Felicitating English among Novices Through Literature

Sachitra Mahendra, in Daily News, 12 September 2017, where the title reads “Courage that Counts”

They wanted to speak English. Some of them could deliver well. But most of them could not, sadly. For them all – the newly chosen batch of undergraduates – the university offers a course with the English Language Teaching Unit (ELTU). But then these undergraduates were not interested in attending the course either. They were still required to pass the ELTU exam to be qualified for the degree completion. However excellent they may have scored in other subjects, they would not obtain the certificate without the ELTU green light. The fault is not theirs, according to Madhubhashini Disanayaka Ratnayake, who was the ELTU Head attached to the University of Sri Jayawardanapura.

 Pictures by Wasitha Patabendige

As the ELTU Head, what I did was change the whole paradigm. You cannot make little changes when you need a big change. The unit had only three hours a week. That is not enough to make anyone familiar with the language. That will be enough for you to acquire the knowledge. But this is a language, and we need more time to get familiar with it,” Madhu elaborates her vision.

The initial step was to have two hours – from 8 to 10 am – allocated everyday for ELTU lectures. She was ready for the worst turnout, but that was not to be. She was finally satisfied, as that ‘first’ step filled her with many experiences.

Madhubhashini Disanayake Ratnayake who won the Gratiaen Prize in 2011 for ‘There’s Something I Have to Tell You’, re-enters the black and white forte after a lapse of a few years. Titled as ‘Grammar Through Literature’ and ‘A Thousand Voiced Choir’, the two books encompass her experiment as the ELTU Head in two genres.

“We never study grammar separately when we speak the native language. Grammar belongs to linguistics. But the problem is that we teach the adults. They feel secure when we teach them grammar. A load of grammar notes satisfies them. That’s their safety net. That’s why most spoken English classes focus on grammar,” Madhubhashini notes. But grammar could be taught creatively – through reading lessons. It is much more effective than just filling in the blanks. As you read the literary passages of ‘Grammar Through Literature’, you will invariably grasp the basic grammar elements. And those elements will remain etched in your memory.


“There are people who score 100 out of 100 by filling in the blank. But most of them cannot write a single sentence.”

And the remedy? Madhubhashini terms it as production of sentences and prefers that to the fill-in-the-blank tradition. Instead of filling in the blanks, the student is asked what they had done on the previous day. They have to think up and write it down in full sentences. That’s quite a laborious task for a novice already comfortable having scored by filling in the blank.

“Role play is also effective. The students gather in groups and interact with each other. The peer learning is much more effective than learning under a teacher. For instance, two students can improvise a shopkeeper and customer.”

But remember, Madhubhashini warns, it is equally important to take note of the audience too. No one in the audience shall laugh at any slip of the tongue. They should rather have an understanding of the speaker. The problem, however, lies in the mistakes. A mistake, nay a sin! Not in the mistakes, rather. But the fear of making the mistakes. “If we are worried about the mistakes, we don’t think about the change. If we are scared of looking stupid, we are not ready to take any risk.

I always remind my students that if you connect it with ego, chances are more that you won’t be able to be familiar with the language. Our batch is composed of boys and girls at a very sensitive age. They should make mistakes. It is a journey towards proficiency. If they don’t use the language, they cannot learn the language. But that does not give them the licence to make mistakes when they write or teach as a professional. But in the process of learning, give them the chance. You should not connect their self worth with it.”

‘A Thousand Voiced Choir’ includes Madhubhashini experiences of instilling courage in students to speak out in English.

Notable difference

“I am not saying it is a hundred percent success. We had problems with teaching. We had problems with the material. But a huge difference was made. There is less fear now. A lot of people opted to do subjects in English. I keep on telling them not to give up their ideologies with English.”

Learn English, familiarize it, and retain your identity. Everyone should have access to this language without discrimination. That is why Madhubhashini has great faith in the democratization of English. “We are using this language to keep the people out. We are using this to scare people away. Most of my students are scared to open their mouths? Why? They are scared to be laughed at.”

If you need, you can learn the language by yourself without a teacher. But the problem with many learners, according to Ratnayake, is that they are not ready to get close to the language. “We used to take the radios to the classroom to listen to the news telecast every one hour. And then the newspapers. A beginner can learn something at least by reading the headlines. We do not need any accent. I have a big problem with these accents. Why American accent? Why British accent? What I know is that there is a Sri Lankan accent. If someone thinks they will be respected because they speak in a British accent, it only shows their inferiority complex.” It is all about survival. Anyone will catch up with any language if they are stranded in a foreign land. The obstacle here in Sri Lanka is that you can survive well without English.

No longer scared

“Teaching English in Sinhala is similar to teaching swimming without getting down to water. At the ELTU, we provided the swimming pool. Even if you don’t understand a single thing during the first month, you get to understand something in the second month. It is not a miracle. You come to the class and get a chance to hear something. Our students didn’t just begin speaking the language. I am not saying that everyone speaks perfect English now. But that fear has shrunk away. They are not scared to speak. That is what we want. Then they can learn by themselves. I must be thankful to the Vice Chancellor and other faculties too for the support. The faculties did not assign any lectures between 8 and 10 am.”

The ELTU dedicated those hours to many activities with least priority to grammar. The students had to converse in English no matter how hard it could be.

And now they are equipped with courage – one that really counts.

Grammar through Literature and A Thousand Voiced Choir published by Godage International Publishers will be launched at the National Museum Auditorium on September 23 from 2 to 5 p.m., with the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Professor Sampath Amaratunge, as Chief Guest.

