Colombo, Language

Sri Lankan English: The state of the debate

In the two and a half years since I published my book, A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, I have followed the ongoing debate on the subject with interest. The good news is that there is a debate, and it seems to have entered the public domain rather than being confined to academic circles. There seems to be increasing acceptance of the idea that such a thing as Sri Lankan English exists, that it deserves to be recognised as a valid variety of English, and that Sri Lankans can be proud to speak English “our way”.

This opinion is nothing new in the world of English language teaching. “World Englishes” is a well-established and growing field – the plural “Englishes” says it all. And here in Sri Lanka ELT academics such as Professors Thiru Kandiah, Siromi Fernando, Arjuna Parakrama and Manique Gunesekera have all contributed to promoting the idea that the Sri Lankan variety of English should be validated alongside other more established varieties. What is new is that it seems to be coming out into the open, a “hot topic” on which many people are ready to express an opinion.

There are three contexts in which I have encountered the debate in the past year, and this article will look at each in turn:

  1. Sri Lankan English in the public domain
  2. Sri Lankan English in English Language Teaching
  3. Sri Lankan English literature and the Gratiaen Prize

1. Sri Lankan English in the public domain

The use and abuse of the English language has always been a popular topic in the Sri Lankan press. In the past, letters to the editor on the subject tended to be confined to deploring the poor state of English in Sri Lanka. “Murdering the Queen” was a common accusation hurled at offenders. Correspondents often quoted the breaking of rather obscure or old-fashioned grammar rules as evidence, and frequently undermined their own argument by their tendency to break as many rules as they were trying to correct.

Now at least there are two sides to the debate. It is increasingly recognised that Sri Lankans have their own way of expressing themselves in English, and that this doesn’t necessarily have to conform to outdated grammatical standards. The problem is that the opposition tend to miss the point as well. Often the argument consists of little more than quoting humorous examples of British speakers “murdering the Queen” themselves. (If the Queen has already been murdered by her own subjects, why don’t we also join the party?) Or giving examples of Sri Lankan usage which would in fact be recognised as mistakes even by most speakers of standard Sri Lankan English.

A recent exchange in Groundviews illustrates the point. In her article Putting cuts, part-putting and pol symbol Pearl Thevanayagam welcomes the localisation of English, concluding “Yes, we’ll speak English our way.” But she undermines her argument by quoting examples such as “they are now welled-off and they won’t look at us” and “you took a pottocopy and pailed your English.” OK it’s a humorous piece so I won’t hold it against her. But the point is that these are examples which would be recognised as mistakes by speakers of standard Sri Lankan English, and so they merely provide ammunition for the opposition rather than supporting the valid point she is trying to make.

In his comment on Pearl’s piece, Bardo Flanks equates “localising” English with “a misguided sense of ethno-linguistic chauvinism”. He concludes: “English is a global language, and we should teach our kids to write and speak the variants of it that have the most prestige and recognition. We have Sinhalese and Tamil languages which are ours to do whatever we wish, but let’s leave English alone.” But no one has ever left English alone; that’s why it is what it is today, in all its multifarious manifestations. How sad, and how regressive, if Sri Lankans still have to toe the colonial line to achieve “prestige and recognition” in the 21st century.

I believe that one of the problems in the ongoing debate derives from a misunderstanding over the definition of the term “Sri Lankan English” (SLE). The term appears as an entry in my own Dictionary of Sri Lankan English, with two different definitions:

1) “the variety of English used in Sri Lanka”. This is meant as an entirely non-judgmental term. It simply refers to those features which are characteristic of the way the English language is used in Sri Lanka. There are over 2,500 examples in my dictionary, and I add more every month on my website

2) “(dated) a humorous term for broken English spoken by Sri Lankan learners of English”. I debated over whether to include this definition, since it clearly implies that Sri Lankan English is something substandard, which does not reflect my own opinion. I included it because I believe that many people continue to use the term in this way. But the label “dated” is included to show that this usage of the term is becoming outdated.

