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Lankans have their own way of expressing themselves in English, and that this doesn’t necessarily have to conform to outdated grammatical standards.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.