The Role of Mastering English

The Role of Mastering English in Grabbing the World*)

By Drs. Abdul Muth’im, M.Pd.**)


Mastering foreign language may result in something great. Moslems at the era of Umayyah Clan and also at the era of Abbasiah Clan proved this. Their mastery on Greek enabled them to read and learn science and philosophy written in the language. As the result, in not very long time, Moslems could make astonishing progresses in these three fields. Medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, etc. were among some of the advancements made by Moslems. What Prophet Mohammed said to his followers around fourteen centuries ago, “Get knowledge though it is in China” seemed to inspire Moslems to do and to be the best.For this moment, I believe, there are at least two foreign languages that should be mastered by Moslem countries. The two languages are Arabic and English. Arabic must be understood by all Moslems so that they will be able to comprehend the content of Qor’an as the main source of Islamic teaching, and English is useful to enable Moslems to grab the advance of science and technology, of which until now, they still grow and develop mostly from western countries. However, at this occasion, I just would like to discuss about the role of mastering English in grabbing the world.

English as one dominant foreign language

The tendency to use English as a means of communication in the world, unexceptionally in Indonesia, seems to increase every year. One of the indications of the increase can be seen from the number of users of the language. Robert (1981:595), for example, noted that in 1500 English was a minor language, spoken by a few people on a small island. However, about five centuries later the number has multiplied significantly. Hasman in English Teaching Forum published in January 2000 claimed that one out five of the world’s population speaks English with some degree of competence. And by 2000 one in five – over one billion people – will also be learning English. In addition, he added that over 70% of the world’s scientists read English. About 85% of the world’s mail is written in English. And 90% of all information in the world’s electronic retrieval systems is stored in English. He even predicted, “By 2010, the number of people who speak English as a second or foreign language will exceed the number of native speakers”.

The title of this paper is “The Role of Mastering English in Grabbing the World”. Its main purpose is to show us how important the mastery of English in this era is and what areas that we need to grab more urgently. Hopefully, the discussion that comes from the presentation of this paper will motivate and encourage us to be more competent to communicate in English.

The Functions of Language

Before talking about how important the mastery of English in this era is and what areas of work that need English as means of communication, let us find out and discuss what can someone do with a language. In other words, what function can a language accomplish? According to Mary Finocchiaro in her book English as a Second/Foreign Language, the functions of language are:

1. Personal. To express one’s emotions, needs, thoughts, desires, or attitudes; to clarify or classify ideas in one’s mind.

2. Interpersonal. To establish and maintain good social relations with individuals and groups; to express praise, sympathy, or joy at another’s success; to inquire about health; to apologize; to invite.

3. Directive. To control the behavior of others through advice, warnings, requests, persuasion, suggestions, orders, or discussion.

4. Referential. To talk about objects or events in the immediate setting or environment or in the culture; to discuss the present, the past, and the future.

5. Metalinguistic. To talk about language, for example, “What does ..…….mean?”.

6. Imaginative. To use language creatively in rhyming, composing poetry, writing, or speaking (1989:1-2).

In the context of Indonesia, mastering Indonesian language may be enough for it can accomplish all the functions of those communicative purposes. The message will be well understood by the receiver in the same way as intended by the sender as long as it is presented in Indonesian language. Any Indonesian citizen is assumed to be able to understand one’s personal purpose when excitement or upset is expressed; any Indonesian citizen is assumed to be able to feel one’s interpersonal purpose when praise or sympathy is extended; any Indonesian citizen is assumed to be able to grasp directive purpose when warning or suggestion is given; any Indonesian citizen is assumed to be able to comprehend referential purpose when an object or an event is talked about; any Indonesian citizen is assumed to be able to understand metalinguistic purpose when these questions: What is meant by ……? Or, What do you mean by ………? are asked; and any Indonesian citizen is assumed to be able to enjoy imaginative purpose when poetry or short story is read. The possibility of misunderstanding to occur is minor.

However, in the context of international communication setting where the sender and the receiver come from different language background, understanding those communicative purposes may become problem. The problem can be minor but it can be very serious. For example, an educational counselor from Canada wants to offer scholarship for IAIN lecturers to study in Canada. He is welcomed by high rank officials of this institution. What happens if each party only understands his own language: the counselor with his English or French and the officials with their own language, Indonesian language. Will the business be fruitful?

