Home > Makalah Seminar International (English Education) > Bridging an Idea of Multiculturalism into English Language Learning

Bridging an Idea of Multiculturalism into English Language Learning

Isna Indriati

Madrasah Tsanawiyah Negeri 2 Palangka Raya


Indonesia is a very diverse country that has more than 250 ethnic languages. As one of cultural elements, language is center of identity. Through a language being used, a person shows his/her identity from which a respect to his/her own culture grows. By the time, language becomes a primary means for communication.
Indonesian, known as official language, is established as a unifier language among people from different ethnics of this thousand island country. Once people utilize it as a device to speak or share knowledge and ideas, the position of Indonesian is equal to English. The difference is that Indonesian goes locally and English is for globally usage. Thus, both are essential for people to acquire, or at least learn. Therefore, people will be familiar with any spoken or written utterances of both, especially English because of the need for globalization.

In the case of learning other language, it cannot be separated from the culture where the language is used by a certain community. In Indonesian context, learning a local language, such as a Javanese man learning Banjarese language, is at the aim at respecting others who cannot speak Indonesian fluently and understand their intended messages. In short, language is learned along with the expectation that by utilizing that language people can interact with the indigenous people. Consequently, norm as another culture element is really needed as a complementary tool that supports the communication. It happens also in English. Along with learning English language, its culture must be known too, so that there will not be misunderstanding or misinterpretation in communication.

Dealing with the existence of culture and its great influence in life, language is a natural tool developed by human particularly to interact. Being bound to culture, language is one of discrete elements together with values, beliefs, and behavioral pattern which shape civilization and norms within it. The way of expressing ideas, elaborating images, and sharing experiences through a language, then, bring behavioral modification (Garcia, 1991:71). In this case, language becomes a device for socialization, or “enculturation”, a term used by anthropologist, in which any ideas are presented through, so that the others may know, learn, or imitate such culture of that society. Thus, people from different communities will be able to socialize at ease within understandable language whenever they meet together.

As a matter of fact, people with different background, especially ethnic, have great possibility to contact because of any kind of movement. Since that, the view of multiculturalism is not new anymore. The politics of mono-culturalism, within the name of developmentalism had led to the extinction of local cultural geniuses, such as wealthy tradition as one of social capitals. It turns out the differences among communities often bring clashes because of some factors. First, there are more than 300 ethnic groups speak with more than 250 languages and not all are able to speak Indonesian. Second, every ethnic is unique by means of its tradition, norms, and values brought inheritance from the ancestor. Third, many religious groups; Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and other native beliefs, makes Indonesia more colorful in ideas and principles. Fourth is the existence of the development of civil rights and affirmative actions among groups in different setting, such as in educational, work, public housing, several service, and health care settings. Consequently, every environment has different ethical attitude, whether it is established by interpersonal members of a group or assimilation of different ideas among them. Various customs and norms of life from a large number of tribes living in Indonesia, then, become meaningful assets of national unity. These four factors bring an overview that Indonesia as a multicultural country requires the growth of tolerance. The existence of “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” as the motto of “unity in diversity”, still keeps on Indonesian people, though the meaning cannot be described as fully spirit of nationalism.

Multiculturalism is a condition in that a society consists of people with several and different customs and beliefs. When several religions live together in a society, it is multi religious. Every religion has its own culture. This makes a multicultural society. Furthermore, a multicultural society includes several cultural communities with their “overlapping” but different in conceptions of the world, from the meaning, systems, values, customs, to practices (Parekh, 1997:167). Thus, the idea of multiculturalism is in contrast of pluralism, in which the goal is politics of recognition. It means that the existence of cultural diversity is to improve attitude to be respectful towards multicultural. Finally, living together in a multicultural society is expected to be dynamic, in that there is no hegemony or domination. Thus, every culture has its function and position within its surrounding.

