Advocacy, Colombo, Education

English language is the need of the hour

At a recent discussion on; “Free schooling in Sri Lanka- A successful model then but a myth now?”, the subject of English language education in Sri Lanka came up for discussion once again. Most, if not all, of the participants and panelists agreed that there is a pressing need for English language standards to improve especially in the state schools and a lack of quality English language teachers was the main reason for the poor standard of English in the country at present.

People are well aware that English language education started to decline in this country with the introduction of the “Sinhala only” bill in 1956. So for the past 53 years English has not been an official language of this country. However, it was made a “link language” under the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1987; 31 long years after the “Sinhala only” bill. The 13th amendment to the Constitution came about as a result of the Indo-Lanka accord and India’s efforts to devolve power to the Tamil minority in a bid to solve the Tamil national question. Am I correct in saying that if it had not been for Indian intervention and the 13th amendment, English as a language would never have made it into our Constitution?

We now have a situation where due to globalization and free market economics the use of English language has become indispensable as a means of communication. This applies not only to Sri Lanka but to all other countries in the world. The growing demand for international schools in this country where the medium of instruction is English and not the mother tongue is a direct result of globalization, urbanization and the emergence of a fairly large middle class who live by global values.

However, I am concerned that most students in state schools and undergraduates alike are disinclined to learn English. This is true of the arts stream in our universities. The argument which is still very much alive and kicking that English is the language of the colonizer and hence we do not need to learn it is both idiosyncratic and an outdated populist discourse which reeks of nationalism. What the undergraduates need to realize is that it is only through a good knowledge of the English language that they can hope to get employed in the private sector. Is not the private sector the engine of growth and the biggest employer in the country? Public servants need a good command of English language too. There are members of the public who wish to be served in English. Thirty years ago public servants knew their English. My father was a public servant for most of his life and he certainly knew his English. What has happened now? The argument put forward by some that it is the private sector that needs English and not the public service is in my opinion absolutely hypocritical. For example, I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2001-2005 and was surprised to find some Foreign Service officers whose knowledge of English was very poor or in some cases nonexistent. Most of them had been educated in state schools and had been selected to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) after having sat the entrance examination in Sinhala or in Tamil. Nowadays only a few graduates sit the Foreign Service entrance examination in English and, of them only a handful are selected to the service depending on the grades they obtain. The point I am trying to make is can these young Foreign Service officers; that are proficient only in either Sinhala or Tamil language represent this country effectively when they are posted abroad? I think not. Would it not have been better if they were proficient in English as well? Is English not an international language? I have met quite a few young Indian Foreign Service (IFS) graduates who visited Sri Lanka during my time in the Ministry and they certainly knew their English. We have much to learn from India. India never gave up English after independence but encouraged its people to learn the language and today an estimated 350 million Indians can not only understand but speak and write the language as well. Not surprisingly, India has a thriving English book publishing industry which is the third largest after the USA and Britain. The opposite is true of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has to import English books as there is no English book publishing industry within the country. There is no English book publishing industry in the country because the vast majority of people cannot read English. Ask any leading bookshop in Colombo and they will tell you that the only market they have for English books is within Colombo and Kandy City limits.

I hope the present generation of teachers in our schools and the younger more enlightened university lecturers will be able to convince the undergraduates especially in the arts stream that a good knowledge of English language is absolutely essential. From the point of view of the undergraduates, a positive change in attitude towards the English language is also required. So the question I pose to the Ministry of Education, the National Institute of Education, school teachers, university lecturers and whoever else is responsible for education in this country is: Are you really serious about arresting the deteriorating standard of English language in our schools and universities by recruiting suitable people as teachers and giving them quality training? We need quantity and quality in terms of English teachers. Send the teachers to India for training if that is the most practical thing to do. If I was a parent I would be concerned about my son or daughters education in a state school or even a local private school as English language teaching standards are at their lowest right now.

What I do see now is a small group of people in Colombo less than one percent of the population who can read, speak and write English fluently while the vast majority of the people of this country are unable to do so because they were never taught to read, speak or write English in school. It is the responsibility of the state to see that students are taught good English in schools as in most cases students have no access to English at home. A tiny minority of students having access to good English is in my opinion discriminatory and a sad reflection of the state that we live in. The state has to take its responsibility seriously and see that students get a quality education in English.