I use the term as defined in (1) above. So does Richard Boyle, consultant to the OED on Sri Lankan English and frequent writer on the subject; so do most people working in the ELT field in Sri Lanka, and so do international academics working in the field of World Englishes. Manique Gunesekera, author of The Post-Colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English, uses the term “Standard Sri Lankan English” to refer to the variety spoken by Sri Lankans whose first language is English, or who are bilingual in English and Sinhala or Tamil. This is a useful way of distinguishing the standard variety from less recognised alternatives, while emphasising the point that it does conform to certain “standards”.

Sri Lankan English is most evident in the colloquial language. It includes the Sri Lankan accent, which quite naturally differs from other national and regional accents. It includes the Sinhala and Tamil words and phrases which are a part of everyday Sri Lankan discourse. And it includes a host of colloquial expressions which are common in informal speech, but which would not be accepted in more formal written contexts. In writing, it is most apparent in the vocabulary: words like poya and perahera, hoppers and stringhoppers, which do not appear in standard dictionaries, but which are part of the everyday language of Sri Lanka.

Standard Sri Lankan English does not include “broken English” – the errors frequently made by speakers of Sinhala and Tamil who have only a limited knowledge of English. But where to draw the line between what is an acceptable example of SLE, and what is better described as an “error”, is clearly a controversial issue, and one which is best addressed by English language teaching professionals.

2. Sri Lankan English in English Language Teaching

The fact that two recent conferences have specifically addressed the issue of Sri Lankan English, reflects its current prominence on the academic agenda. The first, in October 2009, was a one-day conference on Varieties and Standards of English “with special emphasis on Sri Lankan English” organised by SLELTA (Sri Lanka English Language Teachers’ Association). The second, in January 2010, was a symposium titled “Speak English Our Way”, organised by the BCIS under the auspices of the presidential initiative to promote “English as a life skill”.

As a participant at the first of these events, I was struck by the gulf that seemed to exist between organisers and participants in their understanding of the term “Sri Lankan English”. I felt that until people understand (and agree) what “Sri Lankan English” actually means (what does it consist of, how is it pronounced, what are its defining features, etc.), the debate is unlikely to make any significant progress.

In a group discussion that I participated in, two teachers said that they felt “threatened” (their word) by the new emphasis being placed on Sri Lankan English. They had learnt their British standard, and that’s what they teach, and they see nothing wrong with that. I told them that the world is moving on and SLE is an acceptable model for Sri Lanka, but that no one has a right to make them feel threatened for what they are doing, until an alternative (Sri Lankan) standard is agreed.

I am aware that defining this standard is not a straightforward matter. There are numerous sub-varieties of SLE; there are many different opinions on the subject; and the problem of setting “standards” is at best thorny. But someone has to take the plunge and draft a description of this variety. It doesn’t have to be a complicated document: a list of lexical items, a description of the phonological features, and an outline of the ways in which the syntax of the written and spoken language vary from international norms. The document should be descriptive, not prescriptive. It can include clines and alternatives. And it can be revisited and rewritten: in 10 years’ time, who knows how the language might have changed? Above all, it should be published and widely available, not confined to the academic community, so that everyone knows the score.

One of the reasons why British English remains such a powerful and ubiquitous model is surely because it is so well documented – dictionaries, grammars, reference books, all of which make the task of the teacher, the learner, the examiner, the materials writer, very straightforward. But the model remains (more or less) standard/educated/upper-middle-class/Oxford/BBC/RP English. No one denies that this is an outdated model – that there are many equally valid varieties even within the UK itself, not to mention all the other global varieties. But the model survives because it is so thoroughly documented.

Codifying standard Sri Lankan English is the urgent need, without which no progress can be made in the process of getting it accepted as a model for Sri Lankan learners. The task should be undertaken by a recognised authority in the English teaching field in Sri Lanka, which can then be debated and agreed by a forum of English language specialists. Until such time, how does a teacher know what he/she should be teaching? How does a materials writer know what language to introduce? How does an examiner know what he/she should be testing, or what is an acceptable answer?

It surprises me that in all the years that SLE has been on the agenda, no one has yet attempted a comprehensive description of its features. Manique Gunesekera’s book, The Post-Colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English, is an important contribution to the process. And I believe that I have also contributed by outlining some of the lexical differences between SLE and standard British English. Important work is also being undertaken at the University of Giessen in Germany on the Sri Lankan component of the International Corpus of English (ICE-SL – previously and more memorably known as “SLICE”). The 400,000-word written component of the corpus has recently been completed, and work has begun on the much more laborious process of compiling a 600,000-word spoken corpus. This will be a valuable source of empirical data for describing the way English is currently being used in Sri Lanka.

