Global English and SL Election
Posted on December 31st, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy The Island

In the modern society, education is meaningless without a good knowledge of at least one useful world language in addition to one’s mother tongue. For the majority of Sri Lankans, this means an indispensable knowledge of  Sinhala or Tamil plus English. (The government’s praiseworthy target of a trilingual Sri Lanka is in excess of this barest minimum need.) Among nations in the world we are in an advantageous position in this respect because, for historical reasons, English is easily available to us, and in the form of Globish, it happens to be ‘the worldwide dialect of the third millennium’. This is an inestimable asset in a world where there is probably no country that does not pay special attention to the teaching of English.

The supremacy of English in our context as a world language is undisputed. Whatever is said and done, the commercial, political, military, cultural and other interactions of the English speaking peoples with other nations over the past few centuries have been such that English has emerged as the single most powerful common language of the world. It was the language of imperialism once, and is today the dominant language of global capitalism; it reigns supreme in every significant domain of human activity: science and technology, trade, communications, culture, politics, diplomacy, sports, and every other conceivable sphere.

Not long ago, linguists feared that English, being adopted by so many diverse nations of the world, would disintegrate into a multiplicity of mutually unintelligible dialects. But these fears are no more. Apparently, the era of ‘New Englishes’ is on its way out. The nations of the world have been brought closer together than ever before by constantly advancing communications technologies. In the highly globalized world of today where ‘There is no such thing as Abroad’, chances are few for the geographical isolation and other forms of barriers necessary for the evolution of New Englishes to develop as separate languages. The two universally dominant native dialects of English, British and American, have jointly morphed into ‘Globish’, which transcends national boundaries, and like any other dialect will go on evolving. Globish enables our students to interact with the outside world in many creative ways. It is the most widely used medium of the internet.  An overwhelming advantage that IT (information technology) confers on learners of  English in this context is that it puts it literally at their finger tips; easily exploitable resources abound in the internet for multimodal English instruction and practice (for free) for those interested. It is this invaluable linguistic resource that is within easy reach of all Sri Lankans.

An adequate knowledge of English is an essential component of the meaningful education that Sri Lankans of all economic, social and ethnic backgrounds desire. Development-oriented education must feature among the really substantive issues that should be raised by a serious opposition during the ongoing campaigning before the presidential election on January 8, 2015. Which  candidate offers the best prospects for the fulfillment of that desire is likely to be one of the questions that the informed voters would ask themselves in this election.

The mature Sri Lankan electorate can be expected to treat each major political party’s policy regarding the use of English as a significant factor to take notice of. This is irrespective of whether the matter is explicitly mentioned in the election manifestoes or is reflected in the conduct and utterances of the members of the various political parties or groupings. Fortunately, there is reason to believe (on the basis of campaign speeches heard during previous elections in the not too distant past) that generally representatives of all political factions agree about the crucial importance of English not only for education but for all other fields where linguistic communication matters including particularly interactions with foreign countries and international organizations.

The usefulness of English is a reality that even the nationalist pioneers of educational and language policy reforms unanimously recognized. Sri Lanka’s language planning endeavours started in the 1944-45 period  with the Kannangara reforms in the education field, that is, a few years before British rule ended in 1948. The vast majority of the population were discriminated against on the basis of language and religion during colonial times. Sinhala speaking Buddhists and Tamil speaking Hindus and Muslims were oppressed while the Westernized, English speaking Christian minority were accorded a privileged status. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority were the worst persecuted community during that time. The 1956 nationalist attempt to democratically put an end to centuries of language and religion-based discrimination against the Sinhalese Buddhist majority faced opposition from the ethnically mixed Westernized minority which had been privileged under colonial rule. Of course, most nationalist agitators for reform also came from the same class, as they had to. Critics of the changes introduced after the 1956 ‘revolution’ talk as if it was the beginning of ‘language politics’ in Sri Lanka, which it was not. If there were any anomalies in the new official language policies, they were rectified in subsequent legislation.

The post-1956 language policies have benefited the poor of all ethnic groups by making the achievement of equality of opportunity in employment as well as education more of a possibility. Of course, the dethronement of English in the government service may have negatively affected ethnic minorities which had earlier enjoyed certain advantages over the majority through English. But the pro-poor policies in education enabled more students from the poor classes irrespective of ethnicity to enter the university.

Before these changes, English was both imperial and imperious. Today, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, it is neither imperial nor imperious, but merely utilitarian. In Robert McCrum’s words (Globish, 2011) ….the world’s English becomes the linguistic default position for the society that the journalist Thomas Friedman has described as ‘flat’.”, where ‘flat’ implicitly means ‘leveled through the use of the common medium of global English’ (my elucidation). It provides, in the global theatre, a level playing field in business as well as education.

