Improving the Teaching of Indonesian Language: Reflecting on Students’ Mistakes in Their English Discourse

(A presentation paper originally; left as such)


The teaching of Indonesian language in formal school has always been a burning issue, not only because it relates to students’ competence and performance in Indonesian language subject alone, but also because it affects students’ command of the language in general: discussing the issue of cloning in a Biology class, presenting a topic on heroism in a history class, writing an essay on a topic about environment to be sent to a writing competition, giving an opinion on the global issue of terrorism when asked by a TV reporter, defining what human rights means in a class discussion, etc.

In later development, the teaching of Indonesian language is also connected to the teaching and learning of a foreign language—in this case English—in that if students’ Indonesian is good, their English will equally follow. And if their Indonesian is bad, their English will be too. This is because students naturally transfer their Indonesian way of thinking into English (adapted from Alwasilah 1991).

By ‘burning issue’, it implies that the teaching of Indonesian language even up to now leaves much to be desired. This means problems to be later offered solution to. The problems can be both at the sentential and discoursal level (Antoni 2003). As if this were not enough to prove the problems and since I regularly analyze students’ English and also teach the language myself too, I have seen a lot of students’ English in their work (read: oral and especially written discourse) and come to the conclusion that there is a lot to be done about—besides the teaching of English itself—the teaching of Indonesian language in the first place given the aforementioned principle of language transfer. Only when this is attended to can we expect our students’ English to be also improved.

This paper will—respectively—reveals common problems in students’ English in their discourse, discusses possible reasons underlying them, reflects on the teaching of Indonesian language with regards to the problems, and proposes solution to better teach Indonesian that will expectedly result in students’ better production of English in their discourse.

Indonesian-English Corresponding and Non-Corresponding (Socio)linguistic Features

Through a simple Contrastive Analysis, we can easily find that Indonesian grammar with regards to sentence patterns bears (very) little resemblance to that of English. This is therefore mostly at the sentential level. My oftentimes telling students:”The only sentence pattern shared by both English and Indonesian language is ‘I love you’ for ‘Aku cinta kamu’ and vice versa” is only to keep them aware of the differences in grammar between English and Indonesian language. Any problem in this respect should by definition be left to the English teacher to solve.

At the discoursal level, though, there are more aspects in common shared by both languages. Proper teaching of these aspects in Indonesian language to begin may potentially result in students’ positively transferring them into English. And, likewise, improper instruction of these aspects may end with students’ badly adopting them into English, this causing them to make mistakes at the discoursal level. A student writing beginning with a topic then narrowing it down into a thesis statement next breaking it into several main ideas later developing them into paragraphs can be theorized to have been trained the same fashion well in Indonesian language. Similarly, another student who doesn’t begin his or her writing with a topic sentence or begins his or her writing with a topic sentence but fails to develop it accordingly with relevant supporting details (sample used here) may as well have begun with the same exact practice of writing in Indonesian language to start.

Problems in Students’ English in Their Discourse

Parallel with the problems that students make in their Indonesian discourse that can be both at the sentential and discoursal level (Antoni 2003), the problems students make in their English discourse are also at both levels (Antoni and Radiana 2001). They number not less than 21. But most of them fall into the category of mistakes at the sentential level, this resulting from (very) little resemblance of Indonesian language structure at the sentential level to English. Mistakes in this regard can straightforwardly be addressed to the English teacher to fix.

On the contrary, mistakes at the discoursal level are those whose aspects have their equivalents in Indonesian language. As such, the treatment of the mistakes should be handed not only to the English teacher, but originally also to the Indonesian language teacher teaching these aspects in Indonesian language subject in the first place.

One or two at the sentential level and many at the discoursal level, these aspects are: run-on sentences versus cut-off thoughts, phrase-forming and collocation, clauses, parallelism, coherence and cohesion, transitional markers including punctuation marks, relevant versus irrelevant ideas, discourse development, and logic. Recent observation of students’ English in their discourse, which prompted this paper presentation, reveals findings that still conform to those found years back when they were first discussed.

Sample Problems in Students’ English in Their Discourse

The problems revealed in this presentation are sampled from both Antoni and Radiana’s (2001) study and recent observation. They are as follows:

1.  The advantages from Kombucha tea is, sometimes if we consume Kombucha tea in not right portion, can cause disease because everything that we consume too over is bring good result, Kombucha tea have acid contents.

2.  People who seeing a movie in theater must accept the rules from the theater, like don’t take a picture or recorded the movie, etc.

3.  You can see many store who the store serve body piercing.

4.  There are many experiments have been done.

5.  According a researching (observation), classic music can refresh our mind, make our motivation higher, and our feeling better.

