What is TESOL?

To start with, it is quintessential to define what TESOL is. In this article, I would define the term from its literal meaning and historical perspective on how TESOL comes into existence especially in Indonesia.

Derivatively, by defining each letter in the word “TESOL”, it is expected how every word contributes to the whole definition of “TESOL”. This literal understanding is significant in order to comprehend the term as it provides partial understandings in order to grasp the meaning of the whole. By doing so, we attempt to avoid any misinterpretation of the term. In this case, I am looking up in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary the meanings of each word that they bring.

Firstly, the initial letter “T” is the abbreviation of the word “teaching”. Since the definitions given by the dictionary regarding the word “teaching” is, in a sense, superficial (teaching is defined as “the work of a teacher” and “the ideas of a particular person or group, especially about politics, religion or society, that are taught to other people”) I suppose it is then important to go further by defining the word “teaching” into its derivative word “teach”. According to the dictionary “teach” means “(1) to give lessons to students in a school, college, university, etc; to help somebody learn something by giving information about it, (2) to show somebody how to do something so that they will be able to do it themselves, (3) to make somebody feel or think in a different way and (4) to persuade somebody not to do something again by making them suffer so much that they are afraid to do it.”. From the four definitions listed, we can now know that the word “teach” can be understood through several viewpoints. The first definition puts the word “teach” into a formal context in which it is an action bounded by time and place; students in schools, colleges, universities and other formal institutions within the timeline of formal study time (i.e. from 7a.m. to 2p.m.). The second definition provides us with an understanding that “to teach” is “to be a model” to show how to do things, how to solve some problems, how to answer questions, etc. This definition is in line with a Javanese proverb saying that “guru iku digugu lan ditiru” (teacher is the one put as the proper model to be obeyed and followed”. Meanwhile, the third definition defines the action of teaching in another perspective: to teach is to provide alternatives or solutions, or in other words “to counsel”. This reminds me of a Chinese proverb (师傅领进门,修行在自身) meaning that “teachers open the door, but you must enter yourself”. Teacher in this sense is required to provide alternative thinking (by opening possible “doors”) to students and put all the final decision to the students themselves (by entering “the door”). It is interesting to note that this definition is, to some extent, different to the previous one (in which teacher is “the model”). Finally, the last definition gives a sense of “punishment”: by giving certain punishment, the students are expected to be afraid to repeat the same mistakes. It is quite surprising that most teachers do this in general. Almost ubiquitously, teachers test their students and give certain scores. Teachers in general assume that by giving certain scores the teachers, students and school can identify the students’ achievements by measuring the students’ understanding of the lesson through testing. On the one hand, those who get good scores deserve appraisals or at least they can get certain insurance that they can pass the current level and move to a higher level in no doubt if they keep getting good scores. On the other hand, the students who get low scores or scores that are under the minimum passing level will be scared by making an assumption that those students do not understand the lesson well and are prone to stay another year in that current level in order to repeat the same academic year. It is such a dilemma felt by all the stakeholders (teachers, students, headmasters, parents, governments, etc.) but this is true in most classroom settings in the world.

Secondly, the letter “E” stands for “English”. English is defined as “(1) the language of Britain, Ireland, North America, Australia and some other countries, (2) English language or literature as a subject of study and (3) the people of England”. In this case, the first two definitions are the ones that suit this study field: the English language. It is, however, crucial to talk about the “English” language as English has been developing and been transformed into dialectical English such as Singaporean English, Chinese English, Indian English and Korean English, to mention a few. There is a term called “World Englishes” or English which is formed in the countries in which English is not the only means of communication in public; English sits together with another language(s). World Englishes comes from the fact that there are countries that use English as the second (or third, fourth, etc.) language. In this context, English is considered as the second language (ESL) although it is not always put in the second rank. Besides that, there is also a term called English as an international language (EIL) or English as a lingua franca (ELF). English in this context refers to the English used as a means of communication among nations of which English is not their native or first language (L1). For instance, English in Indonesia is used merely in certain contexts where needed like in an international meeting involving foreigners from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. It is very likely that all the members involved in the meeting speak English although their first language is not English. In this sense, English is used as an international means of communication.

