Can we teach standard Sri Lankan English? | Daily News

Can we teach standard Sri Lankan English?

 Languages are for communication particularly for interaction between and among individuals. Hence the most important feature of a language should be its intelligibility to one's interlocutor.

The discordance in pronunciation, of the village name ‘Uunawachuna’ by foreigners for Unawatuna has been a standing joke among us Southerners while travelling there by bus. One white man who had tried to learn a bit of Sinhala one day asked a bus driver ‘Uunawachunata yanawada’ with the final syllable of the second word pronounced as the voiced counterpart of consonant ‘t’ as in ‘dog’ (alveolar plosive rather than ‘th’ as in ‘this’). The message however hit home as the drivers of buses plying thereabouts happened to be accustomed to such jabberings.

Second language speakers

Having been born to a family of all mono-linguals of Sinhala with both parents not knowing a word of English and having studied right upto the A/levels in Sinhala medium, I took a lot of pains to master English on my own and at last was able to win laurels for my endeavour when I was on my visit to England for my post-graduate studies.

The courier who took me from the King's Cross railway station to the British Council in London commented: ‘You speak English beautifully. How did you manage to learn it?’ Among nearly 45 adult students in my group my best friend was David Kerr, an Irish young man who used to pay tribute to my English as others including mostly Africans and even Orientals like Indians, Pakistanis and Malaysians spoke an English almost unintelligible being adulterated with French and oriental accents. David even came to my room in the halls with a carton of orange juice to get certain points in linguistics clarified by me? It is also a truth that Sri Lankans speak English with an accent more close to the British model than most other second language speakers.

I don't believe that this portrait of myself amounts to what is termed by Professor Manique Gunasekara as ‘linguistic servitude'. The concept ‘servitude’ incorporates a much wider range of other aspects than being merely linguistic in terms of a whole system of values including one's ways of behaviour, dress, wishes and aspirations as well as beliefs that often characterise a class quintessentially well-known and whom MG in her book calls ‘English speaking elite'.

I don't belong to this elite and more than that, in spite of learning English, I have all my lifetime since I became a discerning young man been very critical of certain English values (or any other system of values for that matter) when they happened to offend ours. I still keep enlightening my fellow citizens about the absurdity of sporting a necktie while seating profusely in the sweltering heat or handling spoons with right hand at luncheons imitating the English who eat with forks and spoons. Our copycats switch to the left hand to get ‘second helpings'!

‘The Postcoonial Identity of Sri Lankan English’ by Professor Manique Gunasekara is a landmark work produced with obvious hardwork of research, which very clearly portrays how far the standard English has been affected by local languages. Our senior at Kelaniya during 1980s’ while reading English, her genial ways with an infectious smile always on her face were typical of her not being arrogantly emphatic in her views as evident in her interview recorded by Sajitha Prematunga on Daily News.

 My objective in this article is to set out what I sincerely felt going through the book, particularly the ‘loan words’ absorbed into this so-called ‘Sri Lankan Standard English'. Apart from the quite natural phonological syntactic and morphological variations manifest in the common man's Sri Lankan English, she has painstakingly catalogues a vast number of these ‘loans’ from local languages like Sinhala and Tamil.

The elite who use these words in interaction among themselves do not apparently exhibit them so freely with those outside their clique. The young undergrads (almost totally female) who were reading English at university having gained entrance by passing ‘A’ levels (while we a batch of teachers entered by passing GAQ with English as a subject externally) may have been using this dialect as it were, yet never uttered a single word of that nature in the little opportunity we had to consort with them.

English speaking people

As a matter of fact we have never even heard that kind of Jargon in this cosmopolitan stratum of the society. Neither our lecturers like Ranjith Gunawardana, Gamini Haththotuwagama, Luxmi Silva nor even the professor D C R A Gunathilaka ever used such words in their speech. Thus it is amply clear that those bizarre terms are only bandied about in a closed circle the class that use English as their first language or the mother tongue. The only such word we heard them speak is ‘Gunda’ which is how they called our lecturer Mr. Gunawardana.

Having worked with a large number of English speaking people as a teacher of English, a teacher educator in an English College of Education and also an administrator in the Western Province visiting hundreds of schools, I have never come across a single teacher who used the vocabulary catalogued in Manique's book. Hence treating it as ‘Standard Sri Lankan English’ is a highly controversial proposition.

That what the ordinary English speaking people use in our everyday life should be our standard English is my thesis. This by no means reflects any form of ‘linguistic servitude’ as it does not slavishly stick to the British model in all respects of language. Mostly being affected by our local phonological standards we pronounce most English words according to how we deem them correct. Obvious examples are clientele whose first syllable is pronounced as in ‘client’ while the accepted form is the long ‘-- vowel ‘e’ as in ‘clean'; In ‘restaurant’ the middle part ‘tau’ is pronounced by Lankans as ‘tu’ whereas the standard is ‘restrong’, the first syllable of ‘vehicle’ and ‘vehement’ is pronounced as ‘vehi’ – whereas the standard is ‘we'; words beginning with ‘e-es’ we pronounce as ‘es’ while the accepted sound is ‘is’ eg. Establish, escape etc. The ‘u’ of university, unit etc are pronounced with a short vowel while the standard is a long vowel as in ‘you'; in ‘mobile’ the initial vowel is pronounced as a short one as in ‘mob’ while the standard is a long vowel as in ‘morning'. Examples galore if you go into this common man's English. It is obviously lack of mastery, yet even teachers of English teach this ‘localized’ model unhindered.

It is by no means ‘servitude’ to try to approximate to the most prevalent model of a language as language is for universal communication and thus the closer to a worldwide standard the easier will be the deciphering of messages. A more acute form of servitude is writing our names with foreign spelling eg. Malik as Malique ignorant of the phonological rule that words ending in ‘-que’ tend to lengthen the preceding vowel making this name ‘Maleek’ examples are unique, boutique, mystrique, oblique, critique and clique all pronounced with a long vowel in the middle. Another point that minimizes the validity of Sri Lankan standard English is the fact that the type of vocabulary highlighted will obviously operate as ‘noise’ in communication. If teachers and course planners adopt these in their class texts the students will find their interlocutors, particularly those from overseas in this fast shrinking ‘global village’ nonplussed and hard put to it to understand them. For example how would those in the periphery comprehend if one of our students said: ‘The “Hutamart” does not respond to the “meeya” instead of: ‘The computer does not respond to the mouse’, ‘hutamart’ being the rustic term for any modern contraption! 



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Mother language is important. But society depend on communication and knowledge so prepare to travel study business learn your neighbours society language but knowledge is valuable yes many a nation has contributed to knowledge but time work family restrict acquisition of knowledge one two hours reading analyzing foreign literature science technology English is valuable. Yes I did that still lot of room for improvement myself all my countrymen women politicians media teachers professional ambitious citizens

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