Language lite in gritty city
Westerners planning a trip to Pare should pack patience and good humor before they visit the East Java town known as the English kampong. Duncan Graham reports.
Anyone with white skin, a long nose and taller than the locals is an unprotected species in Pare, once an agricultural center of 18,000 people servicing the vast fertile plains around nearby Kediri.
Now Pare’s prime industry is teaching English, with conversation classes a main feature. But with whom? Enter the prey – a strolling foreigner grazing the streetscape. The students salivate – who’ll leap first?
Most know the traditional ‘Allo Misterrrr’ approach is ineffective (particularly towards women) so have refined their behavior. The pack pounces; encounters are friendly, but wearing and there’s little escape. Welcome to Kampung Inggris.
“I don’t like the term,” said Mohammed Kalend Osen, the man who started it all almost 37 years ago. (See sidebar.)
“It suggests that everyone in the street speaks English and that’s not true. I don’t want people disillusioned. From the time I first started the Basic English Course (BEC) till the year 2000 there was just my school. Now see what’s happened.”
At first glimpse Pare seems a delight. More than 120 ‘schools’ offering a rijsttafel of courses to suit all learning tastes.
Across the road from BEC, alongside, behind and beyond, BEC’s rivals shout for business with gaudy banners and risible names.
London, Oxford and Cambridge get honorable mentions, but the Oscar contenders for the most pretentious have to be the UNESCO Course, Wall Street Academy and the Onthel Islamic Institute, named after an ancient bicycle. Slogan: ‘The onrushing nomad of the English language’.
Close behind are The Valiant and Choice, which offers an imaginative set of programs including ‘cocoon speaking’ and ‘crust grammar’, while Venus gently implies less cerebral delights. By contrast Melbourne shouts its main attraction – Girl Camp.
At this point let’s take a reality culture check. In Pare ‘camp’ means a single sex dormitory where English is supposed to be used 24 / 7, not a wild Woodstock love-in under canvas.
Most students are in their early 20s wanting to better their English for work or higher study. They heard about Pare from friends and the Internet, and most are venturing afar for the first time.
“Just heading to study English in East Java for a few weeks, Dad’. Thank God she’s not going to heathen Australia where free sex rules.
Some schools, like BEC, are strictly Islamic, enforcing moral and dress codes, particularly on the women. Despite this the energy and excitement of thousands of young adults gives Pare a fun feel. You can almost smell the hormones.
Management student Dwi Yandika Putra, 20, and his accountancy mate Muhammad Rifki Alhabib, 21, both from Jakarta though originally from Sumatra, freely admitted that meeting women was a major attraction.
“The girls here are more prepared to open their hearts,” said Rifki. “It’s easier to get to know them. We can mix with people from all over Indonesia and make new friends.”
Added Dwi: “Pare is so refreshing after the chaos and pollution of Jakarta. This is the real Indonesia. The landscape is fantastic.”
Indeed, but it also includes nearby Mount Kelud that exploded last month (Feb) showering the town with a gritty grey sand that makes sidewalks slippery. Many choose to ride bikes, easily rented at Rp 70,000 (US $6) a month.
Several industries have sprouted to service student needs in Pare. Facilities include boarding houses, laundries, photocopy kiosks, restaurants and coffee shops – though surprisingly few booksellers.
Pare isn’t a tourist town so has been spared the exploitation virus that infects places like Bali. Food, transport and accommodation costs are genuine rural rates for inland Java. Students said it was easy to live well for Rp 1.5 million (US $130) a month including tuition fees.
Demand for space to build new schools has boosted land values tenfold, according to Pare Town head, Ahmad Wahyudiono.
“In the holiday season we get up to 10,000 students,” he said. “So many other industries have grown up to serve their needs – our economy has tripled. People now have work who were previously jobless.
“It’s not our job to give permits for schools.”
Fleeing the forest
Muhammad Kalend Osen (right), now 69, grew up in Serbulu, East Kalimantan. His father was a farmer and the lad worked for a timber mill.