Referring to the condition above, the diversity of Indonesian culture could be a brilliant idea to be integrated into learning in any fields and levels. English learning gets the same chance in exploring this idea. Although language is only a slice of multiculturalism, it has big role in social interaction. Languages, both spoken and written forms, are the products of culture which can be directly observed. Besides, it is directly used to transmit message (Bates and Plog, 1990:18-22). Furthermore, Gee (1990 cited in McCarthey, 2002:13) states that language is an ‘identity kit’ that has a set of rules for communication linked to identity. The language use is then followed by the inclusions of acts, attitudes, as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes. Thus, communication involves individual skills on using language including speaking, listening, and observing through which an individual make use of his/her senses of sound, look, taste or feel to understand others from their way of performing ad speaking.

In this study, multiculturalism is introduced as learning material by which the students can explore their ideas dealing with their cultural differences, notably ethnicity, socio-economic, and environment. Once multiculturalism includes not only cultural aspects but also individual, it opens for any levels to talk about. For instance, young children may experience in listening to others’ opinions on the way of keeping the house clean that are different from his/her. This distinction idea, then, becomes a part of multiculturalism in terms of value. This study is intended to find out, firstly, whether the inclusion multiculturalism into English learning attract students’ interest to discover more through group presentation and discussion. Secondly, it is also aimed at discovering the effect of integrating multiculturalism towards the students’ self-awareness to grow their recognition sense concerning with environmental problems.


Descriptive qualitative method was utilized in this study since the main interest concerned with the students’ reaction towards the integration of multiculturalism into English learning which, further, might lead the students improve their self-awareness concerning their environment. However, a survey was designed together with an observation to collect data. The survey was carried out by delivering open-ended questionnaire to 129 students of the ninth grade that consists of 52 boys and 77 girls. They were taken from 4 large Junior High Schools in Jekan Raya, one of five sub-districts in Palangka Raya city. The choice of probability random sampling by applying two-stage cluster sampling was under the consideration that they were representatives of the population (Ross, n.d: 18), that is 30 classes of ninth grade from all schools consisting of 1164 students. The questionnaire was delivered to gather the students’ responses on the cultural background and its differences in their societies. Furthermore, the 13 open-ended questions were intended to see their background and ask for their opinions and behaviors in learning and living environment deals with multiculturalism.

An observation was undertaken in order to examine the students’ attitudes during the learning process that includes writing and speaking activities in group presentation and discussion. It was preceded by proposing an English lesson plan that integrates multiculturalism into its materials and training two English teachers from 2 large schools to deliver the lesson. The lesson plan comprises three different topics delivered for three meetings; ethnicity, environment, and free choice dealing with social and environmental problems. The data obtained from classroom observation during three meetings were additionally to support the survey result.


An analysis of the responses on the open-ended questionnaire provided information on three parts: students’ background, students’ preferences in English learning environment, and attitudes towards multiculturalism that is the existence of cultural differences both in learning environment and society life..

Students’ background

The students came from different background ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically. The data gathered from questionnaire (number 1 and 2) showed that most students are from Banjarese and Javanese family. Their parents are newcomers in the area of survey. Their arrival was because their family or ancestors followed transmigration program. Some others said that they moved because of their parents’ job. The data presented in the table 1 below had proved that statistically newcomers have dominated this land of Dayak. Dayak as the indigenous ethnic together with others from Chinese, Bugis, and Madurese had lower quantity. Since Banjarese and Javanese people dominated the population, most people are Muslims. The majority were from trader family.

Table 1. Students’ Background



Parents’ profession










Farmer/ Builder

Govt. employer

Public  service













Furthermore, in the case of their society where they interact with other ethnics in daily life, every student gave different reasons for questions number 3 and 4. Most of them were accustomed to the condition both at home and school because they were born in the same place as they grew. Such condition maintained the students’ thought viewing the way to interact with others, notably different custom. However, fewer of them stated that they kept their appreciation to the way of living of their own ethnics. Based on those responses, the movement needed uncertain period for adaptation, commonly called assimilation. In this case, newcomers do not need to change their ways of life because some other ethnics have similar custom. Little differences that are not so significant help them to adjust their new society and get a feel like at hometown easily. Besides, they reported that a long period of adaptation is required to accommodate the distinction on ethnical language used by most people in the society, since people tend to use their own ethnical or local language whenever they meet other from the same ethnic.

