Bilingual education: Getting plenty for all
Bilingual education refers to learning through a language other than
one's mother tongue as medium of instruction. In Sri Lanka, this is
popular as English medium education. And, it involves learning some
subjects in English names (L2) and the remaining subjects in the first
language as (L1). According to the circular No. 2008/12, out of 10
subjects - Science, Mathematics, Health and Physical Education,
Geography, Life Competencies, Civic Education, Information and
Communication Technology, Western Music, Religion, History, Aesthetic -
maximum of five subjects are taught in English through L1.
Implementation of bilingual education in Sri Lanka was nothing but
haphazard. The process testifies to the failure of our education
policymakers and their plan implementation since its introduction to the
Science stream in a few popular schools in 2001. In a somewhat rare
introspection, the sad reality is reported on an islandwide survey on
bilingual education launched by the National Institute of Education (NIE).
In a frank gesture, it accepts the untimely planning and decision making
in high ranking education officials.
Rural schools are mostly plagued by
dearth of teachers to implement bilingual education. Picture
by Saman Sri Wedage
"In 2001, the practice of bilingual education was introduced to the
school system without much planning and critical thinking. It was a
wrong start. Initially, this was introduced to the science stream of GCE
(A/L) classes in a few selected schools under the project called Amity
School Program and then in 2002, from Grade six to Grade 11 recommending
to learn a few subjects in English and the rest in Sinhala/Tamil after
completing the first five years only in L1."
- Survey on Bilingual Education (Page 2); published by (NIE) in 2007
Cumulating the difficulties in the introduction of program in a
haphazardly manner, in 2002, it was introduced from Grade Six upwards in
many schools throughout the country.
It is clear that the issues relating to the medium of instruction
cannot be fully resolved without taking the overall socio-political
factors into consideration.
Thousands of children and adults teach year encounter English as
their non-native language when they enrol in a job within Sri Lanka as
well as educational circles have come to accept that in Sri Lanka
different languages and cultures have coexisted for centuries. The older
educational idea that was propagated after 1956 that all students are
taught by the same methods of instruction has left thousands of
individuals deficient in achievement levels in English. Educational
system faced with this problem has in the last decade turned to
alternative approaches of instruction.
Two main directions have surfaced representing two conflicting
educational philosophies. One of the two philosophies proposes the
inclusion of English as a second langauge program and other "remedial"
offerings as part of the traditional curriculum to allow better
transition to the "majority" educational setting. The other of the two
philosophies would like to see comprehensive bilingual educational
programs in which two languages are mediums of instruction. The latter
approach would ideally create literacy in both the native as well as the
Bilingual education is available at 601 schools islandwide consisting
198 national schools, 364 provincial schools and 39 private schools.
Earlier there were only 98 schools which provided A/L classes in English
and now it has extended to 128 schools. And following characteristics
were observed for its popularity among the 'majority.'
Factors of popularity
(a) Students' and parents' great enthusiasm
(b) Teachers' positive attitude and willingness to change towards it
(c) A gradual increase in supplementary readers, question papers and
other teaching - learning material in current educational arena.
(d) Satisfactory performance of students at national level exams.
(e) Teachers are given good training at Nilwala and Siyane Colleges
(f) Support rendered by NIE and Education Ministry conducting
development programs to empower teachers.
(g) Establishing translators' pool, Facilitators pool and Material
developers pool by the Cell of Langauge Coordinators on Bilingual
(h) The Government is planning to recruit 554 science and commerce
graduates to remedy the A/L classes teacher shortage.
Let us look at the situation at a school removed from the popular
center of Colombo, P D P Gimhani who taught Science and Mathematics in
English at Halmillewa Siri Seevale Vidyalaya, Senapura which comes under
the Thambuththegama Educational Zone commenced teaching Mathematics,
Environment Studies and Health Science in English for grade six students
in 2003. Unfortunately, after two years the students had to revert back
to the Sinhala medium as the subjects were taught by three English
teachers who taught English from classes one to 12.
Eventually they could not cope with the heavy load.
She adds that lack of teacher,s textbooks, teacher's guides and
supplementary readers were some obstacles they encountered. Even though
the students were forced to learn in Sinhala in Grade Eight most
students obtained good results for English Langauge at GCE (O/L)
On the other hand, as P C Lanka Weerasinghe who teaches at Siri
Rahula Balika Vidyalaya in Malabe says conducting bilingual education in
encouraging for the past few years. Initially, there were difficulties
due to the above mentioned general shortcomings. But, unlike in the case
of our earlier examples there were professionally qualified teachers who
were capable of teaching their respective subjects in English in
addition to the teachers of English langauge available in their school.
She is in full praise of the teachers how are totally committed and
dedicated for their target disciplines to improve the quality of the
The students in bilingual education classes have improved their
English tremendously. Most of them obtained 'A' passes for English at
As she remarks though the quality has improved recently, the
popularity of bilingual education has declined somewhat in the case of
A/L classes due to following reasons:
(a) Teaching in bilingual medium is not available for some subjects
and students have to change the school
(b) So called 'popular schools' demand 9A passes so that students who
got less A passes are not accommodated
(c) A/L classes are available but not for every stream
(d) When the stream is available in bilingual medium teachers are not
available for some subjects
(e) Classes are available but not in the vicinity so their travelling
a long distance is an extra burden for them. As a remedy to this, the
Ministry has published in national news papers the names of 10 schools
were A/L classes are conducted in English medium
(f) Non availability of textbooks, Teachers Guides, past question
papers, tutorials in English
(g) Workshops, seminars Q-A sessions are mostly conducted in L1 only
(h) Availability of English medium tuition classes is comparatively
less and available ones charge exorbitant fees which cannot be afforded
(i) Students who do A/L (local syllabus) in international schools are
allotted with required physical and human resources but the students in
Government schools suffer from lack of public funds
Even though it is nearly 10 years since bilingual education has
commenced in Sri Lanka, its implementation is severely hampered at A/L
classes due to dearth of teachers. We propose a remedy for this state of
affairs from the Act of National Institute of Education (No. 28 of
1985). According to the Act, the National Colleges of Education
instituted under NIE can offer degrees recognized by only the Education
Steps should be taken to allow the nine National Colleges of
Education to initiate this program under the authority given by the Act.
This will grant enough teachers to fill the existing gaps and
shoulder a national responsibility of prime importance.