related to culture. Besides learning the four skills, language learning also helps learners to acquire cultural skills, such as strategies for the systematic observation of behavioural patterns (Corbet, 2003). Kramsch (2011: 204) underlined the importance of learning the culture of attitudes, mind-sets, lifestyles, and interactional styles to have successful communication in EFL.

 There has been a concern shown in “the international language teaching profession that the social dimension and intercultural function of language be restored” (Buttjes, 1991: 6). Therefore, discussion about language and culture will be broadened to exploring intercultural communication since the need to learn a second or foreign language is unavoidable. According to Kramsch (2011: 201) intercultural or crosscultural communication is an interdisciplinary study about how people understand other nationalities, geographical areas, ethnic groups, occupational groups, classes or genders. It “includes the ability to understand the language and behaviour of the target community, and explain it to members of the ‘home’ community – and vice versa” (Corbet, 2003: 2).

 The term ‘intercultural communication’ was first presented in the 1950s by Georgetown University linguist Robert Lado and by anthropologist and US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) officer Edward T. Hall. Lado was the first person to attempt to link language and culture in an educationally relevant way (Kramsch, 2011: 201). He added that intercultural communication was necessary because of Post-Second World War American International diplomacy and business interests and later was applied to interethnic conflicts within the United States (Kramsch, 2011:202). An intercultural speaker, it means is “a person who has managed to settle for the inbetween, who knows and can perform in both his or her native culture and in another one acquired at some later date” (House, 2007: 19). The way people deliver their message to others will be determined by the culture and by the community they are in.

 There are some motives for learning intercultural communication. Buttjes (1991: 8) stated that providing culture in language courses is aimed to prepare people for international contact and communication. By gaining intercultural competence, Corbet (2003: 32) also claimed that there are two aims that might be achieved, namely:

 1) Culture refers to information exchange, and

 2) Learners have the opportunity to reflect upon how the information is exchanged, and the cultural factors impinging upon the exchange.

 The purpose of learning culture in language is to enrich the acquisition of a wider world-view by absorbing an access to the non-native cultural capital. It means intercultural studies should try to integrate culture and language in the foreign language classroom to benefit transcultural communication and interaction at once (Buttjes, 1991: 8). Moreover, Corbet (2003: 34) is convinced through motivating the learners to analyze and interpret culture, they are directed to “independent intercultural analysis and interpretation in a range of situations where they might otherwise be at loss and where authoritative guidance is unavailable”. However, it is important to design intercultural study as independent between the native language and culture and those from the new one which they are trying to link, mediate and reconciliate (House, 2007: 15).

 Byram (1989: 39) mentioned that language teaching can be placed into two categories:

 1) Language use and language awareness; and

 2) Cultural studies. 

 Corbet (2003: 34) also warned that “knowledge about how community’s beliefs and values are linguistically constructed and negotiated might well be a higher priority for learners who are likely to have direct contact with the L2 – speaking community”. But, if the second language is considered only as a school subject, explicit cultural training might be treated poorly. Nevertheless, as Kramsch (2011: 205) noted, “the pedagogy of intercultural communication is currently shifting from teaching accurate facts and culturally appropriate behaviors to teaching the social and historical contexts”. The contexts here refer to those that have given present cultural phenomena their meaning within larger crosscultural networks.

 Languages and cultures of nations or tribes seem to be lost every time. Buttjes (1991: 48) urged that when “the cultural survival value of national languages is emphasized” that “there is also a growing awareness of dependency across linguistic and political boundaries”. “Looking back upon a national heritage in language teaching may allow us to be more sensitive to specific cultural restriction as well as to general transcultural developments affecting the continuing reform of foreign language teaching” (Buttjes, 1991: 48).

 The existence of language and culture in the classroom is still debatable. As Byram (1989: 41) found that all language teaching contains some explicit reference to the cultural whole from which the particular language is taken. However, he also discovered that “a frequent metaphor of language as the ‘key’ to a culture embodies this link and at the same reveals an implicit separation”. However, the absolute separation of lexical items from their original reference is extremely difficult. It also happened where “a deliberate attempt to transfer its use to a different culture is made, as in those countries where English is taught from textbooks which refer only to the native culture of the learners” (Byram, 1989: 42).

 Admittedly, teaching intercultural communication in a TESOL class might be oneway learning. It is because the students in most ESL classes are multilingual and multicultural. This means that “any comparison between the target English-speaking culture and one native culture has seemed futile” (Kramsch, 2011: 205). Then, second or foreign language teaching is traditionally concerned with only one language and culture. However, since a lot of immigrants from the Third World are coming to western countries, the scope of language learning will be extended beyond the language spoken in the developed countries in particular possibly including those languages from the Third World (Byram, 1991: 25).

 As language and culture are interrelated, so it means when learners are learning English language somehow they are supposed to learn its culture. The problems remain when it links to assumption whether the culture should be taught explicitly or implicitly. The other problem is the question of which culture the teacher should refer to when she uses English in the Indonesian classroom.

 The major solution for the last problem is often to deal with Indonesian culture while learning English language. But another problem has emerged since English and Indonesian culture are totally different. The difference lies in the difference between the terms eastern and western cultures. Even if there are formal and informal expressions in English language, the formality in Indonesian is more rigorous. It is impolite to call a name of an older person directly if people talk in Indonesian. Meanwhile, based on western culture in this case English, calling an older person by name does not matter.