One of the conclusions of the BCIS symposium was the need to codify standard Sri Lankan English and draw up a guide for English teachers. The symposium’s title “Speak English Our Way” (and the symbol of the indigenous manna replacing the earlier image of the kaduwa) seems to reflect a growing awareness of the significance of the local variety, and its potential as a valid model for Sri Lankan learners of English. With the added advantage of taking ownership of the language, and stripping away the colonial baggage which comes with the traditional British model.

3. Sri Lankan English literature and the Gratiaen Prize

Last year I was fortunate to serve as one of the three judges of the Gratiaen Prize 2008, which was marked by a minor controversy over the issue of Sri Lankan English. In an exchange of letters in the Island newspaper, one correspondent suggested that too much preference was given to Sri Lankan English in the choice of shortlisted works.

Given my own interest in Sri Lankan English, it was inevitable that this issue was at the forefront of my mind in reading the entries for the prize – and one of the many criteria we agreed on as judges was “natural and appropriate use of Sri Lankan English”. Perhaps this needs some explanation. I believe that for any work of creative writing set in a contemporary Sri Lankan context, and featuring Sri Lankan characters, it is natural that features of Sri Lankan English will appear, at least in the dialogue of the characters, or in the voice of a first-person narrator, or even in the voice of the author – especially if he/she chooses to write in a deliberately colloquial style. This is surely a large part of what lends a work its local flavour and appeal. This opinion was shared by my co-judges. And judging by previous shortlists, it was presumably shared by earlier panels of Gratiaen judges as well.

However, just because the Gratiaen Prize is an award for Sri Lankan (pause) English writing, this does not mean that it is an award for “Sri Lankan English” writing. You don’t have to write Sri Lankan English, you just have to use it in a “natural and appropriate” way. Poetry is an obvious example where it may be entirely inappropriate. If you are attempting to express universal truths in abstract terms, universal English (whatever that may be!) might be a more appropriate medium. If your work is a historical novel set in a different era, or a work of science fiction set in outer space, you might choose a different idiom. But not surprisingly, most of the works submitted for last year’s prize were set in an explicitly “local” context, and in these cases the Sri Lankan English criterion seemed appropriate.

Of the six works shortlisted for the 2008 prize, one (The Underside of Silence, a collection of poetry by Malinda Seneviratne) displayed virtually no overtly Sri Lankan English. Its themes were largely abstract and universal, and its use of language and imagery reflected this. At the other extreme, the play The Ritual by Jehan Aloysius was particularly rich in Sri Lankan English words and expressions. The logic for this was explained in a thoughtful introduction to the play. The play is in English, but it is set in a rural Sri Lankan village which is clearly a Sinhala-speaking environment, and so Sinhala vocabulary and Sri Lankan English colloquialisms are incorporated into the text to reflect language which would in reality be spoken entirely in Sinhala. This seems entirely appropriate, and it is hard to imagine how else that atmosphere could have been evoked so successfully.

The other four shortlisted works were also set in Sri Lankan contexts. Part of their appeal was the way in which they all depicted an authentic Sri Lankan reality, and one of the ways in which they achieved this was in their use of Sri Lankan English. In the case of the two novels (Chinaman: the Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka and Stable Horses by Vihanga Perera), both were narrated by fictional first-person narrators – two very different personalities, with completely different voices, both of whom came alive partly as a result of the language they used. The idea that either of these works could have succeeded with a narrator writing in some bland version of standard British or international English would be ridiculous.

I hope that these comments are not interpreted as “dictating how Sri Lankans should write”. If anyone does see it that way, I would suggest that the opposite view is equally prescriptive, as well as reactionary. Of course Sri Lankan writers should be free to write in whichever style and idiom they choose. But I would encourage them not to be stifled by the traditionalists who try to tell them that Sri Lankan English is somehow inferior and does not have a place in serious literature. Just because we admire Jane Austen, doesn’t mean we have to write like her in 21st century Sri Lanka. British and American literature abound in examples of writers who have written in a fiercely original, colloquial and non-standard style, many of whom have subsequently been seen as among the greatest writers of their times.