“The Singaporean owner spoke English, and so did my uncle who’d been in Malaysia,” he said.
“I admired them and wanted their skills. I knew I had to get out of the forest and make something of my life. I also had no religion and I needed faith.”
Aged 27 he moved to Java and became a Muslim. “It was my time of revolution,” he said. “If I’d gone to a Christian area I’d probably now be a Catholic or Protestant.”
He studied English at an Islamic boarding school near Ponorogo, East Java and found the going tough, claiming it took him a year to achieve the results now reached by his students after three months.
He married a teacher from Pare and moved to the little town. A couple of friends sought him ought to help with their studies.
“I thought there might be a business here,” he said. “My wife inherited land and we started BEC. Now more than 20,000 have studied with us. We currently have around 600 students from everywhere in the archipelago – we’ve even had two from Thailand.
“The 15 staff are mostly former students with teaching ability that I’ve selected.
“I understand the criticisms but my methods have been developed through experience. Yes, I’m authoritarian, I believe in discipline. I know what works. The most important thing is to have spirit.
“I use US President John Kennedy’s quote to inspire students: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’.
Among Kalend’s techniques is to bus students to Borobudur to meet foreigners. The military style pre-assault briefing includes examining a model of the massive Buddhist temple to determine the best ambush spots.
“Not at this entrance,” Kalend advises. “Wait till they’ve finished enjoying with their darlings.”
Teuku S Iskandar, 21, came to BEC last October. He now speaks English with earnest confidence having “got 14 foreigners” on his last visit to Borobudur from 15 approaches. He’s happy to chat about anything, including religious differences.
“In my homeland of Aceh the teachers weren’t serious,” he said. “They didn’t care whether we learned or not. Once I complained and got a D mark. In Pare I had to start again with the alphabet.”
“I never went to university,” said Kalend. “I’ve never been to an English speaking country. We tried employing a native speaker once but there were too many cultural differences.
“He was from Scotland and didn’t even understand pluperfects. A teacher has to know.
“No-one from the government has ever been to check what we do. Even the regent hasn’t visited.”
Comment: Micky Mouse education?
It’s easy to ridicule the Pare model. Unqualified teachers with no overseas experience, uncertified courses and negligible resources. Uncorrected errors cemented as fact.
BEC, which is the biggest show in town with a splendid musholla and a major building expansion underway, has no language laboratory or library. Class sizes of 40 students in plain rooms make individual attention impossible.
The sounds of Pare aren’t the clatter of traffic but Islamic pop and the ritual chanting of chirpy but soulless greetings: ‘Good morning Madam, how is your day today? The weather is fine, is it not?’’ Conversation minus cadence makes for sterile communication.
This is teaching language without culture, making English like Esperanto, the constructed tongue that failed through want of human roots. Absent is an understanding of the ancient and complex language streams that have made English the dominant force in the world.
Pare pedagogy is English lite, de-caffeinated and mild. Regulation-choked Western states would close every school and probably launch prosecutions. Yet despite the flaws and faults something is working that’s hard to dismiss.
Pare’s success indicates failings in the State education system and rejection of the fees charged by more structured private schools like English First. But that’s not all.
A critical mass of self-motivated learners sharing a common goal, driven by a cautious sense of adventure, generates its own energy. Maybe Indonesian learning styles are organic; they’ve evolved and work best without outside interference. There’s a doctoral thesis lurking here.
Last August the Pare model was transplanted to Karang Indah in South Kalimantan to build tourism and help locals get work overseas.
There’s no independent evaluation. Those who fail to master the language don’t rush to journalists. Others, like Sovi Ardiansyah, 18, have found the confidence if not the vocabulary.
“Hello Sir, I’m Sovi from Chile,” he announced, darting through traffic at the sight of a freckled face. South American? The guy looks unalloyed Indonesian.
“You know Sir, next to Bali. We call it Lombok, you say chilli. Ya?”
Well, no, but who cares. Two men from wildly different backgrounds and cultures share a few laughs and bridge gaps. That’s the Pare effect.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 May 2014)