A Positive Attitude Towards Teaching English – The Island – July 22, 2009

Something that hasn’t been sufficiently recognized or appreciated where English language teaching in our country is concerned is the fact that a lot of our students who vitally need English for achieving their education and career goals do succeed in learning it. This is in spite of all the ‘bad press’ (media attention) that the government school English language teaching programme has been relentlessly subjected to since the early 1960’s, and the usually pessimistic attitude prevailing among the educational authorities and professionals, and the general public towards the subject. The many negative prognostications currently heard about the prospects of success of the Spoken English programme just launched under the initiative of the President himself with the help of the University of Hyderabad in India could be partly due to this traditional defeatist mentality, and not to a clear understanding and assessment of the real issues involved. An oft-repeated refrain of adverse commentary on any and every attempt of tackling the task of teaching English has drilled into teachers, parents, and students an unfounded belief that it is a useless undertaking that is bound to fail. A decisive reversal of such reactionary notions is, in my opinion, the need of the hour.

The usual complaint is that the majority of students who are put through the school English teaching programme do not achieve the expected proficiency level in the language, and I would say that it is a legitimate complaint, too. However, a high failure rate is not necessarily limited to the subject of English in our education system; the students’ performance in mathematics at the OL is known to be similarly poor. Yet poor results in English become naturally more conspicuous, and more worrisome, because English touches every aspect of education, and every sphere of activity that awaits students once they are out in the world at large; in the modern world dominated by IT, its lingua franca English decides the fate of far more people and societies than any other subject in the curriculum.

Many don’t hesitate to blame this general failure of English teaching (and learning) on the allegedly wrong language policies pursued by Sri Lanka following Independence. Contrary to common belief, however, at no time in the history of post-independence Sri Lanka has the importance of English in education been popularly discounted, or officially discouraged by the State (though certain individual politicians, through some imperfect understanding of official policy, or through mischievous intent, might have occasionally acted as if the opposite was the case!).

The truth is that next to the winning of universal franchise, the gaining of the right of free education for all was the most far reaching change that Sri Lanka enjoyed even before the predatory imperialists finally let go of her. The monumental Kannagara Report of 1943 proposed a change of medium of instruction from English to the mother tongue of the children, and also recommended the teaching of English as a second language from Standard 3 upwards in all schools of the country. Mr. CWW Kannangara, Minister of Education of the then State Council, was instrumental in bringing about these changes and other educational reforms after much consultation of experts, popular discussion, and State Council debate concluded with a vote taking (in sharp contrast to the seemingly ad hoc basis of numerous reforms introduced by various regimes in later, especially more recent, times). The replacement of English as the medium of instruction was done in phases. What Mr. Kannangara made available to the rural children through the new Central School system was English medium education, which had been until then the exclusive legacy of the privileged few. The switch over from English to Sinhala and Tamil was completed in the late 1950’s.

These, and other reforms introduced after 1956, were intended to ensure the participation of the ordinary people, the dispossessed masses of the country, in the democratic way of life, with particular reference to education and employment. Some people erroneously blame Mr. SWRD Bandaranaike as the architect of a language policy that eventually led to the perceived decline in English language competency among the student population today. The change of the medium of instruction actually happened in 1944, in which year the Kannangara reforms were implemented. Nevertheless, the buck should not be passed to Mr. Kannangara either, because those language policy adjustments were necessary, and had been already overdue, in the historical contexts in which they were effected.

Before free education, all education worth having was available in the English medium, and it was available only to the privileged minority. The very system prevailing then ensured the success of English language mastery: a good ‘English education’ was synonymous with power, prestige, and position under foreign rule. Those who were in education were meant to acquire the necessary literacy in English that qualified them to run the administrative machinery for the foreign rulers. This provided a strong motive for the children from affluent classes to learn English.

The rest of the population didn’t have the opportunity to receive this kind of education which would have enabled them to partake of the plums of office and other perquisites, and favours. They were nonentities living miserable lives in their own country while the resources of the country were being plundered by foreigners with the help of their local lackeys whom they let into the stolen feast just so as to retain their allegiance.