6.  We will not only get a discount or a big discount but also we can go there with our friends.

7.  Not only individual sports which need sports skill but also team sports need sports skill.

8.  We can play the music on CD, DVD, or cassette whatever how much you want to listen that.

9. Thirdly, the writer thinks that through knowing, comparing, etc. People, who live in or near a prostitution area can teach themselves to live a healthier, better live. By knowing things that they need to know the people who live there will make the information as a motivator for them to do better with their life. By comparing things, people will realize, how bad it is to live life like others did. People will compare what kind of life would be for them if they follow the society and what if they do not. As a result, they will come to a decision, that they would change their life for the better. They can plan themselves, set their goals, and struggle. So that they will not be the same like the person who give them advice. Because somehow by learning through others experience they will try not to make the same mistakes like others did. And after they through with the process of learning, comparing, and observing things they are one step closer for the brighter future.

10. There are reasons for accepting the Homosexual Community. Firstly, they have lived since long time ago. Homosexuality itself started at the beginning of human being. History had recorded about the Prophet Luth era in 1900 BC. At that time, the people were doing love with the same gender. And then, there was a city, called Sodom Gomora, where the citizens used to be Homosexual. The Prophet Luth Community were disavowing God’s existence. Not just that, the men didn’t want to marry the women, but they just wanted to marry the same gender. Actually this kind of behavior is cursed and prohibited by Islam. Allah explains this case in surah As-Syu’ara at 165th-166th verses stating that if we are men who come to another men and we leave our wives that God has granted us, we’ll be a part of community who disobey the limit. Everytime Prophet Luth reminded his community about the coming torment from God, but unfortunately, his people always ridiculed him, until one day, God sent a torment to that city with fire and rocks. Nobody survived that torment except Prophet Luth with his family. Besides, in our country, there were some kings at Aceh and Gowa kingdoms who had and collected some male concubines, and then, we hear about the Reog Ponorogo culture.

11. Body piercing is an act of vandalism. Body piercing is an act to move out from problem (in my opinion). Peoples who get problem or something like that will feel saturated, so that they piercing his body. Body piercing is an act of vandalism, but a few of people look that as an art. In Cihampelas, Bandung, you can see many store who the store serve body piercing. In group band music who the theme is metal, you can see a lot of piercing in his body. In his opinion, piercing can make style is good and more confident than they don’t use it. But I think that’s an act of vandalism and my message is don’t try to do that.

12. As solution, the writer thinks that one has to get the initiative to giving attention to those victims. Starting from family, legal, paramedics, or society, that gives a special attention. The victims should be proactive reporting to the police with accompanying family or friends. Because a small evidence can be supporting the victims claim. Between family, legal, paramedics, or society and the victims can make cooperation for each other. Especially when the victims run through all the process. The so-called NGO or better known as LSM dealing with women violence including rape victim should involve. For example women crisis center in Indonesia are Kalyana Mitra, LBH-APIK, Rifka Annisa, etc. They assist violence against women by guiding the victims.

Discussion on the Problems in Students’ English in Their Discourse

From the list above, we can see that sample 1 shows a problem with run-on sentences at the sentential level. The correction of this may result in a (short) discourse. The student can’t cut ideas properly into logically accepted thought patterns. He or she can’t also use punctuation marks appropriately to relate ideas together. Sample 2 reveals the student’s not being able to use phrases after certain words like prepositions. Sample 3 suggests a problem with clauses, particularly, adjectives clauses. Sample 4 also shows the same problem: the student can’t observe the compulsory use of an adjective clause after a certain construction with there

Sample 5 renders a problem with parallelism: the student can’t observe the series of verbal phrases he uses that have to be parallel. Samples 6 and 7 show the same problem, in particular, with regards to the use of not only, but also that has to be used with parallel forms. Sample 8 shows a problem still with parallelism, but with regards to the consistent use of point of view. Sample 9 reveals a problem with coherence and cohesion: the topic sentence is not supported by directly relevant, specified details. Sample 10 shows a problem with irrelevant ideas: the underlined sentences shouldn’t have been included there but instead could appropriately have been put elsewhere. Sample 11 suggests a problem with discourse development: the proposed idea of an act of vandalism in the topic sentence is not relevantly explained. The last sample reveals a problem with cut-off ideas as opposed to run-on sentences.

Possible Reasons Underlying the Problems in Students’ English in Their Discourse

There exist possibly many factors that contribute to the occurrence of the problems in students’ English in their discourse. Among others, on the part of the teacher, he or she deals mainly with elements at the sentential level teaching sentence components but not sentence patterns, affixes etc. but not parts of speech, words but not collocation, phrases but not chunks of ideas, etc.

