Oct 20, 2017 Last Updated 12:09 AM, Oct 20, 2017

Essay: ‘Harvard’ and ‘Cambridge’ at your doorstep

Published: Dec 20, 2016

Duncan Graham

The dilemma was palpable. Should Saumi and Nanda keep walking and risk eyeballing a native English speaker? The encounter might enhance their vocabulary. 

Or should they dart back to the safety of the Basic English Course (BEC) campus with its order and rules?

The earnest teens in their black jilbab (headscarves) and white blouse uniforms decided to accelerate, say ‘we must be leaving’ to the foreigner, and head for the café. Facing each other across a table they practised to make perfect:

‘I am going to the classroom.’

‘You will be going to the classroom.’

‘She has been to the classroom.’

BEC is the pioneer language school and the biggest in the East Java town of Pare. This was once a totally rural village relying on rice and sugar cane grown on the fertile flatlands surrounding the city of Kediri. Now it has diversified to include English lessons and thrived, largely because of one man.

Muhammad Kalend Osen arrived in 1978 after studying languages and religion for five years. He met two Muslim university students from Surabaya wanting to hone their English skills for an exam.  Their chosen tutor had other commitments so Kalend’s wife, who had inherited a house in Pare, pushed her husband to take the job.

‘I was nervous. I didn’t know whether I’d be successful,’ he said. ‘I’d never been to teachers’ college.  When my students returned to Surabaya and graduated they attributed their success to me, told others and the word spread.’

Now, 23,000 students later, Kalend has a splendid purpose-built campus where he imposes his own style, discipline and strict dress rules. BEC’s teaching bears little resemblance to a Western language college; it’s more like a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) than the 100 other ‘colleges’ that have followed in his wake to create Pare’s famous Kampoeng Inggris (English Village) – a term Kalend dislikes.

‘It’s not a village and it’s not English,’ he said. ‘It suggests that everyone speaks the language and that’s certainly not true. But I’m not bothered. That’s their affair.’

Muhammad Kalend Osen, founder of BEC. (Credit: Erlinawati Graham)

Muhammad Kalend Osen, founder of BEC. (Credit: Erlinawati Graham)

Kalend, 71, was born in East Kalimantan where his future in the family’s timber business seemed assured.

‘But I didn’t plan to spend my life cutting down trees; I wanted to use my brain,’ he said. ‘I was also seeking spiritual guidance. I’d heard of a pesantren in Gontor, East Java, led by a scholar called Kiai Yazid who spoke several languages.’

‘Also at the pesantren was an Australian studying Islam and he helped me learn English.’ 

Despite having never been to an English-speaking country, Kalend’s language skills are remarkable. He’s at ease with idioms. Yet he has never studied at university and has no formal qualifications.  ‘I’m just a village boy,' he says.

He claims inspiration from American self-improvement salesman Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People and its message about learning from mistakes.

Surprisingly he found his abilities useful on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. ‘I couldn’t make myself understood in Arabic and was generally ignored,’ he said. ‘But when I switched to English I was treated with respect.’ It’s a story he tells his students to show that even in Islam’s holiest places you need the international language.

The teenagers who head to Pare (population 20,000), a two-hour drive south-west of Surabaya, come from all parts of the archipelago. To get here they’ve by-passed established commercial courses like the Swedish franchise English First, and reputable universities with language degree programmes.

In Kampoeng Inggris the students are spoilt for choice; they can enrol in the Sand Course with units for ‘comprehending your complications’, which can ‘make comfortable listening like steady’. They might also discover that ‘a rich vocabulary is better than being single’.

Like most staff at BEC, tutors are recruited from the ranks of past students. There’s believed to be only one native speaker working in Pare – an American. Kalend’s children and in-laws are lecturers, so academic dissent is unlikely. And, BEC has chairs and desks while other courses are conducted on the floors of open sheds.

No government permits are needed to start a business so there are no prowling inspectors to check credentials. The only capital outlay is for a whiteboard, street signs and banners – to entice ditherers. The banners should include images of the Statue of Liberty, London double-decker buses, and even the Eiffel Tower.

Not all graduate with a scrambled syntax. Mohammed Ridho Fadli, 22, claims his impressive English mastery has come from study in Pare. He took an undergraduate degree in Bogor before heading to East Java.

‘I don’t bother about memorising words,’ he said. ‘Nor do I think much about grammar. I try to concentrate on listening to people and watching films. I enjoy the atmosphere here.’

Unlike Saumi and Nanda, Ridho approaches foreigners to sharpen his language skills, which he hopes to use in making tourist videos. He spends Rp.350,000 (A$35) a month for a room and a similar amount on food.  

Pare is cheap even though another and more expensive English language franchise, ‘Wall Street’ is nearby. Courses start from around Rp.150,000 for a fortnight’s part-time tuition.

Another attraction is the mixed environment of both males and females. For many Pare is their first venture afar without their parents who no doubt feel their children will be safe in a largely Muslim crowd. In Australia they might get a world-class education but they’d also be exposed to the notorious ‘free sex’ lifestyle.

To serve the influx of outsiders several support businesses have opened – from bicycle-hire shops to laundries and photocopy kiosks. But no bars – and with the density of living eliminating privacy, couples have to cool their ardour by sharing ice cream and look ahead, with confidence in their course motto: ‘We’re gonna make you successful with our gatherness’.

Duncan Graham (wordstars@hotmail.com) is an Australian journalist in Surabaya.

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