[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Global English and SL Election

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jan 1 16:40:41 UTC 2015

Global English and SL Election
Posted on December 31st, 2014 By Rohana R. Wasala

Courtesy *The Island*

In the modern society, education is meaningless without a good knowledge of
at least one useful world language in addition to one’s mother tongue. For
the majority of Sri Lankans, this means an indispensable knowledge of
 Sinhala or Tamil plus English. (The government’s praiseworthy target of a
trilingual Sri Lanka is in excess of this barest minimum need.) Among
nations in the world we are in an advantageous position in this respect
because, for historical reasons, English is easily available to us, and in
the form of Globish, it happens to be ‘the worldwide dialect of the third
millennium’. This is an inestimable asset in a world where there is
probably no country that does not pay special attention to the teaching of

The supremacy of English in our context as a world language is undisputed.
Whatever is said and done, the commercial, political, military, cultural
and other interactions of the English speaking peoples with other nations
over the past few centuries have been such that English has emerged as the
single most powerful common language of the world. It was the language of
imperialism once, and is today the dominant language of global capitalism;
it reigns supreme in every significant domain of human activity: science
and technology, trade, communications, culture, politics, diplomacy,
sports, and every other conceivable sphere.

Not long ago, linguists feared that English, being adopted by so many
diverse nations of the world, would disintegrate into a multiplicity of
mutually unintelligible dialects. But these fears are no more. Apparently,
the era of ‘New Englishes’ is on its way out. The nations of the world have
been brought closer together than ever before by constantly advancing
communications technologies. In the highly globalized world of today where
‘There is no such thing as Abroad’, chances are few for the geographical
isolation and other forms of barriers necessary for the evolution of New
Englishes to develop as separate languages. The two universally dominant
native dialects of English, British and American, have jointly morphed into
‘Globish’, which transcends national boundaries, and like any other dialect
will go on evolving. Globish enables our students to interact with the
outside world in many creative ways. It is the most widely used medium of
the internet.  An overwhelming advantage that IT (information technology)
confers on learners of  English in this context is that it puts it
literally at their finger tips; easily exploitable resources abound in the
internet for multimodal English instruction and practice (for free) for
those interested. It is this invaluable linguistic resource that is within
easy reach of all Sri Lankans.

An adequate knowledge of English is an essential component of the
meaningful education that Sri Lankans of all economic, social and ethnic
backgrounds desire. Development-oriented education must feature among the
really substantive issues that should be raised by a serious opposition
during the ongoing campaigning before the presidential election on January
8, 2015. Which  candidate offers the best prospects for the fulfillment of
that desire is likely to be one of the questions that the informed voters
would ask themselves in this election.

The mature Sri Lankan electorate can be expected to treat each major
political party’s policy regarding the use of English as a significant
factor to take notice of. This is irrespective of whether the matter is
explicitly mentioned in the election manifestoes or is reflected in the
conduct and utterances of the members of the various political parties or
groupings. Fortunately, there is reason to believe (on the basis of
campaign speeches heard during previous elections in the not too distant
past) that generally representatives of all political factions agree about
the crucial importance of English not only for education but for all other
fields where linguistic communication matters including particularly
interactions with foreign countries and international organizations.

The usefulness of English is a reality that even the nationalist pioneers
of educational and language policy reforms unanimously recognized. Sri
Lanka’s language planning endeavours started in the 1944-45 period  with
the Kannangara reforms in the education field, that is, a few years before
British rule ended in 1948. The vast majority of the population were
discriminated against on the basis of language and religion during colonial
times. Sinhala speaking Buddhists and Tamil speaking Hindus and Muslims
were oppressed while the Westernized, English speaking Christian minority
were accorded a privileged status. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority were the
worst persecuted community during that time. The 1956 nationalist attempt
to democratically put an end to centuries of language and religion-based
discrimination against the Sinhalese Buddhist majority faced opposition
from the ethnically mixed Westernized minority which had been privileged
under colonial rule. Of course, most nationalist agitators for reform also
came from the same class, as they had to. Critics of the changes introduced
after the 1956 ‘revolution’ talk as if it was the beginning of ‘language
politics’ in Sri Lanka, which it was not. If there were any anomalies in
the new official language policies, they were rectified in subsequent

The post-1956 language policies have benefited the poor of all ethnic
groups by making the achievement of equality of opportunity in employment
as well as education more of a possibility. Of course, the dethronement of
English in the government service may have negatively affected ethnic
minorities which had earlier enjoyed certain advantages over the majority
through English. But the pro-poor policies in education enabled more
students from the poor classes irrespective of ethnicity to enter the

Before these changes, English was both imperial and imperious. Today, in
Sri Lanka as elsewhere, it is neither imperial nor imperious, but merely
utilitarian. In Robert McCrum’s words (Globish, 2011) ….the world’s English
becomes the linguistic default position for the society that the journalist
Thomas Friedman has described as ‘flat’.”, where ‘flat’ implicitly means
‘leveled through the use of the common medium of global English’ (my
elucidation). It provides, in the global theatre, a level playing field in
business as well as education.

