The dispossession of a voice through English in Sri Lanka

by Selvaraj Vishvika

Mahendran Thiruvarangan in his Kuppi article, “Dissent as education: Teaching in a time of repression” (15.01.2024), referred to the importance of universities being spaces for the development of critical conscience. He noted, with a tone of despair, that institutes of higher education had changed from spaces where students think and critically engage with the world to simple check boxes filled out of necessity. Adding to this decline are also our attempts at monitoring and unconsciously correcting the students’ language rather than simply listening to what they have to say. As an instructor in English, I consider the standards of language we force ourselves to adhere to when attempting to understand the student’s voice. Here, by standards of language, I refer to the persistent narratives on the kind of English that we think best captures a student’s expression as opposed to a global measure of English competency through a rigidly uniform set of guidelines. Unable to find a compromise between these, we redirect our students back to a structure that we deem “acceptable” and the standard, slowly but surely losing our students, rendering them powerless.

What is language if not simply a means of self-expression? Gatekeeping the usage of a language, especially its structure, hoping that some abstract level of perfection remains, we do not see space for the contents spoken to flourish. Paulo Freire has stated, “If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.” In Sri Lanka, language experts have told us of such a change in the means of expression in English for some time. With the colonial grip rooting English as a language of privilege to Sri Lanka and the unequal allocation of resources in our free education system, access to this language is elusive to the majority of Sri Lankans. We may have some exposure to English on paper from a young age, however, without a sound basis, most Sri Lankans are incapable of using what they have learned. In their attempts to bridge this gap, ‘experts’ have struggled to come up with an English that is uniquely ours, capturing the nuances of our country and people, called Sri Lankan English (SLE). However, not all Sri Lankans seem aware of these efforts, much less the existence or possibility of capturing their potential through an English that is completely their own.

Last semester, I was conducting a class on summarizing a text for my third-year students. After going through the preliminary details on the structure of a summary, we moved on to the text in question on Sri Lankan English by Manique Gunasekara. Upon briefly engaging with the contents, it became clear that this was the very first encounter my students had had with the term “SLE.” They might have read through the contents but they understandably could not place the evolution to a SLE. My students may not have been involved in the many debates done to recognize the existence of SLE, but unconsciously fashioning English for their ease of communication for some time now they have given life to the working of SLE. However, the problem arises when policymakers and teachers, unable to properly define SLE, decide to pick and choose what may and may not sound Sri Lankan. Like patchwork incorporating, a “no” or an “aney,” etc., to our expression, they decide how English is Lankanized. Striking is the fact that despite all of us being Sri Lankan, in nationality, we hardly know what we could claim as ours, much less reap the benefits from these commodities we have qualified as Sri Lankan. Everything we ALL speak, in all our confused glory, is SLE, no?

Attempting to address the systemic failure of providing students with a proper English education in their years of schooling in Sri Lanka, state universities offer compulsory English courses to all their undergraduates. With classes ranging from Pre-basic to Advanced, based on their English competency, measured through the marks received at the entrance exam of each intake, this course presents an opportunity for students to improve their English. Encouraging the students to see language as a means of expression, we try to make them use English as theirs. While it is not impossible, relearning years’ worth of a language, amidst other courses, is a constant challenge for first-language speakers of Sinhala or Tamil. Adding to this, the unfamiliar environment and structure of education within the university, this experience becomes nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. With lectures scheduled for four or six hours a week, that, too, during the worst hours of the day, nothing short of acrobatics would help the student pay attention to this language that they can never say they have mastered successfully. Moreover, in a class of 30-odd students, giving individual attention, while possible, is not always a given, especially when the attention requires teaching the English alphabet or the parts of speech again. The effort on the part of all those involved to complete a common syllabus with such a division of classes, and see an improvement in English use during a limited period needs to be applauded.

With all that’s said about bridging the gap and making English our own, when push comes to shove, especially during examinations, we, as instructors, are forced back to “our standardized roots” oceans away. Our discussion on standardization stagnating the growth of the language becomes irrelevant when we blind ourselves to our students’ struggles and their choices in wording their version of English. For instance, a student’s capacity to artfully converse in English does not sufficiently capture the proper seen in a native English speaker. Furthermore, in the case of the written word we fall back on a set of standard English guidelines, exclusively available to a minority which even the examiners of the contents of English in Sri Lanka are not privy to. Be it an exam, or a simple activity in class, the student is subjected to multiple sentence-level corrections making the work no longer their own. We bring to the table “grammar”, “spelling”, and “awkward” to police the students’ language and measure their competence under a tensed and measured timeframe. I recall a conversation where my friend mentioned technical manuals which, despite being written in perfect grammar, hardly making any sense. Halfway into reading them, we blank out hoping someone would explain what we need to do in relatable terms. On the other hand, take a hypothetical sentence that a student might say, “Bird is eat a fruits.” The sentence may not adhere to the required structure but the experience of understanding the meaning seen through the student in this context, is real and clearer.

To a student who remembers the usage of certain words, the use of articles or subject-verb agreement seems secondary to their ability to express themselves in English. We mark our students for their content yet their language when put up to proper English standards always seems to fall short. Sadly, even their creativity fails to come across as meaningful and expressive by these exacting structures. We seem to judge our students and expect them to deliver a piece of work that we only after years of experience have achieved. Stuck between many errors and a few, ordered by an objective marking scheme, we see no room to give a grade beyond this rigid classification as the student’s language does not include the appropriate literary devices. We say we understand the student’s struggles, but with a pre-structured abstract standard of what makes language rich in its quality, we cannot afford to give them full marks without offending the grammatical gods. The momentary power the students might have felt and their self-expression which they strongly ink onto a sheet of paper gets lost.

Our need to fulfil an unachievable standard of perfection blinds us to the growing experiences of the students with English. Walling them within an abstract standard neither here nor there we continue to alienate our students from ever making English a means of expressing themselves. We may localize the content, and encourage them to use Sri Lankan words to make their thoughts more authentic but are we ready to accept what it means to speak SLE? To hear the students, we should not let the language-rule use us. Instead, using language as a means of expressing ourselves, we should begin to see beyond the structure to what is being said as we, the users of English, always find a way to voice ourselves to our listeners. At the end of the day, whom are we preparing in these institutes of higher education? Is it an individual with some knowledge of an abstract concept of language incapable of translating it into life?