Why English?
Posted on April 26th, 2016

Dr. C.S.Weeraratna

During the last few decades a lot of emphasis has been placed on teaching/ learning English. A large number of students, especially from rural areas travel long distances spending a lot of money and time to attend private English classes to become proficient in English so that they could secure employment. Dept. of Education spends a substantial amount of human and financial resources to teach English. However, even after spending a lot of time and money most students do not become fluent in English as a few hours of English per week   is not going to make anyone fluent in the language.

Competency in a language, specially speaking  is not acquired from a good knowledge of a language studied from books. There must be sufficient exposure to the language to enable one to speak it; In the case of a living language,  one could, without studying it, acquire the ability to speak it fluently, if one is exposed to it. Thousands of Sinahala people in many parts of the country are fluent in Tamil and vice versa although most of them do not know even the alphabet. Similarly, Sri Lankans going to a foreign country become fluent in the respective language because they get exposed to it

Almost 100% of the people living in Sri Lanka can converse either in Sinhala or in Tamil or both. There are some holding high posts in the government sector who  are not very fluent in English but are very good at their work and have been able to maintain their professional standards.  A large number of non-english (NE) speaking countries have developed more than the english-speaking countries during the last two decades, although a large percentage of the people from these NE countries are not fluent in English. Our forefathers who constructed massive irrigation systems, which have marveled the western scientists, did not know a word of English.

For most of the activities/transactions with in the country,  a good knowledge in Sinhala/Tamil is more useful than English. Currently,  Korean has become important to secure jobs in South Korea. Perhaps,  in the near future, some other foreign language/s may become essential to secure jobs in other foreign countries. Our President delivered his speech in Sinhala at the recently concluded UN sessions. Thus, English is not all that essential although some cry head over heels for the low-standard of English among the school children.

In many  schools, specially in the rural areas, there are no teachers proficient in English to teach English. Even if there are such teachers, teaching English only a few hours a week will not make a student fluent in the language unless he/she uses it frequently. Hence, only a very insignificant percentage of students, particularly from rural areas  are fluent in English at the time of leaving school. According to my experience in universities, even most of the undergraduates are in this category. Fluency  in any language can be achieved only by complete immersion” in the language. A few hours of English lessons per week is not going to make students fluent in the language.

Of course English is essential for those who have to make numerous transactions in English. To access the internet, one needs to be able to understand English for which one should have a good vocabulary. Hence, those  who need to have a good knowledge of English to do their work well, it is necessary for them to be proficient in English. Any one could master  English, if one gets exposed well to this language for a few months. Students who go to  non- English speaking countries such as China, Japan  France , Germany become very fluent in the language of those countries within a few months. But, what is happening in Sri Lanka is that there is a great big hurry to make all our students, from the primary classes,  fluent in English. In some schools, all subjects including Buddhism are taught in English although the mother tongue of the students is Sinhala or Tamil. As a result students do not learn the actual subject matter properly,  but only learn some English.

English for undergraduates

It is very important that atleast those who are selected to follow an undergraduate course have a good command of English.  It will help them to follow lectures in some faculties where English is the medium of instruction. It will also help them to read and understand the text books in their fields of training. A few years ago a General English Language Training (GELT) programme of a few months duration was conducted for the first year students. The deficiency of English among the first year undergraduates was corrected to a great extent by this programme. As far as I am aware this programme is not conducted as at present. A more effective GELT programme of longer duration, and getting the undergraduates to read, write and speak in English over the  three-five year undergraduate period would improve their proficiency in this language to a great extent.

English for Employment

Many organizations, especially those in the private sector, seek fluency in English for recruitment.  Interviews are conducted in English, and only those who are fluent in the language get selected. Hence, those who come from rural areas, where English is hardly used, tend to get rejected even if they are very capable and have very sound educational and other qualifications. The present system of recruiting only those fluent in English is extremely unfair, as such a system excludes youths from rural areas who are not proficient in English but extremely intelligent and capable.

