A single regional common market of ASEAN countries will be created when the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) comes into force in less than three years. Under the AEC, there will be a free transfer of professionals in eight fields, namely, tourism, medicine, dentistry, engineering, architecture, surveying and accounting.

It cannot be predicted how much this will affect people’s lives. Still, it is crucial to prepare our students and future generations since they will have to compete with people from neighboring ASEAN countries for careers.

A recent conference at the National University of Singapore was a perfect venue to discuss the matter. Themed “Culture in Foreign Language Learning: Framing and Reframing the Issue”, the event provided teachers from ASEAN countries with a chance to find university partners to conduct teaching and research collaboration as part of their preparations for the AEC.

Indeed, during the three-day conference, discourses on culture and foreign-language teaching and discussions on the importance of understanding ASEAN cultures and languages as well as English for employment for national competitiveness spilled over into lunch and dinner times.

Should developing students’ competence in the cultures and languages of ASEAN countries and English be considered important leading up to AEC, the question is what the students have done so far.

A new friend who is an English lecturer from a very reputable university in Thailand told me that her university had just opened its first PhD program in English language teaching (ELT). She said globalization and the fast approaching AEC would surely demand a tremendous explosion of English-related work around ASEAN specifically and the world generally. There is an increasing need for proficient English teachers and users and it has made the study of English as an international language more important than ever. What is its relevance for Indonesia then?

Opening more PhD programs in ELT in Indonesia and learning ASEAN languages looks pressing for Indonesia, but there is a more attainable goal to pursue that has something to do with our ELT curriculum and the way we teach culture.

Andy Kirkpatrick, a chair professor of English as an international language at the Hong Kong Institute of Education stated that the ELT curriculum in Indonesia (and other parts of Asia) needs to include information about the cultures and people of ASEAN and the Asian region instead of informing students about the cultures of English native speakers, and ask students to be ready to discuss their own cultures and issues they deem important in English. Kirkpatrick also highlighted the need to build learners’ intercultural competence through learning English.

Developing our students’ intercultural competence requires us to change the types of culture that we teach and the way we teach culture. We tend to think that when we learn English, we must only learn about foreign cultures, especially American and British culture. However, it should not be the case anymore. We also have to teach about the cultures of ASEAN countries.

When we teach culture to our English students, we should refrain from overloading the students with cultural facts about American and British culture, which usually happens in many English-language classrooms here. Such a method will only lead to the stereotyping of people from other countries. Instead, teachers need to actively guide learners to reflect on cultural differences and similarities in order not to be judgmental.

By doing so, teachers can help learners escape from “bad” and “good” cultures but lead the students to realize what seems to be “right” in their culture might be “wrong” in other cultures and vice versa. In other words, by changing the way we teach culture in our classes, we teachers can cultivate the notion of tolerance, which many, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, believe to be one of the fruits of education.

The AEC is unquestionably a work in progress which will bring challenges and opportunities. Our task is to be prepared for that. Some efforts toward the AEC can take shape in big projects such as joint research with universities from other ASEAN countries or to open more PhD programs and classes on ASEAN languages.

Yet, some tasks can be simpler and produce quicker results, such as adding a new component to our curriculum which is to learn the cultures of ASEAN countries and change the way we teach culture. This does not require much of a budget but a strong will to work hard and learn more about how to develop students’ intercultural competence.

Should we decline to prepare ourselves now, we will have no one to blame but ourselves for being left behind when the AEC comes. –Fenty Lidya Siregar, Wellington, Jakarta Post

The writer lectures at the faculty of english letters, Maranatha University in Bandung.