Having the ability to communicate in international language, i.e. English, seems to be considered as one of the prerequisites. It can be understood then that a lot of Indonesian people try very hard to acquire this ability. It is assumed that by having the ability to communicate in English, the horizon of life can be widened, the advance of science and technology may be accessed and caught up, the appreciation to one’s culture will be catered and the understanding toward other cultures will be more appreciative. In short, it is believed that by having the ability to communicate in English, we have already had the key to open the door of the world, get inside it, select and choose the best things from it, and bring whatever is needed for the prosperity and welfare of Indonesian people.

The “Worlds” to be grabbed

Nevertheless, it is also realized that English is not the first nor the second language in this country, Indonesia – it is a foreign language. This means that it is not used as lingua franca nor as medium of instruction in schools. That is why there must be a number of Indonesian people whose jobs are categorized as ‘vital’ and ‘strategic’ that can communicate in English. For some decades, the works that commonly need English as means of communication, in accordance with Brown are: “…in transportation, commerce, banking, tourism, technology, diplomacy, and scientific research (2001:118)”. The question is, ‘why do these people need to be able to communicate in English in their work?

1. Transportation sector

Pilots, air stewards and stewardesses and aviation-traffic controllers are those who should have the ability to communicate in English in air transportation. A pilot, for example, has to be able to understand and answer all the questions asked by an aviation-traffic controller from the nearest airport, such as: the height of his plan, the position of the plan, the speed of the plan, etc. He also must be able to ask important questions, such as: how thick the cloud over the airport is, how clear the runway is, if the runway slippery or not, and so on to aviation-traffic controller. Good communication between the pilot in the air and the aviation-traffic controller on the ground will partly determine the fate of the plane and all the passengers.

Flight attendances, especially those who are assigned for international flight, must be able to communicate in English too. In addition to their routine jobs, like explaining the passengers the way to put on and put off the safety belt, the way to put on the safety jacket, what to do in case of emergency landing, to show where the emergency exits are, etc., the flight attendances, for the passengers’ satisfaction, should be able to understand what the passengers like to eat and drink. If the passengers ask something that the company does not have, he must be able to offer an alternative and explain what is special about the food or the drink.

An aviation-traffic controller must be able to communicate in English well too. It is on his or her hand that the fate and the safety of the plane and all the passengers depend on. If he/she understands the message(s) sent by a pilot or if he/she sends the message(s) to the pilot wrongly the result will be fatal too. That is why miscommunication between pilot and aviation-traffic controller must not happen.

For a captain of a ship that runs international routes and drops by in a lot of harbors around the world, the ability to communicate in English is a must too. In the ocean, the captain usually communicates with other captains from other ships. He also has to keep in touch with coast guards of the country he is approaching. When he is near and in the port he also has to understand the instruction given by the official in charge where to anchor his ship and in what way. And, of course, this should be carried out in English too.

2. Commerce sector

Selling either goods or services is the main goal in commercial business. The more the goods and the services are sold the better for the company, for the workers or employees and of course for the owner of the business itself. The business will become larger and larger, the workers will keep on having regular income, and the owner will become richer and more prosperous.

In order that the selling reaches maximum result, promotion may not be neglected. However good the products a businessman or businesswoman sells if it is not promoted well, the quantity of the goods and services sold may not as much as if it is promoted well. Yet, the decrease of the selling of goods and services, in turn, may give bad impact to the company, the workers, and, of course, the owner.

In domestic context, the promotion can, of course, be done in Indonesian language. Every Indonesian will understand the promotion well. In international level, however, the use of Indonesian language in promoting the goods and services does not help the business much. Businessmen and businesswomen from other countries will not understand Indonesian language. Consequently, they may not know what kind of products do Indonesian businessmen and businesswoman offer to sell?; what is special about the products they want to sell?; how can they get the goods and the services?; and some other questions they need.

Business organizations such as KADINDA (The Local Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and DEKRANASDA (The Local Board of National Handicraft) should encourage their members to be able to communicate in English. They also have to encourage their members to give as complete information as possible for the goods or the services they want to sell – and of course this should be done in English. The businessmen and the businesswomen should be facilitated if they want to take part in an international business exhibition. By having them get involved in international businesses more often, the possibility of making business deals more directly without the help of the third party will be wider.

3. Banking sector

In serving the customers to open saving account, to have credit card, to get ATM card, and other banking services, the bank usually asks the customer to fill in certain form. For domestic customers, the forms are mostly in Indonesian language, and sometimes it is in bilingual, that is, Indonesian language and English.

In managing “traditional” banking transactions, such as saving, withdrawing, exchanging current, and transferring money, the bank also asks the customer to fill in the same thing. Nevertheless, for some transactions such as withdrawing and transferring money, however, they do not have to fill the form any more. The transactions can be carried out by making use of electronic devise. What they have to do is just follow the instructions given by the devise. The instructions may be given in Indonesian language or in English.