If the Dept. of Education wants to improve the standard of English, a realistic programme need to be implemented.  It would be effective if the Dept .conducts intensive English classes of 3-4 months duration or more , by teachers who are  proficient in English, for those including adults who need to have a good knowledge of English. These classes can be conducted in all DS Divisions (perhaps 1-2 schools in each DS Division)  in the afternoons/evenings/week-ends. For this purpose the vacant class rooms of schools can be used. These classes may be fee-levying. Hence it will not be a financial burden to the Dept. of Education,  and students are benefited as they do not have to travel to nearby towns where private English classes are held.

The need for proficiency in English is unquestionable. But, what we need to decide are the various aspects of learning/teaching English such as its objectives, how much of English, at what stage and how.  The policy on English education needs to be practicable, and should ensure social justice..  English should be used only as a tool and not as a  weapon.

 

Dr. C.S.Weeraratna

[email protected]

 

 

9 Responses to “Why English?”

  1. Nimal Says:

    English language is so important thousands of students are sent to UK to study the language they can’t be all wrong.

  2. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    NIMAL !! SIR IVOR JENNINGS SAID THAT THE ENGLISH OF THE CEYLONESE IS BETTER THAN THE BRITISH ENGLISH. STUDENTS GO TO UK WITH A VIEW TO ENHANCING THEIR ECONOMC STATUS, WHILE IT IS MANDATORY TO STUDY IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.

    I was in Kandy too, from 1959, to about 1987. All Dealers in Kandy Town know me.

  3. Dham Says:

    Very high degree of proficiency in English is required for those who engage important government transactions with international stakeholders. This is one of our greatest weaknesses.
    Nevertheless, currently we can see diminution of proper Sinhala language usage too is threatening our existence. Comes with it, is our cultural heritage (diminishing too.)
    Teaching Tamil to Sinhala students added further burden to students with no benefit to them but that is now helping to degrade our Sinhalness.
    Is this “teaching Tamil” action too involved fake promises to Inida to keep pushing the war ?

  4. stanleyw Says:

    Any one who is involved in govt transactions with international stakeholders can always learn the relevant language. It need not be English It may be Hindi, German, Chinese, French etc.

  5. Nimal Says:

    I must agree with some of you that the English Language is spoken and written better in the island and most of the former British colonies. When I applied for my son’s wife’s visa to enter UK,mentioned with respect to English language test for mentioned that my spoken and written language of English was utterly ruined after living so long in UK Officials at the Home office must have had a laugh after reading my note. My Secretary underlined their own grammatical mistakes.
    During my early days in UK with better knowledge of English,aquired from birth form my like in Ceylon.
    In fact I sent a note to the people at the top of the government here, saying that President Nixon was about to eat someone in the Buckingham palace as he mentioned that her Majesty had invited him FOR lunch, truly cannibalistic and gruesome. I was thanked for the timely warning and the day was saved without an incident. They did appreciate once again the citizens of the former colonies coming to their rescue. If the president had said that he is going TO have lunch then that could have taken as a decent act, but not going FOR lunch which is gashley.

  6. Nimal Says:

    Sorry for the errors submitted prematurely as usual.

  7. sarathk Says:

    “Many organizations, especially those in the private sector, seek fluency in English for recruitment. Interviews are conducted in English, and only those who are fluent in the language get selected. Hence, those who come from rural areas, where English is hardly used, tend to get rejected even if they are very capable and have very sound educational and other qualifications. The present system of recruiting only those fluent in English is extremely unfair, as such a system excludes youths from rural areas who are not proficient in English but extremely intelligent and capable.”
    This is a very true and it was a major fact to start up the JVP revolution.

  8. Christie Says:

    කඩුව තියෙන එකා අනිත් උන් කඩුගන්නවාට කැමති නැත.

    සින්හල බැරි බන්ඩා 56දී ඉන්දියානු ජඩයන්ගෙන් කා අපිට සින්හල කැව්වේය.

    උගේ පැට උන්ට ඉන්ග්‍රිසි කැව්වේය.

    ඉන්ග්‍රිසි බැරි සින්හලයා වලට දමා ඉන්ග්‍රිසි දන්නා ඉන්දියානු පරපෝසිතයෝ රට පාලනය කරති.

  9. Christie Says:

    The number one privilege the Indian colonial parasites had was access to the English Language.
    This was due to the fact the Indian colonial parasites were partners of the British-Indian Empire.
    Most of the local subjects of the British- Indian Empire were not exposed to English and they are the poor.

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