Letting the Genie out of the Bottle: About Language Education in Lanka

Rohana R. Wasala, Daily News, 8 October 2010

Cynics might see some contradiction in the rehabilitation of English as a medium of general education, with prospects of eventually making it the universal medium of teaching in the future, in a country where sixty years of teaching it as a second language must be considered a failure, and where the general educational achievement level even in the mother tongue leaves much to be desired. Barely 40% of students pass in English at the GCE O/L, though success is ensured by compromised standards. However, this low success rate is not uniformly shared across the country; the performance level in the rural areas is usually far below that in urban areas. Students do hardly better in such important subjects as science and maths. And this is also a country where a significant 6% of the children of school-going age do not attend any school at all because of poverty; some families need the money that their children earn to physically survive; the picture would have been even more dismal but for the welfare measures introduced by successive governments such as free textbooks and free school uniforms. And on top of these still unresolved problems is the issue of the likely linguistic, cultural, and sociopolitical impact of English medium education on the island nation. However, it appears that the current changes are inevitable and are here to stay; English is regaining its pre-eminence in education. As for the swabasha medium, the genie is out of the bottle. I don’t want to be an alarmist or a wet blanket by saying this. My intention is to stress the importance of realistic planning, and determined plan implementation. To avoid the disastrous pitfalls that the changes already initiated are likely to involve, sound forethought is an absolute necessity on the part of planners and policy-makers. At this juncture, we need to manage the changes in such a way that the future generations will remember us with gratitude for daring to take a step backward in order to go forward in earnest.

The most important reason behind the rather hurried reinstatement of the English medium is the need to participate in the global “information economy” that the former US President Bill Clinton talked about at the dawn of the new millennium; in our circumstances, English is perceived to be the key to this resource, and thus, it figures prominently in our education and employment domains. The Sri Lankan government declared 2009 the Year of English and IT. There is a conscientious effort being made by the authorities to normalise a healthy level of proficiency in these two interrelated areas among the youth of the country. An English medium education is believed to immensely facilitate this.

The success of the change will depend, among other things, on the students’ acceptance of this reason. The general failure of the school English teaching programme to date has been mainly due to their non-perception of an actual need to learn the language. If the powers that be are able to convince them now that they must go beyond learning English as a second language and adopt it as the medium of instruction in view of the vital educational goal which they cannot reach through their own mother tongue, they will be totally amenable to such a switchover.

Unfortunately, however, while English is being boosted, it looks as if Sinhalese and Tamil are taken for granted. The deleterious effects, if any, of the medium substitution could be more pronounced on the former than the latter, for Sinhalese enjoys little geographical space beyond Sri Lanka for its survival. What is going to happen to these indigenous languages vis-à-vis English in the longer run is hard to predict, though a tentative prognosis may be hazarded: In a situation where English gradually expands its dominance in the mind of the language user pushing the indigenous language into relative unimportance, processes that languages in contact normally undergo may be expected to operate. One such process is known as cross-linguistic influence in which linguistic elements from the sociopolitically more dominant language percolate into the I-language system of the less dominant one. { ‘I-language’ is Chomsky’s coinage for the idea of language as an internal (and also individual) phenomenon; it refers to a person’s unconscious knowledge of the rules underlying their language, which, in linguistics, is also called their declarative knowledge or competence.} Cross-linguistic influence is inherent in all language contact situations such as the emergence of pidgins (When speakers of two mutually unintelligible languages try to communicate with one another using a mixture of those languages, a pidgin develops; a pidgin has only a reduced grammatical structure, and is never any community’s native tongue), the development of creoles (pidgins that have acquired a grammatical structure, and become the mother tongue of a particular language community), and even the process by which a language eventually ‘dies’; the reverse phenomenon takes place when a foreign language is learned through classroom instruction or individual study: elements from the learner’s native language appear in the new language. When the learner’s proficiency increases, the two languages begin to coexist in the mind of the learner without any further traffic either way. But in an authentic language community such as that which may emerge when English is made the exclusive medium of education, it could even displace the indigenous language altogether resulting in a language shift. Such an eventuality would of course be an unprecedented catastrophe as far as Sinhalese is concerned.

But considering the fact that we have preserved our essential linguistic and cultural identity over the millennia despite unrelenting foreign pressure, any possibility of the Sinhalese language being soon counted among the world’s dead languages should probably be ruled out. Sri Lankans are not an uprooted or transposed slave population without a definable history on whom a foreign language can be imposed to indulge somebody’s whim. However, planners and policy-makers should be mindful of their responsibility to do everything possible to preserve our ancient language.

It is assumed that we are moving towards a form of bilingualism, or even trilingualism. My personal opinion is that while universal bilingualism (in English and Sinhala/Tamil) is a feasible objective about the necessity of achieving which there’s no question, universal trilingual proficiency seems a bit over the top unless it is adequately justified, for how can one hope to persuade all Sinhalese and Tamil students to learn each other’s language when there’s no apparent reason for doing so in a context where English serves them as a link language? Some might say, “Let those Tamils who have a good reason to learn Sinhalese do so; let the same apply to the Sinhalese with regard to Tamil”. This, in fact, is what is happening in informal and formal situations even now.