Business agreements with bank are usually documented in Indonesian language. This is especially true if the bank deals with Indonesian businessmen and businesswomen. Sometimes they are also documented in two languages: Indonesian language and English. However, if Indonesian businessmen or businesswomen want to do banking business with international banks such World Bank, ADB, IDB, IMF and so on, there is no other language that can be accommodated the purpose well but English. It is based on these reasons that the people work in bank, from President Director, all Directors to tellers, should be able to communicate in English. In the future, competition in banking business is assumed to be tougher than now.

4. Tourism sector

So far, what have been known and popular by foreign people about Indonesia may be limited to Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia; Jogjakarta with its famous temple, Borobudur; Solo, as the center of batik, Bali with its beautiful beaches, such as Kuta and Sanur (lately it is known because of the bomb blasted twice in this island), and culture; Lombok with its charming nature; and Toraja with its unique funeral ceremony. Beyond these places, foreign people may have very little information or they don’t have the information at all.

This is our fault, of course. We have to tell them and make them believe that, in addition to those places, there are still many more other places that are worth of seeing and enjoying. I believe that in every province there is at least one tourism area that is worth of visiting. For example, in South Kalimantan, there is a tourism area which is called Lok Sado. In this area, there still lives a native tribe, Dayak tribe, with their unique home, culture and tradition. Along their village, there is a river with a very clear and clean water so that people can see white stones on the bed of the river and can see fish swim happily in the water. Foreign people coming to this area usually like to do bamboo rafting there. The village is on the feet of a Meratus mountain, about 200 kilometers from Banjarmasin, the capital city of the province.

The question is, how to make foreign people get informed that Indonesia does not consist of those areas only?. As far as I know, there is not much information about this interesting place written in English. It is understandable why not many foreign people come to visit this place. How about in your province?

5. Technology sector

The discovery of steam engine in England in 15 century might become the starting point of the rise and development of industry in that country. From that moment Englishmen competed to find new discoveries. Various kinds of devices were made; many kinds of tools were introduced; a great number of instruments were made known for the public; and lots of new machines were used in industry. In short, the creation of new technology enabled English people to produce goods and services easier, quicker, and in a greater number quantity.

Since the advancement of technology originated from England, it is reasonable that all information about the technology was recorded, documented, and stored in English. Any people from any country who were interested in getting information about the technology should master the language first. Only by understanding English, could other people from other countries learn the technology.

Inspired by the “miracle” made England, some European countries began to catch up the pace. France, Germany, USSR – now Russia and Italy, were among the countries. American did the same thing too. Lately, some Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, and Malaysia began to follow the race. Even, for some experts, these five latest countries are called “Macan Asia” (Asian Tigers).

The progress of science and technology still keeps on developing in England now, so do in European countries, America and in the new “emerging forces”. However, the tradition of recording, documenting and storing the information about certain technology remains the same: in English and in the countries’ language. In information technology (IT) such as computer, for example, most instructions are given in two languages: Japanese – English, Korean – English, Chinese – English, Malay – English or Indonesian – English. It depends on what country that produces the technology. This means that mastering English is still considered the key to open the door of world of technology.

6. Diplomacy sector

Diplomacy, in accordance with Chambers Essential English Dictionary has two meanings. The first meaning is the management of relations between countries, especially by various ambassadors and official representatives. The second meaning is skill in dealing with, or persuading, people in such a way that you do not offend them (1995:256).

Being able to manage relations with other countries in any field such as politic, economy, education, culture, technology, military, and so on is the responsibility of diplomats as representatives of nation. It is on their hands that the relations will bring about benefit to the country they represent or not. That is why they need special knowledge and expertise. Beside knowing and being expertise in their fields, the diplomats should also be able to talk, discuss and negotiate with other diplomats or representatives from other countries in the language they mutually understand, that is English.

One of the ways to maintain these relations is permitting people from other countries to come to Indonesia. Any people from any country may come to Indonesia as long as they are subject to Indonesian law and regulation. Among the requirements to permit foreign people to come to Indonesia is having Indonesian visa issued by Indonesian government where the embassy or the consulate is located. In almost any country in the world, or at least in some regional areas there is Indonesian Embassy: in the United States of America, in China, in Saudi Arabia, in French, in Russia, in Japan, in Korea, in Vietnam, etc.