Students’ Learning Preferences

The follow up questions 5 and 6 are intended to see the students’ interests, particularly in school subjects and reading topics out of schooling time. Table 2 below presents the percentage of students’ preferences. The ranked listing of subject matters preferred was science, social and religious, and then language and art. The students’ responses showed that they are fond of certain learning subjects at school because those are easy to learn. It confirms that every student has their own uniqueness, because of their ability and interest so called multiple intelligences. Those interests may lead to the ways of getting their goals. However, only a few of them stated that learning the subjects they liked is in support of their aspiration for future life. In responses on the reading materials for leisure time, the students may check more than one option. The result illustrated that story books on mysterious theme became their favorite. Comic and science book were the second choice to fulfill their leisure time after schooling. However, there were also great interests on informational books especially science, social and history, and religious.

Table 2. Student’ Interest and Reading Preferences

For items 7, 8, and 9, the students were asked to fill the checklists that showed their English learning preferences in terms of materials for discussion, activities in the classroom, and teachers’ behavior in delivering the lesson. More than a half of the subjects put their choice on the text mainly narrative for reading English material. Approximately a quarter students preferred discussing grammar. And a few of them said that speaking or conversing was challenging. For the learning activity, the largest number would rather learn together than discuss even learning independently. In favor of teachers’ behavior, the majority students liked them who gave explanation shortly but clearer. Almost a half stated that they needed teachers’ guidance in giving clarification for the learning materials. And the lowest responses were given to the teachers who maintained group discussion. The clear total number of students’ choice at the checklist can be shown in the Table 3 below.

Table 3. English Learning Preferences



Teachers’ behavior



Learning together with teacher and friends


Give long explanation




Discussing in groups or pairs


Provide short but clear explanation




Learning independently


Offer large opportunity to get information independently


Maintain group discussion before explanation


Students’ Attitude towards Multiculturalism

Since the students have known their identity, beginning from family background and living society, interests, and expectation of learning environment, they have learned the way of viewing others who are really different. To ensure that they have already had view of multiculturalism in their society, the three points of questionnaire number 10, 11, and 12 asked the students to express their thought dealing with the multiculturalism in learning and living environment. From the responses given, most students argued that different culture is different on the way of life beside the distinction of ethnic and local language. Meanwhile, an impressive response on different thought indicated that they have assumed that multicultural might appear from different way of thinking. From Table 4, the students’ attitude towards the differences among them all comments greatly referred to respect and tolerance. Some of the students chose to follow other style if those were fit to their desire. People or friends who are actually different were also thought to be viable in a healthy-competition. This choice led to the way they took a standpoint in viewing those differences. When they had a debate, many students would find the positive value of other’s argument then respond it, or would listen them first in order to respond afterwards. The last open-ended question is aimed at inviting their agreement on the multicultural materials integrated into English language learning. 80% students reacted positively if multiculturalism is inserted into language learning. Many reasons tended to the hope for facing new learning atmosphere where they could also get the benefit, particularly by sharing idea deals with many different topics or arguments. The rest stated that the material was not for English because of difficulty of learning that language.