The nationalists (to whom the main constituent party of the ruling alliance harks back) envisioned a flatter (in the above sense) and more just society through the restoration of the national languages to their due position of prominence. For the selfsame purpose they wanted English to be available as a second language to all the children of the country irrespective of their social and economic background (which was unheard of before), and took active steps towards that goal. But these pioneers (including Kannangara) have been always wrongly blamed for having allegedly deprived generations of Lankan school children of a good knowledge of English. That their successors failed to bring the original visionary plans to fruition was due to a number of factors, the major one of these being the absence of inspiring leadership that would have kept the long term visionary aims of the originators alive; another was that that politicians sacrificed national interest, as they often do, for political advantage.

 The two decades from 1960 to 1980 saw the masses of swabhasha medium students possessed by a false sense of security (based on the erroneous notion that education through the mother tongue was adequate) that prevented them from making a serious attempt to learn English. Despite the well meant efforts of different governments to bolster up the state English language teaching programme, a rot set in from which there seemed to be no escape. While many failed to learn any English even though there was, as there always has been, an environment in the country conducive for learning English, the self-motivated few learned their English and improved their academic and employment prospects. With the introduction of liberalized economic policies and the emergence of opportunities for private education at home and abroad in the next decades, those sections of the population who could afford it got a chance to learn English outside the state school system. But the problem of little or no proficiency in English particularly among suburban and rural children remained. Critics of the promotion of national languages as mediums of education in place of English which had benefited only a small privileged minority felt vindicated. Certain politicians from the same class, who paid little attention to the noble aims of the initiators of swabhasha education or implicitly dismissed them with some contempt, adopted patchwork policies to remedy the situation. Though these were unavoidable in the circumstances, more forethought should have been exercised to prevent the recall of English from disadvantaging the poor while serving only the interests of the rich. The nationalist reformers always meant to bring justice for all, while restoring the rights of the long oppressed masses.

 The Ten Year National Master Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka (2011-2020) launched as a presidential initiative is the largest, most ambitious, implementation-oriented language management exercise the country has ever had. While being in compliance with the vision of the early reformers it tries to address the language problem in a broader social and political context and from a more comprehensive perspective than before. A government can only formulate plans based on its policies and provide the finance necessary for their implementation. The successful implementation depends on the faithful fulfillment of their fiduciary obligations by the bureaucrats. There is no reason to believe that this is not happening.

I count this among the many development projects of the Mahinda Rajapakse government launched in the wake of the successful conclusion of the war. For these the government must be praised. The face of the country is changing for the better. Of course, there many shortfalls to be attended to. But there is no one else at the present time who can fix them other than Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. The disorganized opposition’s exclusive focus on less urgent issues like nepotism, corruption, bad governance etc proves that it has no credible allegations against the government. The institution of the executive presidency facilitated the solution of the problem of separatist terrorism. The evil potential of that office has not been exhibited under the present incumbent. All indications are that the government is delivering on its promises in less than ideal circumstances. If it is only the West and their local stooges who have decided that there is a need for a regime change here at this juncture, it must be for their own benefit. The Sri Lankan public will be benefited only if they are allowed to elect or reject in freedom, by exercising their democratic right of the vote, the popular Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa who is heading a performing government.

The third stage of the Mahinda Chintana manifesto Lowa dinana maga”  (On the road to global success) was launched at the BMICH on 23rd December. Like other countries in the world, rich or poor, Sri Lanka needs its youth to be proficient in the ‘worldwide dialect of the third millennium’ for achieving successful economic growth and for improving its international standing. It is this need that the ten year trilingual initiative mentioned above is designed to fulfill. The programme is soon entering its fifth year. It will be in the interest of the nation if it is allowed to run its course uninterrupted.   

One Response to “Global English and SL Election”

  1. Christie Says:

    1956 Language policy was another Indian policy that wiped out the any progress available to the poor Sinhalese. Indians who set the agenda for SWRD saw that keeping the poor backward villagers was the best way to keep the Sinhalese under control and to let them kill each other. Before 1956 you could deal with the administration with Sinhalese. Banda who made his maiden political speech in English had to be translated by Hameed to Sinhala. He said ‘Moota muge ammage basawa baha ithin mama sinhalata haronowa” Banda was a man who studied and spoke English until he went to politics. He did not want others to have what he had, a very bad by any language. His kids also leaned in English and did their higher education in English or French not in Tamil though Anura Bandaranayake went to Madras to do his Advanced level so he can enter Oxford. The only thing I don’t like is his 3 language policy. I wander his kids and others can speak Tamil. The single reason the Sinhala politicians do not want Sinhalese to learn English is to keep them under their control.

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