  • niranjan

    Micahel Meyler,

    The real issue is that a vast majority of Sri Lankans do not speak or write English at all. We need to correct that before we talk of Sri Lankan English.
    What is even more depressing is that certain Sri Lankans educated in English are opposed to English being taught to the vast majority of students in this country.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    I disagree with Niranjan. While there is a paucity of English teachers due first to Mrs B who in 1971 nationalised schools, brought swabasha and booted out Eurpoean nuns and priests who taught excellent English and French not to mention discipline there is no way the English speaking Sri Lankans want others not to learn English.

    I love Sri Lankan English because as I said in my little piece on March 30,2010 on this website I am thrilled with the way English is used not to pander to purists but just communicate without the strict rigidity many proponents of pure English seem hung up on.

    Lanuage should be a communicator.

    It’s no use talking of `paradigm’ and `polity’ to the ordinary English speaking person. It’s no use telling your neighbour who left school at the age of 17 to get married that `could your offspring come to my abode for the purpose of recreation and interact with my son’ instead of `could she come to my house and play with my son’.

    I am glad Michael Mayler is propagating the use of Sri Lankan English.

    The world is evolving into a global village. The purpose of language is to be understood by all and entertain us not bore us to tears.

  • Thank you, Mr. Meyler, for making a distinction between “Standard Sri Lankan English” and “broken English”, though the borderline between the two may sometimes be rather hard to find. Some people here seem to get these two things mixed up right now, and, if unchecked, this confusion could gather enough momentum to mislead another generation.

    The standard here, as in any other English-speaking country, should be the usage of educated people who have a good command of the language, not anything and everything uttered by those who just have a smattering of it. For example, almost all Sri Lankans use the word “no?” instead of question tags in their informal speech (though not necessarily in formal speech or writing), and therefore it can be considered part of standard Sri Lankan colloquial English; but the same just cannot be said about expressions like ” Border catch and go”.

    In pronouncing words like “note”, it may be our standard to say /noːt/ instead of the British /nəʊt/ or even the American /noÊŠt/. But no one should be encouraged, by the same token, to retain their /iskɪl/ pronunciation of the word “skill”, for example, as it simply is not accepted practice among competent English speakers here.

    On the other hand, I personally believe that Sri Lankans – at least those Sri lankans who hope to interact with people from other countries – would do well to be aware of the international norms too. (How else could you easily introduce your favourite “brinjal curry” or “ladies’-fingers curry” to a foreigner?) After all, even the British and the Americans sometimes have to change their regional expressions when dealing with the international community. (Think of courgette/zucchini or roundabout/merry-go-round.)

  • SomewhatDisgusted

    Dear Pearl,

    “Lanuage should be a communicator.”

    While I agree with this, sadly, English is not the poster-child for this sentiment. If you want to make English a real communicator, it probably needs to be
    1. A phonetic language – All this terrible confusion with pronunciation! How unnecessary.
    2. A simple language – need I even launch myself into the idiosyncrasies of its grammar?

    English looks like it’s been designed to scuttle communication than to enable it. Granted, it grew organically and such things do make it an endearing language but it certainly doesn’t make it an “ideal” language by any stretch of the imagination.

    Merely something that has become the de-facto language through naught but historic accident (thank you Britain!) and whose evolution should probably be guided to better the above two aspects. Who better than Sri Lankans to assault, batter and if necessary murder it, till it adopts a semblance of respectability?

  • justitia

    Dear Pearl Thevanayagam,
    Mrs B nationalised assisted schools as they taught better english and ALL other subjects, and brought ALL schools down – not up – to the same level and named them “central schools”.
    She also abolished London University Examinations – O and A Levels – held by the Department of Examinations. The London O and A level certificates were recognised by all commonwealth countries and by many others as well such as USA for university entry and were an avenue for lankan students to qualify abroad. But she sent HER children to qualify in UK and French universities.

  • Sur

    Dear Michael,

    Thank you for this post. While I agree with a lot of what you say, it will certainly be most unpalatable to the “colombo 7 crowd” who think that anyone who speaks English in an accent, or peppers their speech with Sri Lankan-isms is a rustic fool who needs to be looked down upon and laughed at. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that has continued to exist since independence and shows no signs of disappearing any time soon.