However, with the free education initiative, and the language policy innovations following it, introduced for an independent country, the overwhelming majority of the ordinary people, until then denied access to a decent education, were finally liberated. The switch to the mother tongue as the medium of instruction benefited these masses. Along with these changes, the importance of English as a second language was emphasized by the reformers from the very beginning of Swabasha education. Notwithstanding this, the importance of English in the school curriculum diminished. The elevation of Sinhala and Tamil to official status meant that, theoretically at least, English could be dispensed with in all matters of public life including education. A corollary of this state of affairs was that although the student masses were offered the opportunity of learning English, the vital factor of a cogent enough reason for learning the language was eliminated. In other words, they found that they could now get their education with good prospects of a secure future without a knowledge of English.

In this context, though, the state policy of promoting second language English teaching never wavered. Yet a rot set in. The various administrations, including the one under Mr. Bandaranaike himself, took the matter seriously, and from time to time appointed committees of inquiry, and attempted to implement their recommendations by launching ambitious programmes in order to arrest the decline and revitalize the teaching of English, to no avail.

The people responsible came to terms with the declining English standards by tacitly committing themselves to ‘a policy of benign neglect’ (to borrow a phrase from Mr. Eric J. de Silva, a former Secretary to the Ministry of Education writing in The Island of 27th May, 2001).

The ultimate failure of all attempts at making a success of our English teaching programme is the end result of a complexity of causes such as the paucity of both human and material resources (lack of competent teachers, and experts to train them, books, and other accessories, and money, etc), uneven distribution of the resources available, textbooks of poor quality, imperfect understanding of methodologies, or total ignorance of them, and so forth. But the most important single factor that one could adduce to explain the phenomenon (the failure that is English language teaching) is the lack of a proper conceptualization of the true purpose of teaching English to our children, and the resultant failure to motivate them to learn the language.

Human beings don’t like to exert themselves unless they recognize a compelling enough reason to do so. As our students are human, we can’t expect them to learn an additional language if they find no point in learning it. Although we have been tirelessly expatiating on the virtues of a sound knowledge of English for our students, we have not been able to make it an attractive goal for the majority of them to pursue with any sense of commitment. But today the circumstances are unprecedentedly propitious for English language education. When the will is there, the way will emerge by itself.

I am one who subscribes to the view that what the vast majority of Sri Lankans need is English as a second language. Bilingual proficiency in one of the vernacular languages and English is not a choice, but an absolute necessity. Of course, Sinhalese and Tamil language proficiency must be recommended for those who are obliged to serve a mixed populace of monolinguals: government servants, services personnel, bank workers, and those engaged in communication services, medical workers, etc belong to this category.

The important principle I am emphasizing here is that a demand for someone to master an additional tongue must be backed up with the perception of a clear goal worth all the hassle of achieving it.

That English is essential or very useful for education, and employment, and for intercommunity and international communication is accepted by all without dispute. And English is justifiably given a very prominent place in our education system. I, for one, can hardly think of any other policy matter that enjoys such unanimity of opinion across the board than the need for a knowledge of English for all the students of the country.

So, the level of motivation for learning English is very high. There is an intense, popular awareness of the advantages to be gained through a good knowledge of English. It is not that such a widespread awareness of the benefits of English was not there before, but people never experienced it in such an immediately tangible and concrete form as they do now.

Today’s young live in an entirely different world from the past. Highly sophisticated communication technologies have brought all humanity closer together than ever before. The young people of our country know that English provides the key to this world of knowledge, opportunity and power. This prospect represents a strong motive for them to acquire a knowledge of English.

There is a lot of social stimulation for children all over the country to try to acquire a knowledge of English. Parental support in this connection is more than in the past. Among the Sri Lankans, English itself has almost entirely got rid of its evil image as an instrument and symbol of colonial power and oppression (for which probably it earned the nickname ‘sword’ among university students once). English is no longer feared. There is a lot of English in circulation around – in the schools, in the media, in the workplaces, in the marketplaces, in the sports fields, and every other conceivable place that offers a context for its use. Of course, more English is being used in urban than in rural areas, but there are few regions which are completely devoid of any contact with the language in some form.

The present circumstances are optimal for initiating a concerted effort to reawaken the slumbering giant that is the state department (of the Ministry of Education) responsible for managing the English language teaching programme. Where that task is concerned, we don’t have to start from scratch. What is needed is reorganization and remobilization of the already available expertise under a dedicated and inspiring leadership.