At the discoursal level, the teacher doesn’t teach making a discourse—oral especially written—following the steps such as those proposed by Antoni and Radiana (2001) inspired by Alwasilah (1993: 78), namely:

1. Formulating what we want to say;

This may take place in our mind. We may do this in our own mother tongue or target language. This process may be well-structured; it may also be structure-free.


Seks bebas itu berbahaya. Bisa menyebabkan kehamilan yang tidak diharapkan. Dapat menyebabkan penyakit kelamin dan yang paling parah AIDS. Juga bias merusak masa depan.

2. Arranging the idea syntactically;

Implied here is that it is a sentence-by-sentence idea arrangement, ruled by grammar. In other words, in so doing, syntax applies. It will not therefore be as exactly as it is thought in mind. Changes may need to occur. Words are added or eliminated. This process may take place in the writing preparation.


Free sex is dangerous.

Free sex may cause unwanted pregnancy to women committing this.

Free sex may cause sexually transmitted diseases, the worst of which is AIDS.

Free sex may ruin future life.

3. Writing the idea down;

This now follows all the discourse rules of topic sentence, supporting sentences, transitional markers, coherence, etc. and puts the idea into any appropriate writing genre. Like in No. 2, at this point changes may still need to occur. Words are added or eliminated.


Free sex is dangerous. To start with, it may possibly cause unwanted pregnancy to the women committing this. Next, it may also cause sexually transmitted diseases, the worst of which is AIDS. Lastly, it may ruin the future of those practicing this habit.

On the part of students, it is very possible that they make mistakes in these aspects because they haven’t internalized the aspects or because they haven’t had enough practice of writing to employ the aspects. Or they are not allowed enough time to revise their work time and again before they produce their final work. Writing this way is still considered a product more than it is a process. If they are given enough time to undergo this writing process, they can write better.

The Teaching and Learning of Indonesian Language Contributive of Problems in Students’ English in Their Discourse

If we see closely the contents of Indonesian language practice tests in exercise books written to prepare students to face their national final examination (e.g. Penerbit Epsilon Grup 2005), we can see and conclude that the teaching and learning of Indonesian language at formal school is somehow always related to texts. I can imagine that students are to read different kinds of texts, understand them, and answer questions about them.

It can be assumed, though, that this may not go as far as asking the students to respond to a given text by writing a reader-response essay, to summarize it, to discuss its interesting points, to present it, etc., all of which will require the students to use their Indonesian language above the sentential level. If they do, the process may not be taken seriously. This is especially so if the process of producing a discourse the aforementioned way is not adopted. As a result, the students just improve their passive reading skills and not their productive writing skills.

Alfianto (2006) asserts that the teaching of Indonesian language at formal school tends to be conventional, rote learning-focused, and full of complicated linguistic theories. In addition, it is not contributive of efforts to develop students’ ability in using the language. This is especially so, he continues, with writing skills.

It is no wonder that the students can easily make mistakes in their Indonesian language when using it productively to express ideas in their discourse, be it oral or written. This will even continue to the time when they become professionals and have to use the language in their job. Antoni (2003) observes these even in reports where the Indonesian language used should actually be formal. Being at both sentential and discoursal level, these mistakes and their aspects correspond to those earlier discussed in students’ English. Some examples are as follows:

Negara yang telah meratifikasi KHA, maka Negara tersebut terikat, baik secara Yuridis maupun politis (inappropriate transitional marker used).

–  Dampak lain masa depan anak tidak menentu serta menjadi “Unskill Worker” sehingga mereka akan menjadi beban Negara di masa mendatang (no parallelism, run-on sentence).

–  Child to child approach adalah sebuah model pendekatan antar anak yang berbeda usia (cross-age peer tutoring) pola ini adalah alternatif pengajaran yang mengandalkan peserta didik yang lebih tua mengajar peserta didik yang lebih muda, dan banyak memberi kesempatan kepada peserta didik untuk berlatih (lack of punctuation marks, run-on sentence).

–  Indonesia telah meratifikasi KHA melalui Keppres  No. 36/1990. Negara yang telah meratifikasi KHA, maka Negara tersebut terikat, baik secara Yuridis maupun politis (lack of transitional markers).

–  Anak yang putus sekolah adalah anak-anak yang kehilangan hak pendidikannya dan tidak memiliki kesempatan untuk mengembangkan dirinya secara maksimal. Kondisi seperti ini adalah kondisi yang sangat menyedihkan. Dampak lain masa depan anak tidak menentu serta menjadi “Unskill Worker” sehingga mereka akan menjadi beban Negara di masa mendatang (lack of parallelism with regards to point of view, lack of coherence and cohesion).