Introduced as an ‘experiment’ that ‘is fascinating’ and suggestive of ‘the commitment of the writer to a holistic view of life and learning’ by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, Grammar through Literature is a non-traditional grammar book that uses a novella written by the author and classic poems of English literature to take students through the basic points of grammar and fundamentals of writing while giving them a chance to appreciate English literature.

A Thousand Voiced Choir is a memoir by the author of the first two years as Head and Senior Lecturer of the English Language Teaching Unit of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, in which many issues dealing with teaching English to undergraduates are discussed and the solutions arrived at in one faculty of one university, leading to a burst of interest in English by the students, is carefully documented.

Speaking at the event will be distinguished writer in Sinhala and Professor of the Sinhala Department at Peradeniya University, Liyanage Amarakeerthi and Dr. Kennedy Jeevaretnam, Head of the Languages Department and the ELTU at Eastern University, who will touch upon issues faced by Sinhala and Tamil speakers related to learning and teaching English as a second language. Commenting on the memoir will be Vishaka Nanayakkara, Head of the Decision Science Department of Moratuwa University, who as the Director of the HETC Project at that time, had followed the progress made by the ELTU, USJP with great interest. Dr. Chitra Jayathilaka, Senior Lecturer of the English Department of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura will be speaking on the grammar book.

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A CRITICAL COMMENT from Geedreck USVATTE-ARATCHI, 13 September 2017

These notes about Madhubhashini remind me how we were taught and I learnt Sinhala and English at Hikkaduva Central School 1949-51.
In 1949, I was in the JSC class and we were taught  Sinhala by Mr.K.D.Gunatunge who had come out of the Sinhala Teachers Training College ( Katukurunda?) .We had two texts : Guttila Kavyaya and Ummaagga Jatakaya. There were no grammar lessons or grammar text.  I learnt all the Sinhala ‘grammar’ I know from the Gutttila Kavyaya.As we read the book in class, we learnt the language in which it was written; the word grammar was never spoken of. I did not know of Sidat Sangarava untiI I went up to Peradeniya and Mr.M.H.Peter de Silva delivered two perfunctory lectures on the book.  What a farce it was!
We leant to speak and write in English with two books, which you might personally recall: A.L.Brandeis (?), This Modern World and E.W.Parker, The Poets’Way. Mr.K.Dahanayake, (Maharagama Training College) taught us Englsih, both years 1950-51.  Three   (M.W.Wijertane, I and another, a girl; was it my sister?) of us scored  Distinction in English, a rare fete in those days and we from  a central school in the wilderness with no background whatever  in English at home and no instruction in formal grammar. But we learnt to parse sentences and learnt about verbs, subjects,adjectives, adverbs etc. I still do when I want to read something very closely.  We used one ‘grammar’ book,W.H.Samaranayake’s Practical English because we wanted to learn to avoid common mistakes invented by English users among us. I still amuse myself listening to them from the hoary mouths of university professors!
Was this disease of grammar learning created and spread by univesity men and women? Fortunately for us ,we were taught language and other subjects, except mathematics and Pali, mostly by teachers from Training Colleges who had been innoculated against the infection!


 In this short note I narrate an incident in the teaching of English island wide and ask you to interpret it. It took place at the end of a ESL course run by the UGC and the Ministry of Education, which I coordinated.

In 1987 the Rajiv Gandhi J.R. Jayawardene pact was signed and one of its items to solve the ethnic problem was to re-introduce English as a “national language.” However, it only provided for English as a “link language.” This delegitimised English as a right to which citizens could claim access and (I understand) that was also one of the many “bright ideas” that Dr Colvin R de Silva provided for J.R.’s edification. “Link language” assumes the existence of some others to link and does not allow English to stand by itself.

I was made aware of the importance of this distinction when I functioned as National Coordinator for English at the UGC and the the Education Ministry from 1987 to 1989. I ran a six-month English course for all A level qualified students who had been chosen for admission to the universities, as a demo of the sincerity of the SL government to implement the 1987 pact. I was not a university professor or an academic but an SLAS officer, at that time functioning as Commissioner of Motor Traffic. I had an “honours” in English, Economics and History from Peradeniya in 1958 and had spent one year at Oxford studying economics. I had invented and run English courses for the public service. The post was created for me to implement the pact.

The course I started called the General English Language  Teaching (GELT) was conducted island wide from 1987 onwards and it was for students who had gained admission to universities and were waiting to cross the threshold. It used the British Council’s English Everyday Series and the Fullbright Commission’s An Integrated Course in English for the A Level. It used interactive teaching and learning and the 300 or more  teachers who taught

them were already trained but retrained for the course. Apart from the texts Asia Foundation gifted 18000 books from USA as extra material. Peace corps Volunteers participated in the teaching and British Council speciaiists and US professors participated in advising and preparing docs including the final exam doc, which was used in each of the 95 centers distributed island wide, among the 6000 students who sat for the final test.

The exam was not to choose but to give students a chance to judge themselves.

With the examination I asked one question: Now that you have all been taught English as a second language for 6 months every day in the afternoons, in your own home towns, after school when the buildings are vacant, would you like to sit for the General English paper which might help you to judge yourself. The clear answer stated in writing was “We do not want to sit for the General English paper. But we want to study in the English medium in the University. “

I leave the reader to interpret what this means and how it would affect educational policy.

Wilfred Jayasuriya




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