    Dear Michael and others
    I am amused about this “Sri Lankan English”, because in my mind, it does not exist. Michael may have compiled the material with good intentions, and as an academic exercise. I am also amused that, like many other issues, this discourse has also begun to have overtones of disdain for ‘Colombo-elites’, and disparities of socio-economic classes (‘haves and have-nots’). In my view – either, one uses the power of this language as a method of communication, by learning how it works, or stop short of it and resort to ‘broken English’. Many Sri Lankan children are fast losing the opportunity to learn the global language properly, because of dearth of teachers. As a former academic, and one who is currently working overseas, I can assure you that the proper use of English is one of the highest benchmarks, required to be demonstrated in the international arena. Coming from the field of Science, I would emphasis the need to educate the next generation to have proficiency (or mastery) in a global language, and English is my preference. In the current era communication in Science & Technology (many people tend to forget how our daily lives are intimately intertwined with Science & Technology achievements), English has acquired a pre-eminent place. With the use of the Internet, English is the most dominant form of communication (needless to say). It would be folly to focus on a “Sri Lankan English” or its validation. The focus of English teaching in Sri Lanka, in my view, should go back to basics – both written, grammar, and speech. The decline occurred gradually, over time, as good English teachers of the 1950s and 1960s retired, and the Education authorities failed to create conditions conducive to producing the next crop. My plea is to desist from this idea of a ‘Sri Lankan English’ and for anyone who has an interest in the subject, to assist the country to teach the next generation in the correct use of English. Not to do so will lead to lost opportunities for large numbers of the emerging generation – as the world becomes increasingly more ‘global’.

  • Vipula

    If English is being taught, let it be in internationally accepted form. We need English for international communication. If not, forget about it. Do not waste time on debating unproductive issues.

  • Amelie

    thanks Michael for the article. Too true. I think JPNRC should stick to science since he doesnt seem to have got the point(s) of your article at all. JPNRC I am an academic too, have lived, worked and studied in the UK and Europe and consider English my first language. But I definitely speak Sri Lankan English, not any other variety. I bet you do too. Stop confusing SLE with ‘broken’ English. They are not the same thing.

  • I agree with Vipula.English can’t be taught or learnt ‘ our way’.There are internationally accepted ways of doing it and we have to follow them.Not only English, no language in the world can be ‘done’ our way because they already have their own ways.

  • niranjan


    I have met well educated English speaking, writing Sri Lankans who do not want others to learn English. I cannot name them on this forum. But one of them is a writer to the island newspaper.
    The reason why they do not want others to learn the language is that they say that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala and Tamil speaking country and not an English speaking one. Sadly they forget that we live in an English speaking world and we need English more than ever to communicate with the outside world.

  • niranjan


    “I can assure you that the proper use of English is one of the highest benchmarks, required to be demonstrated in the international arena. Coming from the field of Science, I would emphasis the need to educate the next generation to have proficiency (or mastery) in a global language, and English is my preference.”- Well said. In addition to the field of science this should also apply to all other disciplines.

  • RohanR

    What a bizarre debate and Ironic that a Britisher is leading it. Somehow only possible on a small island nation that suffers from cultural isolation and post-colonial hang-ups. If Sri Lankan english becomes part of the accepted lexicon in schools, god help us when it becomes further bastardised to accomodate the abbreviations of SMS speak. Get real, stop the meaningless pontification and look at the bigger picture. A well qualified Sri Lankan would be at a distinct disadvantage in the international job market despite fluency in Sri Lankan English. If you are a banker, a doctor, an engineer – surely British Curriculum english is the only standard to aspire to.

  • jayathilaka


  • Great stuff Michael. Codifying SLE, as you say, is going to be tricky – and fraught with dissent. Decisions will have to be taken on what words and phrases are established or still in formation, as it were, what is and isn’t ‘broken’, what is and isn’t slang, even what is and isn’t archaic.

    I can understand the teachers who feel threatened by this. Until some reference and text books have been drawn up, it will feel like shifting sands underneath their feet.

    Perhaps the key is to regularly update the works, with the debate – both public and academic – informing the new editions.

