Disturbing trends in Educational Practice in Sri Lanka
Posted on January 2nd, 2013

R Chandrasoma

If we review the modern (Post-Colonial) evolution of modes of education in Sri Lanka, we must surely be  impressed by the revolutionary character of the transformations seen within the compass of a few decades. In colonial times, anything beyond the mastery of the “ƒ”¹…”Three R s’ in the vernacular was only for the pampered and anglicized elite. The masses were largely untutored. This shameful imbalance changed with the departure of the Colonial Overlord and the right to collegial instruction was recognized as fundamental in a liberated dispensation that claimed to be free and fair. It was natural to suppose that this precious gift of public education must be delivered in the traditional language of its citizens and that English “”…” the lamguage of the oppressor “”…” must be replaced by the vernacular of the natives. Viewed abstractly in terms of the rights and claims of a free people, this “ƒ”¹…”indigenization’ of education is a great and laudable chapter in our struggle to be truly on our own “”…” that is, unfettered by ideological compulsions that attend conquest and subservience.

Sadly there is a downside. A language is not simply a tool for easy and efficient communication. It is the means of entering a community of thinkers that share a heritage of of science, culture and values that is richly distinctive of  the participant community. That there are great and abiding differences between such  linguistic communities needs no special pleading or argument. In switching from Englisn to Sinhala (or Tamil) there occurred a cultural frame-shift that transcended mere differences in the sounds and shapes of words. The sad truth is that the Sinhala-educated scholar lacks that great intellectual support that learning and nurturing in a world-language such as English would provide. This is a statement of fact that must be accepted – however galling it is to nationalists piqued by the suggestion of inferiority in so fundamental a matter as the medium of socio-cultural intercourse.

Let us look synoptically at what has happened after five decades or so of linguistic and cultural independence. Today we see a nation ( we speak of its leaders and trend-setters) with no educational polish or philosophical sophistication. They are isolated in the world not through political differences but because of their linguistic isolation and the need to have translaters and intermediaries to communicate with the great and powerful in the world. More importantly they are cut off from the intellectual (and global) elite because they cannot read books written in a world language. These seemingly disparaging remarks are not ment to belittle but to point to a damaging development in the socio-cultural evolution of our Island. This was not always so “”…” the early political leaders of Sri Lanka were masterfully bilingual “”…” a condition that is very rare today not only among contemporary politicians but among our leading academics and scholars as well. The halting English the latter speak is a pain to hear when the wonderful fluency of an earlier age is recalled.

Let us give a more concrete instance of this retrogression. A few deades ago, Buddhist scholars were au fait with philosophical movements in the West and felt a compulsion to relate the professed religious truth with the philosophical upheavals in the West. For example, the Buddhist scholar K N Jayatillaka was inspired by Wittgenstein and attempted to rephrase early Buddhist formalisms in terms of the symbolic logic and analytical philosophy in vogue in the West in his time. Today we see a community of linguistically isolated monks and scholars whose poor knowledge of English debars any meaningful encounter with the refined intellectualism of the West. In their writings they seem to travel backward in time and pretend that the best minds of the West are either misbegotten or irrelevant to their discourse. They parrot what is traditionally given as the inviolable truth. Indeed, there is a species of anti-intellectualism in the Folk -Buddhism of Sri Lanka that is directly attributable to the contumacy of the Monks who pose as its standard-bearers.

The situation we have outlined above is socially unstable and we see the beginings of a movement that will profoundly disrupt the social order currently observed. The rich and the powerful “”…”sensing the decadence of the indigenous culture – will educate their children in private schools that are Western in their cultural orientation and cherish English as the medium of instruction. Meanwhile, the the ordinary people will have their children in run-down “ƒ”¹…”national schools’ staffed by teachers who can, at most, speak a form of “ƒ”¹…”Pigin English’. The exercise of this option by the rich is not simply a matter of choosing a better language “”…” it is a choice between what is best described as “ƒ”¹…”world-systems’ “”…” the open and expanding versus the stagnant and static. There is a more troublesome development that cannot be easy to thwart given its alarmingly political character. The minorities “”…” the Muslims, for example “”…” will exploit the laxity in regard to the choice of language to consistently prefer English over the the indigenous options. This will lead to a situation where educated minorities (those traind in English) will be the achievers while the Sinhala mother-stock will be increasingly declasse vis-vis the others. For those with eyes to see, this conflict is vividly portrayed in the contest currently witnessd between the popularly elected government “”…” a government with a massive majority in Parliament “”…” and an English-speaking Coalition of the Elite backed by Western Governments. This conflict will worsen in the yeats to come as the language-divide between the poor and the rich widens. There is no easy solution to this structural failure in social engineering but a first step is to aknowledge its gravity “”…” and the urgency of reparative steps.

2 Responses to “Disturbing trends in Educational Practice in Sri Lanka”

  1. Nimal Says:

    Wonderful article.Thank you Mr Chandrasoma.
    I think teaching English to rural and young from the less privileged people will make them more aware of the world outside,especially in their knowledge to science,arts and other aspects of good governance and orderly life styles that are still prevailing in some countries in the West.
    Privilege rich seems to educate their siblings with a better command of English.Students who come to UK to study with a poor command of English are greatly disadvantaged,with respect to securing a better job.
    China,Russia and Japan seems to see it’s value as they are investing millions on students coming to UK to study English.Command of English is vital to get along in the outside world.One too must retain the command of mother’s tongue as well.

  2. Voice123 Says:

    The author makes some good points. How foolish to get so emotional about a language that is in no way threatened? (let alone force it down people’s throats). Language is a means of communication. Why cut your nose to spite your face? The elites continue to do very well. The divide between the haves and have nots is worse than ever. Language is full of idiom and facilitates transfer of ideas and world view. There was nothing wrong with the bilingualism or trilingualism of old Ceylon. They were just as patriotic, in a non-chauvanistic wholly national sense – much more so than this vindictive “Sinhala only” mentality crowd that thrives on petty jealousy, electoral majoritarionism, ethnic exclusion, unethical politics, laziness and the odd bout of violence – and they are afraid/shy of having even the most basic conversation in any international language. They wont even learn their distant “mother tongue”, Hindi! The old bilingual/trilingual crowd could hold their own with anybody anywhere, were not embarassing and, generally, gave Sri Lanka a good reputation. Sinhal is an Indian-origin language, just like Tamil. Sinhal, Tamil and English are all foreign sourced languages used in Ceylon. One should not be favoured over the other. The Sinhal-indian “nationalism” (ethnic chauvinism) must be reigned in for the good of Ceylon/Sri Lanka. This (together with LTTE terrorism) is one of the main causes of the cethnic onflict in Sri Lanka. The obvious is not so obvious for those with this lopsided lingua-fascist attitude. Listen – I can already hear the howls of protest about the use of the “colonials” name. LOL! Was Vijaya not a colonialist too? 500 years, 2500 years are nothing in the history of a nation. Sri Lanka is also a foreign derived name (from Shree and Lamka). So until we find the true native name for Ceylon, I, as a free person will call it Ceilon/Ilankai/Lanka, whatever name I want to and theres not a thing Sinhal-Indian lingua-fascists can do about it!

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