 Even though it will be impolite to call the name of teachers at school, the learners call them Miss, Mistress, or Mister followed by the family name. However, in this case the names of family in Indonesian culture do not exist much. So when an English teacher, teaches at school, the students will call them Miss, Mistress, or Mister followed by first name. So the thing becomes complicated when English and Indonesian cultures are mixed up. Which culture should be reflected when teacher is teaching English in the classroom?

English as a Global Language

 In terms of sociopolitics, language and ideology are interrelated. Philips (1992: 377) was sure that “language is relevant to understanding the role of ideology in the maintenance of dominant-subordinate relations in human societies”. Moreover, he assumed that “the nature of ideology is understood to be shaped by power relations between dominant and subordinate sectional interests of structural positions”. Tollefson (2000: 13) made the description clearer as he urged that “language policy refers to a wide range of governmental and non-governmental actions designed to influence language acquisition and language use”.

 Since then, the government in one nation plays an important role to decide about the issues related to language and ideology in the learning field. The government is in charge of the languages that will be taught in schools. It also means that the government is responsible to decide the languages that will be used in the courts, in government offices, in voting, and in other public arenas (Tollefson, 2000: 13). Since then, English has been “an official language of major international trading, commerce, broadcasting, communication, safety, traveling, transportation, sport events, academic conferences, and so on” (Harumi, 2002:37). In line with that, Bruthiaux (2002: 129) emphasized that English has become dominant as a language of wider communication in the cluster of economic, military, political, and technological factors.

 Speaking about language and ideology, English is a language that has been involved in taking control a nation about language. Since the end of World War II, English has been demanded all over the world. It has a global impact as an international language. In this view, Tollefson (2000: 8) admitted that national languages play a crucial role in unifying distinct nation states. However, an international language such as English plays a more important role in global communication between governments, in business and industry, in the sciences and technology, and in education. Tollefson (2000: 9) also highlighted that “the spread of English is closely linked with the processes of economic globalization that indirectly lead to the loss of local languages”.

 The existence of many English-speakers internationally inevitably becomes part of the historical process. Therefore, Naysmith (1986: 4) declared the necessity to take notice of the goals of imperialism and the main reason for introducing English-medium schooling systems to schools. It leads to the perspective that “English has even been deliberately used in the suppression of other languages and dialects, supposedly in the interests of political unity and stability” (Naysmith, 1986: 8).

 A power may emerge later in this century to threaten American geo-political supremacy and with it the dominance of English as a global language (Bruthiaux, 2002: 131). The preeminent position of English has contributed to the death of indigenous languages. As English becomes a global language, other languages slowly but surely tend to become extinct. When English is taught in Indonesian schools, the government has changed the educational curriculum several times. At first, English was only a school subject for students in junior and senior high schools. However, since English has become a dominant international language, the English subject has begun to be learned in elementary schools and even in kindergarten.

 English used as a global language is often equated with Standard English / American English with the assumption that native-speakers of English are the model to be used. Even though English is changing and being used in different and new contexts, there is a strong tendency to cling to the traditional native-speaker as the final arbiter or authority about appropriate usage (Foley, 2007: 7). Almost every ‘native-speaker’ seems to feel justified in having an opinion about what is ‘acceptable’ or not in relation to grammar (Foley, 2007: 10).

 However, new varieties of English have emerged and will continue to emerge. Language changes with the people that use it. For the first time in history, a language has reached truly global dimensions and is being shaped in its international uses, at least as much by its nonnative speakers as by its native-speakers (Foley, 2007: 13).

 English has contributed in deciding what adjustment of curriculum will be used at school. Since the demand of mastering English to face the era of globalization, applying a bilingual system at school has started to be established. English is not only used in the English classroom, but also in other subjects such as math, biology, physics, and even chemistry. However, this international appeal seems not to be followed by the readiness of schools, especially by teachers and students. Besides teaching the subjects, the teachers are supposed to teach them in English. This may lead to a problem since the government implemented this policy; the teachers do not know English well enough. Their educational background does not support them to teach the subjects in English. Therefore, they ought to learn English simultaneously.

 Then, the students face the same problem. Subjects such as math, biology, physics and chemistry are difficult to learn. They will face more difficulties since they should understand the subjects presented in English. It is not an easy job. They often complain about the words used in their textbook since the words are specific to the field of the subject. They find it difficult to learn general English, and now they have to cope with specific English that is more difficult than general English.


 As language plays an important role for humans as a means of communication, learning it is necessary. The LAD planted in humans’ mind will influence the first language acquisition. The debate between the similarity and the difference of first and second language acquisition will still remain. However, the ease to acquire the second language depends on the ability of humans to absorb the language.

 Meanwhile, as part of language, culture cannot be separated from learning a language. Inevitably, when people learn about a language, they also learn about its culture indirectly. Introducing the different culture of the second language will help the learners to learn the language easily. Therefore, the teachers should deliver the cultural context of the language learned by the students as part of the language itself.

 English as a global language spoken by many people plays an important role in relating people to each other. The need to learn English has been developed by the Indonesian government to make the people ready to face this era of globalization. However, the government should consider maintaining the use of the Indonesian language in people’s daily life.


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