Thirdly, the letter “S” which stands for the word “Speakers” literally means “(1) a person who gives a talk or makes a speech, (2) a person who is or was speaking, (3) a person who speaks a particular language, (4) (the) Speaker the title of the person whose job is to control the discussions in a parliament and (5) the part of a radio or piece of musical or computing equipment that the sound comes out of”. The definition of “speaker” relevant in this study field is then the third definition; a speaker is a person who speaks a particular language. Speaking in this case does not necessarily mean that the people “speak verbally” using voice that can be heard by others. It also refers to the people whose means of communication is using a particular language in their daily conversations with no limitation to mute people. The essence here is that that particular language is used as the means of communication; to communicate with others. However, it is generally considered that the speakers are normal people who can listen to and speak in verbal language although there are always possibilities of using the language non-verbally through writing or actions.

Next, the fourth and fifth letters “OL” are taken from the word “Other Languages”. These words combined with the previous word “Speakers” refer to the “people who speak different languages from English”. The word “Language(s)” itself means “(1) the system of communication in speech and writing that is used by people of a particular country, (2) the use by humans of a system of sounds and words to communicate, (3) a particular style of speaking or writing, (4) a way of expressing ideas and feelings using movements, symbols and sound and (5) a system of symbols and rules that is used to operate a computer”. The relevant definitions of “Language”, in this case, seem to be the first four definitions. “Language” refers to the means of communication in the form of a system consists of movements, symbols and sound either in integration or discretely used to express ideas and feelings of humans and it is various among nations or countries”.

In short, according to the derivative words, the term “TESOL” can be literally defined as “to give lesson, to be a model, to counsel and to give certain punitive actions in order that the students whose native language is not English can use English properly and accordingly as needed such that they can express their ideas and feelings using an acceptable system of movements, symbols and sounds”. This derivative or epistemological meaning of the term TESOL provides us with a standpoint that TESOL needs to cover the real meaning of “teaching” (to give lesson, to be a model, to counsel and to provide punitive actions) to “speakers of other languages” in order that they can communicate using English as tailored.

Historically, talking about the history of TESOL we need to limit the scope. In this article, I would like to focus on the history of TESOL in my home country, Indonesia. The development of TESOL in Indonesia cannot be discussed separately from the history of economics and politics situations. Although some people believe that TESOL has existed in Indonesia since the colonization of the Netherlands over Indonesia from the late 16th century to the 20th century (more or less 350 years) through the Dutch trading company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VoC founded in 1610), some historians believe that Indonesia was founded in 1945.In this case, Indonesia cannot be said to be under The Netherlands before 1945 as the country itself was founded on 17 August 1945. Perhaps, the perception might be true since VoC forced their monopoly trade and conducted human rights infringement for 350 years since their coming to the mainland of Indonesia. However, there were already schools for the Dutch and noble indigenous people teaching English. It is hard to say the exact date when English was firstly taught but it can be said that the teaching of English was already begun in the early 17th century. Since then, as the expansions of the English speaking countries gained worldwide, English has been taught more intensively in Indonesian schools. English has then been considered the first foreign language taught in Indonesia. Although English has not been considered as a second language, English has been given a great extent of acknowledgement such that it becomes the only foreign language tested nationally in national exams for secondary schools in Indonesia. Based on my personal knowledge, ever since the English speaking countries (like the UK, the USA, Australia) won the world wars, English has been developing rapidly worldwide. To my concern, “rules are created by winners”. In this sense, since the winners of the world wars and the world’s best economic and politic influences are the English speaking countries they require the other countries in the world to, to a great extent, follow and obey their culture. In this case, language is used as a means to spread the ideology of the English speaking countries; the ideology of the winning nations. I recognise that this can be just my personal assumption but it would be different if countries like Russia and Germany had won the world wars; we could have been learning Russian or German by now. To support this, I once asked my British lecturer (who is a prominent figure in her field) about the influence of culture over language. I asked her whether I, as a teacher, should teach English using either English or Indonesian culture. She said briefly that English language teaching should go along with English culture. I interrupted by saying that the English teaching and learning process takes place in Indonesia, hence in this sense, the language teaching materials and context should be in Indonesian. She then continued by asking me “Why should you teach English in Indonesia in the first place if you do not want to put English culture as the reference then?”. It struck me anyhow. I know that language exists as a manifestation of a culture of a nation. Starting from that point, I recognise that TESOL is a means employed by English nations to plant their ideology and make their communication smooth. As that was what happened when the Netherlands and Japan invaded Indonesia. Both countries wanted Indonesians to learn their languages: Dutch and Japanese. Nevertheless, this cannot be seen only from the negative viewpoint but need to be seen from the positive viewpoint as well. Let us put this as a challenge over our nation. Can we still use English without losing our own ideology as a nation of thousands cultures? I leave the answer to you.


Andrias Tri Susanto, S.Pd., M.A