In serving local citizen who wants to get Indonesian visa, the interaction, ideally, should be done in local language. So, if the applicant is a Vietnamese, the official in charge in the embassy should use Vietnamese. If the applicant is an Arab, the official should use Arabic. If the applicant is a Frenchman, the official should use French. Other applicants from other countries should ideally be treated in that way.

However, the officials may not work in certain country for good. Sometimes, they are transferred to other country. Should they learn a new foreign language in a new country? This is not the best way out. By having the ability to communicate in English, wherever they are moved and wherever they are posted, they still can serve the people. The most important thing is they can give the best service and to satisfy the applicants. If they are satisfied with the service, we may expect that there will be more applicants coming to Indonesia. If they do, more revenue will be coming to Indonesia.

7. Scientific Research sector

The role of research for human’s life is very important. All the easiness, all the comfort, and all the facilities people are enjoying now is because of the contribution of research. In communication technology, for example, in the past, the people who wanted to communicate with other people living quite far from him did it by visiting the people in person. Right now, they do not have to do it in the same way anymore. By using telephone, the same purpose can be accomplished. This is made possible because of the contribution of research.

Another contribution of the result of research is enjoyed in transportation. In the past, if people wanted to go from one place to the other place, they had to do it on foot. However, going on foot could not reach a far distance, and of course, was tiring and wasting time. At present, they do not have to go on foot anymore. The finding of car, train, ship, plane and jet may make the trip faster, less tiring and more enjoyable. This is also made possible because of the contribution of research.

Unfortunately, the tradition of doing, recording and reporting research in English in Indonesia might not be as intensive as in other countries. That is why not many results of research conducted by Indonesian researchers have ‘international impact’. One of these findings is “Cakar Ayam” construction in the field of civil engineering. It has been patented in the Department of Law and Human Rights (in Indonesian language) as well as in International Court (in English) as Intellectual Rights. The latest finding is a preservative substance that is harmless for people who consume the food like ‘Tahu’ or ‘Tempe’. It was found by the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) researchers. In order that the result of this research is made known and have international impact, it should be patented both in the country and in International Court soon. If this finding were found earlier, food vendors would not use ‘formalin’ or ‘boric’ to make their merchandise last longer and look more attractive…

In education, the role of research cannot be neglected, too. In the past, if the learners wanted to find information about the subjects they were learning, they had to go to library; right now, they can just sit in front of their computer and connect it to internet. From that internet, they can find any materials they want such as books, encyclopedias, magazines, journals, or periodicals without going anywhere.

In addition to those seven ‘traditional’ worlds, the other ‘vital’ and ‘strategic’ worlds that also need English, are the following:

8. Custom Officers sector

Beside an open country, Indonesia is also a big country. Consequently, foreign people can come by any means, from any direction with any purpose. They can come by ship or by plane. They can get in Indonesia through Meulaboh in Aceh or through Nunukan in East Kalimantan. Wherever they get through and whatever means they use, one thing is sure, they come to into Indonesia through airports or harbors. They may be businessmen who are invited by their colleague businessmen here in Indonesia. They may be tourists who want to enjoy the beauty of Indonesian nature and culture. However, it is not impossible that they are criminals who plan to do crimes or run away from their country because they have committed crimes there. Who knows?

Logically, they come to Indonesia because they have legal document. However, it is very probable that they come to Indonesia illegally. Custom officers should be cautious about this. Even if they do have the document, the custom officers still have to be aware of the coming of foreign people to Indonesia. The officers have to ask them important questions. Some standard questions are: what is the purpose of their coming to Indonesia, for how long they will be staying, where will they stay while in Indonesia, if they have anything to declare, how much money they bring with, who will be contacted in case of emergency, and some other important questions.

In what language should the custom officers do their job so that the results will be optimal? The answer is: English.

9. Law enforcement sector

Since Indonesia is an open country, it is very probable that not all of those foreign people visiting Indonesia have good behavior. Some of them might have bad intention. They may do illegal fishing; they may do illegal mining; and they may do illegal logging. Other ‘businesses’ that involve foreign people are drugs, children trafficking and girls trafficking. In addition, international terrorists may operate in Indonesia too as their home base. So, the police, the prosecutors, and the judges as the main players in enforcing law in Indonesia should equip themselves with anything they need, included the ability to communicate in foreign languages, especially English.

Interrogating Indonesians suspected to have committed a crime is not a difficult job for Indonesian police officers, prosecutors and judges. They can ask the suspect in Indonesian language. Sometimes, they may also use local language if the suspect does not understand Indonesian language. However, this cannot be done if the suspect is a foreigner. For example, in handling the case of two girls from Australia, Corby and Michelle, who were found bringing drugs illegally to Indonesia.

