How should we measure expats' Indonesian proficiency?

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To boost foreign workers' Indonesian language proficiency, the Manpower Ministry has issued a regulation that requires all expatriates pursuing careers in Indonesia to take an Indonesian language proficiency test.

This idea seems to have derived from Manpower Minister Muhammad Hanif Dhakiri's dissatisfaction with the foreign professionals' Indonesian proficiency. He contends that expatriates "have no intention of learning Indonesian" (The Jakarta Post, March 5).

However, if this observation has been used as a consideration for imposing an Indonesian language proficiency test, then the test will be of little help in making foreign professionals proficient in Indonesian.

We need to be aware that a language test is only an artificial instrument. One's actual communication skills can remain highly dubious. Furthermore, a language proficiency test, which is often conducted in a limited time - around 120 minutes - will not allow us to obtain someone's true communication competencies.

It would, therefore, be imprudent for us to provide a language proficiency judgment based simply on a timed test.

While the construction of the test is still being considered, the following reflective questions are worth pondering: What will the test for non-native speakers of Indonesian look like? Will the test measure foreign professionals' competence (cognitive ability) or their performance (pragmatic/affective ability)? What varieties (low or high) of Indonesian will be measured in the test?

Finally, as the language proficiency test is intended for non-native Indonesian speakers, how is the term "proficiency" defined and then operationalized? All of these queries will determine the usefulness of the test.

A fundamental issue here is that Indonesian is a language that lacks a unitary identity.

It is not a monolithic system as many people may assume. This is because Indonesian is used in a "diglossic" situation.

That is, two Indonesian language varieties coexist; the low variety, which is often associated with informal or colloquial use, and the high variety that is more stilted and learned through schooling.

Thus, considerations as to which variety will be measured will clearly determine the usefulness of the test.

Related to this point is the key construct of proficiency. How is proficiency defined here? Is an expatriate's proficiency in Indonesian measured in terms of how well he or she communicates using standard or educated Indonesian, or in terms of how well he or she can engage meaningfully and functionally with people in a social setting?

If an expatriate's goal of living and working in Indonesia is to able to communicate meaningfully in certain communication or speech events, then the test constructed using traditional items, which measure grammatical competence or knowledge about Indonesian, will unlikely be useful.

It is important to understand that the construction of the test should not be similar to that of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), an infamous American gate-keeping test that screens non-native English speakers wishing to study in the US.

TOEFL is designed purely for academic purposes and it covers areas related to academic topics and disciplines. Its result or scores are used to predict whether student candidates are ready to study in a country where the language of instruction is English.

The intention of constructing the Indonesian language proficiency test, however, should not be inspired by TOEFL. Instead, it ought to be performance and situation based, measuring what the test takers do while accomplishing certain tasks that they are likely to encounter in their daily lives.

Such a consideration is of paramount importance, because what foreigners working here need now is not proficiency in communicating by strictly abiding with monolithic language norms, but proficiency in using different varieties that leads to meaningful communication.

While one may argue that a performance-based test is less economical in terms of the test administration than the traditional one, the usefulness of the former clearly greatly outweighs cost considerations.