Although I am unable to make any meaningful comment on the ongoing Spoken English programme of the government as I am not still familiar with its instructional content, or its pedagogical procedures, it represents a proactive, and pragmatic response to what is felt as a cogent educational need. If this need, identified and recognized at the highest official level, is convincingly put across to the majority of our 4.5 million strong student population that really needs English, and the same level of enthusiasm is induced in them, the achievement of the expected results won’t be difficult.

As a parent and an educator, I welcome any genuine attempt, big or small, aimed at promoting a knowledge of English among our children. It’s my opinion that where learners are motivated, they derive some benefit from even the worst programme of teaching English, or the instruction of the weakest English teacher insofar as such student-course or student-teacher engagement provides for the communicative use of the language.

The principle behind this assumption is that the important thing in a language teaching- learning situation is the meaningful interactive relationship between the learner, the teacher and the instructional programme. The course materials supply a context for this kind of interaction, and the teacher stage-manages the process.

That any language manifests itself in context is well known. Mere learning of grammar rules or lexical items is not enough. This knowledge must be realized in meaningful, communicative contexts. As far as I know (I could be mistaken), no single method has been developed by anyone that could be described as the best method of teaching English. However, the methodological aspect of English teaching cannot be overlooked without undesirable consequences; this, however, is not meant to advocate any slavish adherence to the recommendations of one method to the neglect of positive elements in other methods. In fact, in an ideal teaching-learning situation, it is the job of the methodology-savvy teacher to devise his/her own strategy of teaching to suit the learning needs of a particular set of students in a specific context of place and time (something that it would be unfair to expect of the majority of our young English teachers).

Generally, though, I would say that any method or eclectic strategy that embodies functional, communicative principles has a better chance of success than any other that doesn’t. This would sound something like throwing back on the earliest beginnings of more than a century of concerted efforts at devising the best method of teaching a language that has seemingly failed: the Natural Method that formed the foundation for the Direct Method, the Situational Language Teaching Method, etc. The current Spoken English programme apparently draws on similar ‘natural’ principles.

To put it bluntly, successful second language English teaching is no big deal. It can be easily done, especially in the current Sri Lankan situation. This has been proved by dedicated young English teachers on more than one occasion. These instances are not exceptions; they demonstrate what could be ordinarily achieved with some effort, I’d dare say. I would like to refer to two cases I watched on TV. In the first of these, we were shown some children from a very rural background casually talking in fluent English; this ability they had acquired with the help of their young English teacher. The second instance, I saw on the Swarnavahini TV during a ‘Live at 8’ programme more recently (07.05.09). A teacher named Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayake, in charge of English and IT at Mahavilachchiya e-village, which is 45 km from Anuradhapaura, has taught the children of that very remote jungle area those two subjects very successfully. Some skeptics might treat this with scorn saying these are rare instances which cannot be duplicated elsewhere, but I believe that the same results can be achieved if the same sort of dedication on the part of the teachers is available. On both occasions mentioned here, I expected the high-ups in the Ministry to contact these teachers, and explore the possibility of making better use of them as exemplars of any new techniques that they themselves had probably developed; they could have been rewarded financially, or given scholarships to do advanced studies in local or foreign universities, in order to use them as resource persons in the future for training other teachers. I am to date unaware of any official recognition of their innovative efforts in a vital field interest.


After writing this essay, I had a hunch that the pessimism of my comment on suspected official indifference in the concluding sentence above was not probably justified, particularly in the present resurgent atmosphere under our President’s inspiring stewardship, and that it would be better to browse through the web for some information about Mr. Wanninayake’s work to check this out. Sure enough, I was able to access his website, which was very rewarding. I learned that he has been engaged in his e-Village Replication Project for over ten years, and that Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President visited Mahavilachchiya in 2006, learnt about this project, and pledged support to expand it to other provinces. Accordingly, the e-village replication project is being extended to other areas under the Secondary Education Modernization Project of the Ministry of Education. This is an encouraging sign. We may reassure ourselves that we are entering upon a new era in yet another important sense.

by Rohana R. Wasala