Unfortunately, to make the situation worse, the suspect sometimes does not or pretend not to understand English. So, the solution the police, the prosecutors, the lawyers, and the judges usually do is asking the help of the embassy where the suspect comes from. The police, the prosecutors, the lawyers, and the judges can ask and get information from the suspect(s) in English through the diplomat or his staff appointed and the diplomat can translate in their language, then translate the suspect’s answer in English to the police, the prosecutors, the lawyers or the judges.

10. Relegion sector

When Prophet Mohammed was still alive, it was he himself that taught Islam for people. After he died, the obligation of doing this holy task was taken by his Shababaat (the first generation of followers). After that, this sacred assignment was taken by Tabi’iyn (the second generation of followers). The next generation who took this job was the generation of Tabi’it taa bi’iyn (the third generation of followers). Lastly, this mission was, is, and will be taken by ‘ulemas’.

Now, there is no more Prophet Mohammad, there is no more shahabaat, there is no more tabi’iyn, there is no more tabi’it taa bi’iyn. Does this mean that the task of spreading Islam is over? No. Every Moslem has individual obligation to do this job. Allah the Almighty in His Holy Book, the Qor’an, says “Ballighuu ‘anniy walau aayah which means, “Tell people what you learn from Me though it is only a single verse.”

In order that the people understand with what we are talking, we have to say it in the language they understand. This means that when we talk about Islam to Japanese we have to use Japanese. If we tell Islam to Italian, we have to use Italian too. If we tell Islam to Frenchmen, we have to talk in their language as well, that is French. Similarly, if we discuss Islam Americans or Australians or British, like or not, we have to use English. That’s why, Ali, one of the shahabats once said, “talk to people with the language they understand.”

Right now, Moslems, especially in the eyes of non-Moslems, seem to have bad image. Violence, terrorism, wars, burglary, bribery, corruption, and many other crimes are always related with Islam. Yest, we surely know and believe that Islam does ask its followers to do all the things. It is our duty to explain and clear all these misunderstanding up. Moslems must be more proactive in telling the truth of the teaching of Islam to the world. Not only in their own country, but also in non-Moslems countries. And, I believe, that this mission will be successful if we master one of the most popular language in the world, that is, English.


From the description above, it is clear then that having the ability to communicate in English seems to be the prerequisites in grabbing the world of transportation, commerce, banking, diplomacy, tourism, technology, and scientific research. In addition, the police, the prosecutors, the lawyers, and the judges and anyone who is involved in law enforcement should also be able to communicate in English. Without the ability to communicate in English we will remain left behind for good. What do you think?

Banjarmasin, 9 June 2007

*) Presented at English Seminar held by HMJ Bahasa Inggeris IAIN Antasari Banjarmasin, June 9, 2007

**) Lecturer at the English Education Program, Faculty of Teacher Training and Education, Lambung Mangkurat University, Banjarmasin


Brown, H. Douglas. 2001. Teaching by Principles An Interactive Approach to Language

Pedagogy (Second Edition). New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Finocchiaro, Mary. 1989. English as a Second/Foreign Language From Theory to

Practice. Fourth Edition. Englewood Cliffs, new Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents.

Hasman, Melvia A. “The Role of English in the 21st Century” in English Teaching

Forum, January 2000, Volume 38, Number 1.

Higgleton, Elaine and Seaton, Anne. (Editors). 1995. Chambers Essential English

Dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers, Ltd.

Robert, Paul. 1981. “A Brief History of English” in Language Laboratory Readings

by Clark, Virginia P., Paul A. Eschholz, and Alfred F. Rosa (Editors). New York:

St.Martin’s Press.

5 Responses to “The Role of Mastering English”

  1. Tim Says:

    Nice article… thanks for sharing.. keep it up ^^

    You are welcome.

  2. abdul muth'im Says:

    Thank you Tim. May I know where you are?

    I am on the earth, sir.

  3. subli hss Says:

    It’s a nice and important article. I’m looking forward for the next…

  4. masud Says:

    good article, sir
    i think you are the only one my lecture who understands Arabic and English well,

  5. Rustam Says:

    It’s an interesting article to read. but you have to correct the following :
    Right now, Moslems, especially in the eyes of non-Moslems, seem to have bad image. Violence, terrorism, wars, burglary, bribery, corruption, and many other crimes are always related with Islam. Yes, we surely know and believe that Islam does NOT ask its followers to do all those things. …
    You forgot to write NOT in the sentence.

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