The Crushing Sway of the English Language in 20th Century Ceylon

Vinod  Moonesinghe, ….. responding to a passing ethnographic note by Chandra Fernando which ran thusUnfortunately, Mr Bandaranaike, who had Oxford Education, was not intelligent enough to know the value of English to Ceylonese. When we received telegrams, the postman could not read them, so we had to go to Mabole 3 miles walk either way where Wattala Post Office was to get it read from Postmaster.”

In reply to Chandra Fernando’s statements about English, it is not SWRD Banadaranaike he should blame, but the British imperial power. The British created a tiny circle of elite schools, to create a stratum of English-speaking civil servants and compradores, to serve their needs. The vast bulk of the population were left uneducated. Vernacular schools did not teach above the 8th grade, and you needed to go to an English-language school to get your SSC. By 1956, only 5% of the population could speak English.

It took years of struggle by CWW Kannangara (aided by the Left) in the face of the British client politicians such as DS Senanayake, to push for free education in the English-language schools. What SWRD did was to build on that, and bring SSC-level education to the broad mass, which would have been virtually impossible had the medium of instruction remained English.

In 1956, there were not enough vernacular schools for the ordinary population, let alone schools with the ability to teach in English. My father became an MP that year, and his next 10 years was spent building schools for the children in the Agalawatte electorate, as well as roads to enable the students to get to them. There were simply not enough English teachers, let alone teachers in English for the different subjects.  My mother, who taught at a number of schools, found that most children in THE ENGLISH STREAM did not have sufficient English to comprehend the subjects being taught. They first had to be taught English. She later took part in an early 1970s inquiry into the teaching of English in Ceylon schools, and found there were insufficient English teachers to teach English from below grade 3.

People talk a lot of bullshit about English education in Sri Lanka, forgetting that the country had been left a depressingly poor colony, with a backward pre-capitalist economy, and few resources. Looking just at the lives of the elite and their public school English educations they suggest that it was possible to replicate this at the village level.

As for the postal peon being unable to read the English telegram, why the hell was that telegram going in English, in a country where 95% of the people did not speak the language? Why was all government correspondence and business correspondence carried out in a language which 95% of the population couldn’t understand? In Japan did they send people telegrams in English and expect the postman to be able to read it? The demand for the Swabasha to be made the official language came from the Left in 1936, because as they pointed out, people had to make statements to the Police in English, which they did not understand, and correspond with the government in English, which they could not comprehend.

Neither SWRD nor the Left tried to do away with English language education. We simply lacked the resources to teach it to everybody. We STILL lack the resources to teach it to everybody. Talking about rich countries such as Singapore (yes the stuff about Singapore being poorer than Sri Lanka is utter codswallop) and expecting a poor, over-exploited country such as Sri Lanka to be emulate its educational system is fantasy.


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2 responses to “The Crushing Sway of the English Language in 20th Century Ceylon

  1. English is the global language of business and science and English literacy is the key to admission in the global community.
    Knowledge of Sinhala is completely useless outside of Sri Lanka.
    Sinhala literacy was forced on the majority of private school students and the government went on shut down opportunities for professionals who were not literate in Sinhala.
    The Swabasha promoters sought to increase the stature of monolingual Sinhala speakers by figuratively cutting off the heads of English educated students.
    Burghers who were not literate in Sinhala fled to the West where they were instantly successful on account of their ability to speak, read and write English.
    English stream instruction was gradually eliminated from the majority of private schools, but this did not level the playing field for non-English speakers who now have to pay extra if they wish to get private instruction in English.
    Sinhala only speakers will always have limited options, and that is how it will always be.

  2. Pingback: Making Made-in-Sri-Lanka – e-Con e-News

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