However, by making proficiency in both Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for all its employees, the government is providing a meaningful reason for people to learn both languages; this is not like asking them to learn both languages for the sake of communal harmony, and national unity, which would be unconvincing (because it is common interests more than common languages that unite different communities). If properly implemented this requirement will serve as a good motive for prospective government employees to learn both languages. Such a situation would encourage voluntary language learning. Since future educational schemes are likely to be more job-oriented than now Sinhalese and Tamil students will be able to make a choice of Tamil and Sinhalese respectively if they know that they will be required to interact with people speaking only one of those languages in a particular social/working environment in the time to come. Unless such a worthwhile target is offered for them to focus on second language Sinhala or Tamil will suffer the same fate as English has done over the past sixty years.

The English medium will potentially prove to be even more problematic than teaching English as a second language for other reasons. Decisions about language always involve coming to grips with complex sociopolitical issues relating to such vital areas as national identity, human rights, equal educational opportunities, etc. Raising Sinhala and Tamil to official status displacing English which was the language of a very small privileged minority did improve the situation in those areas. Now the problem is if the return of English could mean the undoing of whatever was achieved under the language policies adopted after independence. For example, will it confer certain advantages on one section of the population while depriving another of the same?

I am not suggesting that the English medium should be abandoned; it should be there, just as much as Sinhalese and Tamil mediums must be there, for there are Sri Lankans, though a minority, whose mother tongue is English, and others who choose to study in English for their own reasons. Parents must have the freedom to choose the type of education their children should receive. That is a fundamental human right recognised even by the UN. So, let’s have all the three mediums side by side, but proficiency in English as a second language must be made compulsory for the Sinhalese and Tamil medium students. There must also be freedom for all students to change their medium when they find that necessary, after proving their eligibility to do so.

It is worth considering how the changeover to the English medium is likely to impact on the Sri Lankan school system, which consists mainly of a large network of government schools and a relatively small number of non-government schools (the latter expanding at a rate, though). Government schools are of two types: national schools and provincial schools; the national schools come under the central Ministry of Education, and the provincial schools under the provincial councils. Private schools and International schools, which are non-government schools, are generally autonomous institutions. Though not controlled by the Ministry of Education, private schools follow the regulations and curricula of the Ministry in all three media. On the other hand, the international schools, which have only the English medium, follow foreign, mostly British, syllabuses. Naturally, the socio-economic background of the students who are generally likely to attend these different categories of schools will determine the degree of reception that the English medium will enjoy.

My feeling is that it will find a better haven in non-government schools than in government schools for obvious reasons. Usually, only those parents who can afford to pay high fees will send their children to private or international schools; often they themselves have had a background of English education, or can afford to reinforce their children’s education with further help from private tutors. Children in government schools who opt to follow the English medium must depend on their teachers and other meagre resources available in such an environment. At the beginning at least, there will be an acute scarcity of teachers capable of teaching different subjects in English. However, it may be said, with some reservations, that this problem will not affect the private and international schools to such an extent since teachers who want to serve in those schools will invariably be required to have the ability to teach in the English medium.

In any case, continued public acceptance of the English medium will depend on how successful it is in the government school system. There are already about 10,000 government schools across the island, and this number will increase when the Ministry of Education creates in the next few years a system of 1000 well equipped secondary schools (as envisaged) on par with today’s so-called national or popular schools; according to its plans, some of these schools will be newly built, while the rest will be existing schools appropriately upgraded; they will be located in all the electorates, fairly distributed according to demand. This is a measure taken in order to put an end to the current mad rush for securing places in the so-called “popular” schools in towns that leads many parents to resort to fraudulent practices such as doctoring documents and bribing school authorities. An added incentive for them to seek admission for their children to town schools is that these schools offer the English medium. The special schools that the Ministry is going to establish in the provinces should also have this facility.

 There are already more than one hundred International Schools in the country today, and we can only expect more of them to be established in the future. Begun in the early 1980’s for the children of expatriates in Sri Lanka working under various projects these schools were later thrown open to local students too whose parents could afford to pay high fees for an English medium education of international standards. At the beginning these International Schools were mainly located in urban centres such as Colombo and Kandy; but today they are found even in some remote places, and cater to a mainly local student population. International Schools are business ventures registered under the Board of Investment (BOI) and as such do not come under any government ministry responsible for education. They are autonomous private institutions the majority of which prepare students for British examinations.

International schools are probably the least ‘national’ in a vitally important sense, though not all such institutions would deserve that description. The education they deal in may be of ‘international’ standards. But if it has no ‘national’ value the country will be just wasting its resources. The education of the country’s young is an unavoidable national responsibility that we all share. The government should help the international schools to be pro-national institutions without writing them off as a systemic aberration.

Today, the formal education system in Sri Lanka is being subjected to some profound changes, albeit tacitly. The reintroduction of the English medium along with the reauthorization of private education amounts to a virtual reversal of the post-independence reforms, obviously demanded by the exigencies of the fresh national resurgence that is taking place in the wake of decades of relative stagnation. In this context, the state cannot and should not relinquish its responsibility and initiative in education. Whether the schools are government or non-government, national or international, they are all sustained on the country’s wealth, and the people have a right to demand value for their money. What the country needs out of education is a generation of young people equipped with the knowledge and skills, and the moral character necessary to work for the happiness of all Sri Lankans without discrimination.

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