Table 4. Students’ View on Multiculturalism



Way of respecting

Different ethnic and local language 74 Respect & tolerance 129 Listen and respond 65
Different thought 53 Well competitive friends 27 Find the positive value to respond 76
Different way of life 82 Nice life style to follow 16 Well rejected 15
Neglect 28

The additional information from classroom observation deals with the practice of integrating the material of multiculturalism into English learning pointed out that the students were high motivated to discuss that topic. In the first meeting, the students seem to be clumsy because they are asked to explore the uniqueness of their culture in which they were grouped based on their ethnic. Nevertheless, during the process they were so enthusiastic to explore the tradition and cultural belief that were kept till the people moved to another area within another culture. It was quite the same as in the second meeting when the students were led to investigate the latest issues deals with their environment. Their interest set on the problems about forest fire and pollution, Orangutan and forest conservation, and Betang preservation. Other groups put attention on the fashion and entertainment. Each topic was meaningful for other groups, because they could ask related questions or give any comments in order that their ideas were better-developed. For the last meeting, free choice was actually the ladder of finding their identity, through which a student in pairs within similar interest could express their viewpoint. In one side, the provision of materials deals with culture, environment, and self-interest significantly motivated the students to utter something, at least their main ideas. However, in other side, the language use was still far from the expectation. Having seen from who have participated actively by asking or commenting others, 8 students were eager to raise their hands in any occasions. Two of them had a tendency to translate all the utterances from Indonesian to English. Another one student mixed Indonesian and English in order to make others understand. A part from the case of the difficulty on the use of English as medium for discussion, overall, the students’ interest was good.


Analyzing from the students’ responses toward the open-ended questionnaire and the observation on English learning practice in the classroom, mainly deals with the existence of cultural differences in terms of tradition and beliefs, arguments, and attitudes, this study showed positive result. It means that integrating multicultural material into English language learning has two significant effects; motivational and behavioral.

In motivational side, the insertion multiculturalism that is actually new for English materials attract a large number of students’ attention. Most respondents were in the same agreement that the material usually discussed in civic and art might be challenging. The main three interesting activities in the classroom were, firstly, new vocabulary collection; secondly, cooperative learning; and thirdly, cognitive skill improvement. The fact that most students in groups were able to write five to seven sentences in average because of the limited time provided for both presenting and discussing, they got some feedback to revise their language, especially grammar. In their cooperation within groups, they shared together in making their work correct. In line with Kagan’s (1994: 2-10) idea, such cooperative learning experiences in the classroom is to preserve democracy in which every student holds every opportunity for participation. Thus, democracy is nurtured by a system through which a person gets equal chance to express his/her idea for decision-making. Besides, cooperative learning can also be easily combined with a student-centered curriculum. In this case, the students can choose the content on the basis of their own class ideas as the main materials. Hence, the teacher as an active facilitator provide language aspect must be learn through that concept in order that learning English is I the right track.

Moreover, Carison (2001, 69) stated that cognitive skills can be improved through English since this subject provides tools that help them comprehend the concept. Graphic organizers can be introduced to the students to help them easily present their ideas. This kinds of graphic organizer facilitates them comprehend materials as well as reading activity in English subject. KWL chart, cause and effect, or solution and consequences can be utilized. These tools help them put their ideas properly and present then easily. Therefore, properly writing will help intelligible speaking.

Meanwhile, behavioral effect seems to be final expectation of insertion multicultural into English subject. In line with Kagan’s (1994, 2-3) research results that cooperative learning helps the students develop their social skill and promotes positive race relations, the result of this survey proved that cultural diversity in learning environment is not an obstacle to compete with each other positively. Broadly, multicultural is on the viewpoint that every nation has different culture beyond the similarities. That makes English as international language comprise the way to create social networks within the communities around the world. The emergence of multicultural education, then, provides the students all over the world knowledge, skills, and attitudes to negotiate the cultural, religious, and linguistic differences, so that they become good citizen (Education for Global and Multicultural Citizenship, 2009).

In Indonesian context, multicultural concerns with tribes or ethnics, religions, races, inter-relation group, so called SARA (Suku, Agama, Ras, Antar golongan) live in one country. Multicultural education, then, is aimed at forming culturally society that is based on culturally citizens (Mahfud, 2010: 187-191). In the practice, insertion the idea of multiculturalism goes to the effort of equipping the students with broader knowledge and deeper understanding on the positive and negative effects of being inhabit in multicultural society. First, the cultural rich of Indonesia become future investment that needs a good management to keep it for the next generation. Secondly, natural resources which are geographically far different for each site may open for clash, mainly for production, occupation, and socio-economic development.