–   Munculnya anak yang hidup di jalanan adalah akses ketidakberdyaan Masyarakat dalam memenuhi kebutuhan dalam keluarga khususnya kebutuhan yang diperlukan oleh anak. Perhatian yang kurang dariorang tua dan ketidakharmonisan komunikasi yang terjadi dalam keluarga telah mengakibatkan anak merasa dikucilkan dalam interaksi sosial keluarga, sebagai akibat anak menjadi terlempar ke jalan (problem with collocation, inappropriate transitional marker).

–  Kondisi kehidupan yang sedemikian keras tidak menutup kemungkinan munculnya tindak kekerasan yang ditimbulkan oleh orang-orang dewasa yang notabene sebagai orang yang harusnya melindungi. Perlakuan salah yang dialami anak-anak di jalan dapat berupa kekerasan fisik, mental, eksploitasi ekonomi, kekerasan seksual (pemerkosaan, sodomi dan pornografi). Masalah lain yang Dihadapi anak-anak di jalanan adalah beresiko tinggi terhadap berbagai masalah kesehatan dan korban penyalahgunaan obat-obatan terlarang (lack of parallelism, lack of transitional markers).

If the students are to say those above ideas in English, it can easily be posited that they will simply negatively transfer the aspects into English per se. And mistakes are made this way.

Improving the Teaching of Indonesian Language Reflecting on the Problems in Students’ English in Their Discourse

The teaching of Indonesian language at school should not focus on sentence components at the sentential level alone. And too the aspects taught should be those crucial in not only the expression of ideas but also the making of their meaning that will later hopefully be positively transferred into English: run-on sentences versus cut-off thoughts, phrase-forming and collocation, clauses, parallelism.

At a larger level of discourse, students should be trained to express their idea beginning with a topic in mind, then narrowing it down into a thesis statement, next breaking it into several main ideas, and finally elaborating on them employing all the necessary supporting details making use of these aspects of coherence and cohesion, transitional markers including punctuation marks, relevant versus irrelevant ideas, discourse development, and logic.

In their practice, students can firstly be confronted with a discourse and they are to find the flaws with regards to the above aspects in the discourse (adapted from Badudu 2009). If they can identify the mistakes, they may be made to loathe making such mistakes in their own discourse. Samples above may be exploited for this purpose. Then they can be asked to rewrite the discourse applying the correction. Later they can be assigned to write their own discourse on a topic of their choice.

If students are to deal with a text, the teacher should not only tell them to read, understand, and answer some comprehension questions, but also assign them to tell what they like about the text and why, tell them to rewrite the text in their own way, ask them to make a summary of it, request them to respond to the text by making a reader-response essay, etc. This way students’ comprehension of the text is not left passive, but made productive. Doing this, the students can be expected to employ and show the above aspects. If they make mistakes still, the teacher is there to help.

Writing activities should be reactivated and nurtured at school. This is crucial and relevant as writing is part of efforts to develop logic. In writing students are trained to formulate an idea, express their opinion in a systematic and logical way, weigh pros and cons, integrate actions, fantasize, etc. (Catatan Sawali Tuhusetya  2008).


To conclude this paper, mistakes in students’ English in their discourse are a mirror reflection of those in their Indonesian language. This is so as students naturally transfer their Indonesian way of thinking into English. If their Indonesian language happens to be bad, their English will badly follow. Improving the teaching of Indonesian language in the first place, therefore, will also serve to improve students’ English at the end of the day.


Alfianto, A. (2006, January). Pelajaran Bahasa Indonesia di sekolah, metamorfosis ulat menjadi kepompong. Retrieved November 9, 2009 from the source.

Alwasilah, A. A. (1991). Cultural Transfer in Communication: A Qualitative Study of Indonesian Students in US Academic Setting. Unpublished Dissertation. Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

………………….(1993). Dari Cicalengka sampai Chicago: Bunga Rampai Pendidikan Bahasa. Bandung: Angkasa.

Antoni, F. & Radiana, I. (2001, September). “Common Mistakes Students Make and What It May Suggest We Should Do to Fix the Problem: An Account of Advanced 4 Students’ Essay-Writing Workdrafts.” Paper presented at the LIA Int’l Conference 2001, Jakarta.

Antoni, F. (2003, September). “Translating from Indonesian into English: Problems and Challenges.”  Paper presented at Kongres Nasional Penerjemahan 2003, Solo.

Badudu, J. S. (2009, November). Interview on the teaching of Indonesian language at formal schools conducted at his residence.

Catatan Sawali Tuhusetya. (2008, July). Menjadikan sekolah sebagai basis pengembangan Bahasa Indonesia. Retrieved November 9, 2009 from the source.

Penerbit Epsilon Grup. (2005). Persiapan Menghadapi UN SMA IPA 2006.

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