    It is interesting to note that the English written and spoken in England and USA has moved on a long way from the Standard British English taught in schools around the world. And it is this ‘old’ English that has influenced the new Englishes of different countries. Now they can fly on their own.

  • Amelie

    RohanR: You just used Sri lankan English. “Britisher” is no longer part of the lexicon of the “British English” you advocate and (I assume) you think you use.

  • Advocate

    You have said ” Many Sri Lankan children are fast losing the opportunity to learn the global language properly, because of dearth of teachers” This is classified as Sri Lankan English too, because you have not used an article before “dearth”. It is common in SLE to leave out articles e.g. “I went to buy few books for my son” instead of “A few books….” So do think before you judge Sri Lankan English. It seems to me that you are a user of it too. I havent heard you speak but perhaps you pronounce “home” with a monophthong instead of a diphthong, like most of us do. It seems to me that you are confusing standard sri lankan english with SUB standard sri lankan english in your comment above.

  • Advocate

    oh and Niranjan, when you speak do you aspirate in the initial consonants when you pronounce words like “pin” “king” and “tin”? (e.g. the P is uttered with a a little rush of air as if pronouncing a silent “H” ) If you dont, chances are you speak Sri Lankan English as well.

  • BalangodaMan

    Confining my comments to SPOKEN English only, and assuming Mike covers spoken English within Sri Lankan English …

    The second comment by Advocate about the ‘pin’ ‘king’ and ‘tin’ has an important relevance, if I may elaborate.

    I have a few more examples below but first, in my view HOW you speak (abroad) does a lot more than convey what you are trying to say. Also if English is used as an international language it is necessary that everyone understands it, whatever English it is. IOW, it has to be recognised as ‘English’ by people internationally, not just other Sri Lankans.

    Your English says a lot more than what you have to say: People in English speaking countries already have an awareness that there are countries where English is not the first language. When we make GAFFES (!) in our English abroad we immediately signal to our audience that we are from such a place. The problem is, perhaps unkindly, there is a presumption that the speaker hasn’t had a good education generally, as evidenced by that gaffe, when in reality the speaker may have had an excellent general education in SL. Maybe even went to Visaka Vidyalaya or St Thomas’ College.

    We know this thing very well in SL already. Someone mentioned ‘iskool’ earlier and I would add ‘shoketsorber’ (shock absorber) and ‘put ball’. The previous generation to mine used to describe people from the outstations as ‘not, pot, got haaaa-u leeee-u’ (the ‘not’ pronounced as in the Sinhala short ‘o’ and the last two words should be ‘have’ and ‘leave’ but pronounced in a way more comfortable to the Sinhala tongue). People who pronounced like this signalled their origins and our narrow-minded society made judgements based on this (‘goday’). (I’m not sure if this is still true).

    Exactly the same happens to the English speaking SL elite when they go abroad, to the UK say. I hear the words ‘allowed’ pronounced ‘aloved’ and New York becoming ‘Niv York’. And there is the ‘Niv ear’. There is often the accent on the wrong syllable (‘apparently’ with accent on first syllable) and mixing up of ‘v’ and ‘w’. I even hear ‘moowies’ and ‘wideo’ from SL people who have lived in the West for decades. The audience is puzzled. An English person once asked me if the speaker has a speech impediment!

    (‘Aloved’ and ‘Niv York’ – this is because the ‘iskool’ people say ‘lau’ instead of ‘love’. So the mistaken SL elite abroad think ‘Allow’ and ‘New York’ if pronounced correctly is incorrect – ie. ‘goday’!)

    Does the writer Mike mean Sri Lankan English should validate ‘aloved’ and ‘Niv York’ and ‘moovies’ and ‘wideo’?

    If so, what chance the Oxford Dictionary picks it up as an alternative pronunciation?

