Positioning the idea of Sri Lankan English in the field of English language teaching in Sri Lanka

By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

English language teaching (ELT) has been a topic of national significance in the country for the past several decades, particularly since the introduction of the Open Economy in the late ’70s. Improving English education has been seen as an urgent and timely need that is directly linked to the economic development of the country, in the broader context of globalization. Despite the importance attributed to the topic, there is general consensus that English language education in Sri Lanka has largely been a failure. The absence of competent teachers with proper training in teaching English, as a second language, and lack of motivation and the right attitude on the part of the students, are often cited as reasons for the poor situation with regard to English language education in the country. Read against this general picture, Selvaraj Vishvika’s recent Kuppi column, “The dispossession of a voice through English in Sri Lanka” (February 6, 2024) has interesting insights to offer into some of the important dimensions of the matter at hand.

Vishvika’s central argument is that successful ELT is about enabling students to acquire a voice of their own, a voice that would empower them to express themselves effectively, and that certain established practices in the field, some of which are idealized as ‘best practices’ actually prevent that goal from being achieved. The point that Vishvika is making is extremely important.

When we speak of education, we tend to think of it as something that happens within a classroom context. We also tend to think that what it takes to make a given teaching/learning context a successful one is located primarily within the classroom. We do talk about external issues, such as the shortage of resources and trained teachers, as having an impact on what happens inside the classroom; nevertheless, the general assumption is that a qualified/trained teacher, a group of students with a high level of motivation, and maybe a good textbook is all that is necessary to make a learning experience successful. This general assumption has proven itself to be flawed with regard to English language teaching/learning in Sri Lanka.

The idea that English is one of the few subjects that could play a defining role in determining what sort of a future the student will have, is a given. There is no choice with regard to the subject, especially at school level. English continues to be a mandatory subject at the university, up to various points in the different degree programmes. In the case of those programmes where English stops being a mandatory subject, the students still feel the importance of the subject, as many of the programmes have English as the medium of instruction and they also realize that the knowledge in their disciplines exists mainly in English. They also understand that their options in the world of work will be limited without English.

To repeat what has already been established by many scholars, English is politically and ideologically charged because of the colonial, and also post-colonial, baggage that the language still carries with it. It is not an exaggeration to say that although three quarters of a century have elapsed since independence from British colonial rule, colonial realities are still in existence, in various forms. And all the tensions that post-colonialism brought into the scene have only complicated the picture further. The point is that it is in and through English that many such tensions and complications exist and find expression. For many, English embodies the tension between fear and promise. The widespread idea that you need to be of a particular class position or social standing in order to call English yours has been successful in alienating many people in society from English even before they could make an attempt to learn the language. The greater the distance that one has with the social class, which claims a proprietary right over English, the greater the fear and resistance that they will show towards the language. This attitude has resulted in generating the perception that we are being watched every time we speak in English, and that gates are waiting to be kept/closed every time we make a mistake in trying to speak the language. On the other hand, the majority are mindful of the fact that English is the language that brings them hope, the hope for a ‘better’ life and the promise of a ‘successful’ future.

Given the nature of the tension that English represents for the majority of learners, their utterance of a few words, even a single word, in English in itself should be seen as an achievement. It’s not just through the bronchial tubes, the trachea, the larynx, and finally the oral and nasal cavities that what constitutes that word needs to travel in order for it to be articulated as a word or statement; it also needs to travel through at least two centuries of oppression and layers and layers of cultural and social obstacles. I would go to the extent of arguing that it is probably a greater achievement than someone who entered this world clutching English in their hand, the same way the great Mahoshadha is said to have been born clutching an invaluable gem in his hand, being able to recite a Shakespearean sonnet in full Shakespearean flair.

If, as Vishvika argues, language should be seen primarily as a means of expression and if, again as she argues, the goal of language teaching is to enable the students to find a voice of their own, then every attempt should be made to encourage them to use the language as freely as possible. It does not take much to understand that the strict enforcement of rules and standards, especially ones that are alien to the local context in which the students grapple with the language, is counter-productive, as that could easily alienate the students from the language and chase them back into the shell that at least some of them are trying hard to come out. Then what is the way forward?

The way forward, in my view, is to take a relaxed approach to the teaching/learning of the English language. The necessary first step is to acknowledge that the form of the language that is closest and therefore is widely accessible not only to the students but also teachers is not some idealized/glorified form that is associated with contexts that are oceans away, but a form that is closer to the local context and that is capable of handling the realities that are characteristically local. You may ask what the shape of that form of English would be. Well, the current discourse on New Varieties of English in general and Sri Lankan English in particular provide a framework to conceptualize that form of English. It is just a matter of taking the time to familiarize oneself with that discourse.

Part of the beauty of what could be considered Sri Lankan English is that it eludes definition. No one has a clear idea as to what Sri Lankan English is and where its boundaries are. This lack of closure is productive in the sense that it permits a great deal of freedom for the users, including the students and the teachers, at both school and university levels, that is IF they manage to rid themselves of the established assumption that the sanctity of English is not to be violated. We generally find the lack of closure to be destabilizing for the reason that we have internalized the idea that knowledge should always be definable. Sri Lankan English is still in the making, and we need to have the courage to see it as that. It sure is chaos, but chaos always gives us an opportunity to gain an understanding of the workings of the system that is in place and also identify alternative possibilities both within and outside the system. It is important for the students to realize that they are actually makers of the language. It is equally important for the teachers to realize that what they are training the students in is a dynamic body of knowledge that is in a state of flux and that they have a more active and productive role to play than merely being the enforcers of a standard that does not have much to do with the context in which they operate. That would create a space in which the students would feel comfortable experimenting with the language, which will result in their finding a voice of their own.