Good English skills over a University education?

Image courtesy Seven myths about English Education in Sri Lanka, by Ajith P. Perera

It was not so long ago that the post-nominals B.A. (Calcutta) Failed was a sure route to employment in the administrative cadre of the  Government of India, in addition to being a matter of distinction in their own right. Even a decade ago, the university degree was perceived to be the key to the almighty white-collar job, and the stability, prestige and standard of living that were associated with it. Today that is no longer the case; with the decline of our university system and ever faster globalisation, command of the English language  is now the passport to success.

It is not without good reason that the market chooses to prize sound linguistic skills in English over a university education. Employers find that candidates with a thorough knowledge of English are able to communicate more effectively; both with one another in multi-ethnic workplaces and with foreign parties, an increasing common occurrence. Tourism, logistics and outsourcing (all outward looking industries) are todays engines of growth; therefore, it comes as no surprise that most employers value ability to communicate in the international lingua franca over a piece of paper that proves nothing more than determination and a capacity to memorise large amounts of information. Secondly, English appears to change individuals attitudes making them more receptive to new ideas, realise the backwardness of many of their ways and understand the competitive threat of globalisation.

However, the potential of English education is even greater. Just like university education, possession of the English language leads to profound economic, social and political changes. The effects of English language acquisition influence both the microeconomic and macroeconomic spheres. In the case of the former, quite simply, it leads to greater income – acquisition of the English language immediately increases the likelihood of employment and the average wage demanded. For the millions of our fellow countrymen who desperately seek to escape the vicious cycle of hopelessness, debt and poverty English language acquisition is what a university education once was, a means of escaping the terrible hand that Fate dealt them. Secondly, as is easy to surmise, the effects of English language acquisition are not limited solely to those who have attained proficiency. Those closely connected to English speaking individuals are likely to be beneficiaries as well. Higher household income should not only increase the standard of living of whole families, but will also allow spending on non-subsistence goods, such as education, that will lead to greater opportunities in the long run. From a macroeconomic point of view, English language acquisition presents an increase in the productive potential of the economy, leading to higher GDP, an indicator of prosperity. The vibrancy of the export sectors mentioned above means that the productivity increase caused by English language acquisition is particularly acute. This is complemented by the fact that occupational and geographic mobility of labour are both promoted by learning English. For example, an English speaking physics teacher can work in either Jaffna or Galle; furthermore,  he or she will also find it easier to enter other professions, such as finance. This pattern of export led growth has been a great success across the world, with millions of people emerging from poverty as a result of call centres, hotels and increased trade.

The development of vernacular education in the aftermath  of the “Sinhala Only” Act of 1956 led to the slow demise of social and economic mobility which had improved dramatically with the Cannangara Reforms. The introduction of English education to rural Ceylon combined with free education from kindergarten to University meant that peasants who had toiled for generations without hope now had an opportunity to rise out of their misery. However, the reforms of 1956 meant that the Kannangara Reforms were not as successful as they could have been. Command of the English language became the preserve of elite schools, dwindling to a few in Colombo towards the end of the last Century – thus it was only a small community of English speakers who were able to make the most of the opening of the economy in 1978 and the subsequent integration of Sri Lanka into the global market. Today, the position of the vernacular speaking graduate is one that inspires the highest pity; after having worked against the odds to enter university, she finds herself without employment. In contrast, the cheeky lad from a good middle class family in Colombo swans into a job with ease.

The monopoly of the vernacular on the average citizen has led to ignorance, division and  fear. In a multi-lingual society English has been, and will continue to be, a key means of communication. The effects of lingusitic polarisation are apparent, much ink has been spilt on this point so I shall not emphasize it further. What is less commonly addressed is the darkness which reigns over those who do not have access to English: most books, newspapers, television, radio and conversations are only available in English. Thus, the vernacular speaker’s perspectives, information and exposure are especially poor. There are fewer challenges to his or her assumptions, beliefs and practices; resulting in the guardians being left unguarded and the havoc that ensues.

Therefore, it is my contention that the reforms of 1956 bear great responsibility for the apathy and obeisance to authority that are endemic to our political culture.