    Now an important distinction. Though we are English speakers (we are) but we may be speaking to ENGLISH-LISTNERS. In SL we are not English listeners, we are Sinhala or Tamil listers. Let me explain the difference. In SL whilst we speak grammatically correct English, we actually speak with Sinhala phonetics (see above Advocate’s observation about the aspirant in front of the plosives ‘k’ ‘t’ ‘p’, and the Sinhala long ‘o’ vowel sound in ‘home’ rather than the diphthong ‘eu’, and the Sinhala hard ‘r’ versus the English soft ‘r’. I can go on …). We listen in Sinhala-phonetics. We understand each other in both Sinhala and English but in both languages we speak with the same phonetics (with added ‘f’). But international speakers do not have that advantage in being able to hear in Sinhala, though the language spoken is English. Often English listeners hear a language being spoken but do not immediate realise it is English. For example, when the French speak English (except those with language laboratory training) it sounds like they are speaking French. Similarly with other nationalities. What does it sound like when an Englishman or a Japanese person speaks Sinhala? Isn’t it true that some of us find it funny?

    Differentiating ‘SLE’ from incorrect English and slang is, whilst having its technical difficulties, is also in my experience heavily charged with social politics in SL and in the diaspora. The very people who look down upon the ‘goday’ in SL are in turn similarly regarded in the English speaking countries for their gaffes!
    For this reason, after moving abroad I took a language lab training course from an audio course I bought from the BBC. My SL friends considered that to be an insult to …. (wait for it …) an insult to them (!) as apparently ‘we Sri Lankans speak the best English in the World’. Unfortunately, despite their sentiments and my excellent education in SL people had difficulty understanding what I was saying, until this audio course and some hard work.

    We can learn from our children born and brought up in English-speaking countries I suppose. (but I have to relate an incident where I heard my SL friend telling off his 7 year old son – who was incidentally born and brought up in England – that it is pronounced ‘wegitables’ and not ‘vegitables’! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! I should have killed him there and then! LOL!)

    I might suggest to Mike that Sri Lankan English can be validated as something like Creole, in which case anything goes. But that may be considered somewhat derogatory by Sri Lankans.

    I think the question is, in the international arena, would the international community take the trouble to ‘learn to hear’ SLE as enthusiastically as they have ‘learned to hear’ English with a French, German or Japanese accent? In other words, what’s in it for them? Are we that important to them?

  • The above comment by BalangodaMan further validates my personal belief that we Sri Lankans, while happily speaking what can be considered standard Sri Lanken English here(but, please, not the “iskool”-type of English even in that context), would do well to take the trouble to learn an internationally accepted variety of it too. In an age when it is increasingly becoming important to act as citizens of the global village, being able to communicate without the hiccups associated with a purely regional form of English is definitely going to be an advantage.

    On the other hand, more and more affluent Sri Lankans send their children abroad for their studies at present, and it goes without saying that they will pick up international English in the process. Isn’t there the chance that those who follow their studies here will find themselves at a certain disadvantage even here in the future because of their local English, especially when it comes to higher-paying types of employment? Isn’t there the possibility that what happened to the present generation of Sri Lankans because of their “Sinhala only” (for reasons too well-known to discuss here) could happen to the next one because of their “Sri Lankan English only”?

  • NotMike

    His name is Michael, not Mike.

  • BalangodaMan

    Yes it is Michael – my apologies.

    Michael, I was unfamiliar with your work until now. I can now see the focus of ‘Sri Lankan English’ in your work – the English as is spoken/used in Sri Lanka.

    I now realise, my piece is way off topic – as it is about English as spoken by Sri Lankans abroad and how we are perceived in some international settings from our ‘lingual presentation’. (an afterthought. Audiences are puzzled because SL people sound extremely fluent in English yet make fundamental mistakes phonetically. I am often asked why)

  • suha cassim

    Hi Mike,

    I read what you had written with a great deal of interest..There is nothing ‘wrong’ with SL Eng. and perhaps it will fit well into the literature mode like other Englishes have around the world..however I don’t believe that it will be ‘accepted’ as the ‘correct English’.
    All who have ventured into this study are educated in the SE to begin with and THEY will never use SL. E. unless and when necessary.
    It will also be seen as ‘standardising ‘broken’ English’ . For as long as SE rules the job market where the writing of it is required the users of SE will always be prefered or even required to those who use other Englishes for the simple reason that it is the most understood globally. Even in the Public and Private enterprises in SL those who use the queen’s english will have an advantage. SL E can stand as a derivant of SE because there is no real grammer or structure to it..
    Like your work, congrats..take care! Suha.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    If I am not mistaken I met Michael Mehler with his Sri Lakan wife who is a friend of Nireka Starkloff, an anthropologist and he was compiling Sri Lankan idoms and expressions.