The nationalists (to whom the main constituent party of the ruling alliance
harks back) envisioned a flatter (in the above sense) and more just society
through the restoration of the national languages to their due position of
prominence. For the selfsame purpose they wanted English to be available as
a second language to all the children of the country irrespective of their
social and economic background (which was unheard of before), and took
active steps towards that goal. But these pioneers (including Kannangara)
have been always wrongly blamed for having allegedly deprived generations
of Lankan school children of a good knowledge of English. That their
successors failed to bring the original visionary plans to fruition was due
to a number of factors, the major one of these being the absence of
inspiring leadership that would have kept the long term visionary aims of
the originators alive; another was that that politicians sacrificed
national interest, as they often do, for political advantage.

 The two decades from 1960 to 1980 saw the masses of swabhasha medium
students possessed by a false sense of security (based on the erroneous
notion that education through the mother tongue was adequate) that
prevented them from making a serious attempt to learn English. Despite the
well meant efforts of different governments to bolster up the state English
language teaching programme, a rot set in from which there seemed to be no
escape. While many failed to learn any English even though there was, as
there always has been, an environment in the country conducive for learning
English, the self-motivated few learned their English and improved their
academic and employment prospects. With the introduction of liberalized
economic policies and the emergence of opportunities for private education
at home and abroad in the next decades, those sections of the population
who could afford it got a chance to learn English outside the state school
system. But the problem of little or no proficiency in English particularly
among suburban and rural children remained. Critics of the promotion of
national languages as mediums of education in place of English which had
benefited only a small privileged minority felt vindicated. Certain
politicians from the same class, who paid little attention to the noble
aims of the initiators of swabhasha education or implicitly dismissed them
with some contempt, adopted patchwork policies to remedy the situation.
Though these were unavoidable in the circumstances, more forethought should
have been exercised to prevent the recall of English from disadvantaging
the poor while serving only the interests of the rich. The nationalist
reformers always meant to bring justice for all, while restoring the rights
of the long oppressed masses.

 The Ten Year National Master Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka (2011-2020)
launched as a presidential initiative is the largest, most ambitious,
implementation-oriented language management exercise the country has ever
had. While being in compliance with the vision of the early reformers it
tries to address the language problem in a broader social and political
context and from a more comprehensive perspective than before. A government
can only formulate plans based on its policies and provide the finance
necessary for their implementation. The successful implementation depends
on the faithful fulfillment of their fiduciary obligations by the
bureaucrats. There is no reason to believe that this is not happening.

I count this among the many development projects of the Mahinda Rajapakse
government launched in the wake of the successful conclusion of the war.
For these the government must be praised. The face of the country is
changing for the better. Of course, there many shortfalls to be attended
to. But there is no one else at the present time who can fix them other
than Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. The disorganized opposition’s exclusive
focus on less urgent issues like nepotism, corruption, bad governance etc
proves that it has no credible allegations against the government. The
institution of the executive presidency facilitated the solution of the
problem of separatist terrorism. The evil potential of that office has not
been exhibited under the present incumbent. All indications are that the
government is delivering on its promises in less than ideal circumstances.
If it is only the West and their local stooges who have decided that there
is a need for a regime change here at this juncture, it must be for their
own benefit. The Sri Lankan public will be benefited only if they are
allowed to elect or reject in freedom, by exercising their democratic right
of the vote, the popular Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa who is heading a performing

The third stage of the Mahinda Chintana manifesto Lowa dinana maga”  (On
the road to global success) was launched at the BMICH on 23rd December.
Like other countries in the world, rich or poor, Sri Lanka needs its youth
to be proficient in the ‘worldwide dialect of the third millennium’ for
achieving successful economic growth and for improving its international
standing. It is this need that the ten year trilingual initiative mentioned
above is designed to fulfill. The programme is soon entering its fifth
year. It will be in the interest of the nation if it is allowed to run its
course uninterrupted.


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