English as a life skill
The Sri Lanka India Centre for English Language
Training (SLICELT) will be opened by Indian Foreign Secretary
Nirupama Rao tomorrow. It will mark a new beginning in English
language education in Sri Lanka.
The establishment of SLICELT also marks a radical departure
from the past in the way of learning and teaching English. While
all other nations were speaking and using English in their own
ways Sri Lanka continued to speak and use English just as the
English did. In fact, we were proud to admit that we use English
the Queen's way long after becoming independent.
English educated gentry used to mock at other countries that
developed their own English. Little did these brown sahibs
realise that most of them would have been mocking at Sri Lankans
for their attempts at safeguarding a colonial heritage. It was
the Americans who started using English in their own way. The
influence of American English has been so great that even the
orthodox Britishers were compelled to borrow words and phrases
from the American diction.
In retrospect we could observe that this overt subservience
to the former coloniser's language practice was a method to keep
the knowledge of English language to a select few, to perpetuate
a stratum of brown sahibs. Even after the introduction of 'swabhasha'
as the medium of instruction and official languages English
retained its super-status as a tool of oppression and class
The reaction from the hoi polloi was to shun English as an
alien subject. This attitude was well epitomized in the popular
reference to it as the kaduwa. In the meantime the government
used millions to teach English language in schools even getting
down British experts for consultations and curriculum
development. However, nothing succeeded.
Though the thirst for English language proficiency became
great after the onset of globalization and the advent of the
Internet with its immense resource base, results were
It is at this juncture the Presidential Task Force on English
and IT took a strategic decision to formulate and promote
learning English as a life skill and that too in a unique Sri
For the first time the authorities have turned to a
developing country in seeking expertise and assistance to
develop English Language teaching. The choice of India is
commendable. As India and Sri Lanka share historical cultural
values it would be much easier to orient our teaching programs
taking India as an example. Besides India has become a leader in
the teaching of English as a second language.
A language is best understood when taught in the context of
indigenous culture. It is SLICELT's task to translate this
vision into reality.
The authorities have correctly understood the objective of
teaching English as a life skill. That is why it has prioritized
spoken English over written English. Even in the Mother tongue a
child first learns to speak before he develops the writing
skills. The ability to speak is the preliminary stage of
mastering a language. It exempts the students from the rigours
of learning grammar. Once fluency is attained in speaking,
writing skills could be better imparted.
The new method will have its detractors. Lovers of Queen's
English will not take it lying down. English should be learnt to
broaden one's horizons, to reach a new world of knowledge not
yet available in the vernacular. It would open the gateway to
higher knowledge in IT and other fields. English should be used
as a life skill and not as a tool of oppressing those that are
not conversant with it. Nor should knowledge of English be
flaunted to impress upon the less fortunate.
Neither should it replace the native languages, Sinhala and
Tamil for they are gateways to indigenous culture. in the 21st
Century, the ideal goal should be to obtain proficiency in all
three languages-Sinhala, Tamil and English. Such trilingual
citizenry would be broad minded and tolerant towards other
cultures, customs and traditions. It would be the gateway to a
more harmonious and humane society in this beautiful land, the
Jewel of the Indian Ocean.