    One cannot move forward in this global village unless we look at the idiosynchrocasies of a nation.

    As I have pointed out ad nauseam that we need to gear ourselves forward to the 21st century and not be hung up on medieval English.

    Wicked is no longer a term for being cruel. It means in teenage parlance ‘brilliant’.

    So cannot we be a wee bit tolerant and swallow our pride in assimilating Sri Lankan English.

    Once you have mastered the rudiments of a language it is only befitting that we make our own interpretations.

    We honestly need tofat-forward to the 21st century.

  • longus

    It’s really enlightening to read Balangoda man’s and Advocate’s comments.Although I’m not a fluent speaker of English, and sometimes I use the “gode” kind of pronunciation, I’m not wee bit worried about it, as it is not my mother tongue! If I don’t speak my mother tongue properly only I should be ashamed of myself.

    As Banangoda Man vividly explains it is a case of the “hunter becoming the hunted”.The English speaking elites who flaunt their refinement to others by speaking English in a way that they think is close to the Queen of England find themselves in an embarrassing situation when the native English speakers in England say that they can’t understand!This is the result of treating an instrument of knowledge as a sacred object that should be worshipped! Another humourous equivalant is the way the village officers or Aarachchilas treated the villagers in the colonial days.They showed to the villagers that they were very close to the British Officers in the city and treated the villagers like trash. But when they were in the company of the “White Masters” they were treated in the same way,which they would like to keep away from the villagers!

  • Coconut

    does MS want everybody to learn to speak (English) like him? Wow that would be a disaster

  • Foreigner

    Hi. I would like to add my voice to this debate over English language use in Sri Lanka. For some 30 years I have been teaching composition and research paper writing in Canad, China, the Middle East, Mexico, and in Europe.

    In each college program I have taught in we have used American textbooks, American English writing conventions–all for the purpose of supporting students majoring in subjects like Science, IT, Business Management. Why? Simply put: most of the learning materials today are in US English. And, if students wish American degrees, well, they need to be able to write American English.

    The Chinese at first thought they could do without this universal language. Well, go to China today. Hundreds of millions of students are learning American English, not least because, individually and collectively, they have understood its necessity. No one is talking of Chinese-English, nor are Arabs debating Arab-English. Nor is this an issue in any other land that I can think of. Why it should surface in Lanka is beyond me. I suspect politics is behind it all.

    Distasteful as this must be to nationalistic-minded people, we need to be practical and think of the future of our students. Encouraging local ESL use is detrimental to the acquisition of English that is incomprehensible outside our borders.

    I understand the costs involved in ESL re-training teachers in a more universal tongue. Sri Lankan English would be the cheaper option, but only in the short term. The costs will come in lost opportunities internationally, not least in our students missing out on higher education abroad.

  • georgethebushpig


    If we draw an analogy between language and music, I seriously doubt that Coltrane, Monk and Miles Davies could have contributed to the creation of a new music language like Jazz unless they were fully conversant with the basics of music. Fundamentals precede improvisation. The discussion about Sri Lankan English I believe is putting the cart before the bullock.

    As others have argued, learning internationally accepted English facilitates better communication with a wider audience. This doesn’t preclude the use of Sri Lankan idioms or “colour” to enhance the narration of something specific to Sri Lanka. This type of improvisation can be made possible only with the mastery of the “standard” language and not by standardising our version of it. What is interesting about improvisation is that it takes you to a place where you’ve never been before. Standardising the improvisation undermines reaching that place as it becomes just part of the commonplace.

    On a more practical note, as it has been argued by others, being hindered by the use of idiosyncratic Sri Lankan English cannot be a good thing. It was only after I read Strunk and White’s “Element’s of Style” that I went from being a C+ student to an A student. All of a sudden my professors could understand what the hell I was writing about! My Sri Lankan English obviously confused the hell out of them prior to that.

    I must say that I do appreciate the work that you are doing with relation to documenting the idiosyncrasies of Sri Lankan English as it is a rich vein to be mined. Let’s however keep Sri Lankan idiosyncrasies just the way they are – idiosyncratic.

    Cheers mate