In order to reduce social disharmony, those knowledge guide the students to be culturally, religiously, and linguistically citizens that goes locally and globally. Sugiharto (2009) adds that an idea of multicultural education as one effort to minimize the increasing rate of violence against minority groups and the rise of radicalism among both youth and adults, such happened frequently in educational setting. Therefore, when the students have understood their identity, including their ability, position, participation among others in social life, the root of clash can be diminished. Consequently, teachers play important role in educational setting who improve multicultural awareness in the students’ thoughts.

In brief, behavioral effect of inclusion multiculturalism into language learning, particularly English is to help the students bear their mind that they stand on their self-identity. Students’ cultural background, interest, and knowledge are important as transitional state in which they are engaged. Those lead them to decide how they posit themselves, in certain setting, whether at home, at school, or in the society (Mccarthey, 2002: 129). Hence, contextually, they are able to consider who they are, whereas they do not need to change their identities, ethnically, culturally or linguistically to assimilate into dominant culture. Large number of materials for reading may help them improve their idea towards their live that further influence their behavior in a social interaction.


Since language is a main device for communication, some principles are important to take into account. Firstly, culture is learned although it is kind of symbol. Secondly, culture is full of knowledge. Therefore, it gives meaning to reality. Thirdly, culture is closely related to nature, then, it is shared and integrated. Obviously, culture shows a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, and behaviors that members of group/society use them to cope with the world and with other member from the same or different group. This is transmitted from generation to generation through learning, not genetically (Kottax, 2009, 28-33; Bates and Plog, 1990:18-22).

Learning culture through language become joyful activities if it is supported by comfortable learning atmosphere in which everyone holds his/her opportunity to interact with. Specifically in learning English by exploring idea of multiculturalism that is dig from the students’ closer environment promote them to increase their vocabulary, and encourage them to plainly express their ideas orally or in print. Ethnical and socio-economical background is not a wall that separate students from the chance to reach their hope on the basis of their interest. Those differences must be a nice thing to share and communicate so that every people understand well to each other. Since then, multicultural awareness grows naturally. Apparently, transferring information will be openly and respectfully.



Bates, D.G. & Plog, F. 1990. Cultural Anthropology (3rd ed.).  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Carison, C. 2001. Scientific Literacy for All. In B. Daniels, J. Cusick, & J. Green, (Eds). Science Learning for All: Celebrating Cultural Diversity (pp. 68-72). Arlington: NSTA Press.

Education for Global and Multicultural Citizenship: Strategy for Victorian Government Schools 2009-2013. (2009). Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

Garcia, R.L. 1991. Teaching in a Pluralistic Society. Concepts, Models, Strategies. New York; HarperCollins.

Kagan, S. 1994. Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano: Kagan.

Kottax, C.P. 2009. Cultural Anthropology (13th ed.).  Boston: McGraw-Hill.

McCarthey, S. J. 2002. Students’ Identities and Literacy Learning. Newark: IRA.

Ross, K. N. (n.d).  Sample Design for Educational Survey Research. UNESCO. (Online). (http://www.sacmeq.org/downloads/modules/module3.pdf), accessed in January 26, 2011.

Sugiharto, S. (2009). Multicultural Education in Indonesia: Opportunities and Challenges. The Jakarta Post. (Online).  (http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/01/22/), accessed in June 10, 2010.



Isna Indriati has been an English teacher in MTsN-2 Palangka Raya since 2005. After her graduation from English Department of State University of Surabaya in 2004, now, she get chance to continue her study at S2 Program of State University of Malang under the Department of Religious Affairs scholarship. She intends to improve her teaching ability through this course as well as composing written product. She also likes to participate in educational seminar deals with English Teaching and Learning. Apart from her field in English teaching, she is interested in art, especially traditional dance, which leads her to explore more about culture.

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