The Question of English

By Nicola Perera

The Arts Faculty admits and graduates the largest number of students every year. The private sector tells us that most are unemployable because they lack English skills. The university’s apparent failure to instill English skills in its students is then taken as reinforcing a stereotype that already exists—the irrelevance of the Arts and Humanities degree. In this article, I look at how the Arts graduate is constructed as a failure in the public imagination, as well as the need for a more critical pedagogical approach to teaching the English language in the university.

The stereotype: public education has failed

The stereotype is easy and familiar: the student who is educated on the public dime but instead of learning something useful, like a STEM degree or another discipline with more economic value, learns useless things in an Arts and Humanities degree, engaging in horrific ragging on the way, and then inconveniently protesting and agitating in the streets for the state to safeguard free education and furnish them with public sector jobs. This is the university student in the public imagination: the one who does not help themselves although given every opportunity. In turn, students are told that their inadequate English stands between them and lucrative private sector jobs.

The ideology: public education is a deep well of untapped profit

The stereotype already contains the standard justification for neoliberalisation, familiar in outline from every corner of the public sector in the last 40 years: the students are not learning marketable skills, therefore the Arts and Humanities disciplines in particular and the public university in general are a waste of public funds, and so private fee-levying universities (and correspondingly, mountains of student debt) are the future. As an argument, this faces backwards: a more accurate presentation of it would be that private fee-levying universities represent massive profits for their owners as well as a host of ancillary services, and in order to make this option more alluring, it is first necessary to cut funding for public education and make it as inefficient as possible. This process has been happening for decades already, and the resources to teach them are narrower than ever. The state lacks commitment to free education because there is so much money to be made—by everybody except the students—in a future of expensive education.

The Arts undergraduate’s uncertain English is a deliberate, devastating effect of the cannibalisation of free education in the state’s neoliberal economic policy. Its concomitant social narrative obfuscates the origins of the problem. The stark reality is university students who are determined, desperate, and fearful of learning English. In the first few weeks of class, they speak of the social inequalities of free education in Sri Lanka. We never had an English teacher at all or only intermittently. There weren’t enough textbooks to go around. The English teacher seemed befuddled; read out the textbook; came to class and didn’t teach; engaged in other work. Consequently, students struggle within the prevalent neoliberal ideology and how both problems and solutions are atomised and individualised. Deeply conscious of their lack of social capital, that they are reliant on the classroom to learn a language they do not speak at home, the student has already internalised systemic problems as personal failures. Under-resourced schools and too few teachers, poorly trained and poorly paid.

When did we become comfortable treating education as a market commodity for an elite few rather than a collective social good?

The necessary complicating factor here is that language teaching is unlike teaching any other subject. The fundamentals of a language are not simple axioms or building blocks that can be quickly imparted in order to move on to more complex material that builds on them. This misconception (ingrained especially among many English teachers) leads to oversimplified teaching materials and woefully inadequate coverage of the basics. But the fundamentals are the most difficult part of learning the language, and mastering them requires that students are given the time and space to practice reading, speaking, and writing. Most of all, language is inherently social and communicative: students must learn together.

Policy Problems: Counterproductive Residue of Past Attempts at Solutions

In an effort to make the Arts and Humanities degree seem more “relevant” and “market-friendly,” English has been made mandatory for every student who cannot pass the proficiency test at admission well enough to gain exemption. In my own Faculty, such students must pass a Level 2 exam in English in order to get their degree. But this requirement and the focus on examination results rather than language learning has more counterproductive results than positive ones. In practice, it means only that exams have been watered down to the point of irrelevance. Any student who at least attends classes will pass. And since this is the case, students are also encouraged to see the English course as an onerous bureaucratic requirement, with the classes to be skipped whenever possible. This thoroughly distorts the processes of teaching and learning the language. To truly motivate students to learn, English within the university system must be decoupled from examinations that only signify a formal qualification to which learning is incidental.

The Pandemic and Online Learning

All these problems of English language teaching at the university were in place before the pandemic. The switch to online learning has only exacerbated the problems. Vast numbers of students simply do not have internet access at all, or even for those who can manage some degree of access, usually via smartphones, there are serious technical difficulties in connectivity, accessing the Learning Management System, or following the material during classes, especially where the teaching material and strategies have not been actively adapted to the new context. The rote presentation of oversimplified teaching material—which has long been the existing approach of English language teaching—which was already ineffective in person is now thoroughly inadequate. While a given teacher is powerless to solve the larger problem of connectivity for hundreds of students, there are nevertheless still hundreds more who do manage to make it to the online classroom, and deserve a learning experience that is as well-adapted to the circumstances as possible.

Of the students who are not exempted from mandatory English classes, by far the largest contingent—at the University of Colombo alone this accounts for several hundred students every year—are at the lowest proficiency level. Many of them feel they are beginning from scratch in trying to understand English grammar and vocabulary, and currently they are doing this on tiny phone screens and patchy internet connections. It is vital that teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) working with these undergraduate students meet them more than halfway. The teaching materials and methods we had pre-pandemic were already inadequate to the task. Under online teaching conditions, we have to be far more creative in how we revamp these materials, and in how we actually teach day to day.

The most commonly-cited theory of successful language learning by adults, held sometimes to be the most “realistic”, is total immersion, which assumes the language being learned is the prevailing one in the student’s context outside the classroom. This is not the case in learning in English in Sri Lanka. It’s tantamount to the discipline throwing in the towel and giving up, saying adult learners will be unsuccessful unless and until they are inserted into such a context where they have no choice but to learn.

The Classroom as a site of Collective, Critical Agency

English teachers must start by not infantilising undergraduates. This just allows the English teacher to assume the position of a benevolent figure imparting knowledge, which only further reifies the ugly power dynamic of English in SL. The material should not be an insult to an adult learner’s intelligence or personal/social self. For instance, the lowest proficiency students in my Faculty were at one point directed to read Ladybird books in order to improve their language. While the undergraduates’ level of proficiency in English is low, in order to learn they need texts that can sustain their interest, not texts written for very young children.

We must throw away the reductive, formulaic teaching of grammar rules as abstractions, in favour of teaching language as it is actually used, so that students can see grammar doing meaningful work in the sentence and paragraph.

We need to draw on students’ own social environment to expose them to English in a dialogic classroom. We need to use material that is reflective of common experience, to guide students to name and to give language to that common experience. This is not just a plea to throw in a local element or indigenise the curriculum in a knee-jerk fashion by replacing Paul with Ranjith or Cosgrove Square with Kompanna Veediya. Rather, students must be guided to talk about their own social reality.

Language learning involves not just different cognitive processes when compared to learning any other subject, but also a different social dynamic. ESL teachers must recognise and acknowledge this. The English language classroom, whether online or off, has to become a site of collective agency and resistance for students. Since students are told that their lack of English is a powerful and concrete social marker holding them back in life, the drive to learn for students must come from a collective desire to claim power, to transform the isolated scholarship of higher education into a collective, collaborative experience of learning English. Despite the outsize importance that actually learning English holds in the public imagination as well as in the perceptions of students, the English classroom, particularly in the Arts Faculties, is still largely seen as a forgettable space of no consequence and no results. Both teachers and students must realise the tremendous power and potential that lies in that space.