[lg policy] Srilanka: Education in Sinhala and Tamil Medium vs English

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jan 5 10:55:27 EST 2018

Education in Sinhala and Tamil Medium vs English January 4, 2018, 10:20 pm

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By Siri Gamage

I read with interest a series of recent articles covering the merits of
education in the medium of English as conducted in a bygone era prior to
1956 and the problems associated with the delivery of higher education in
Sinhala and Tamil medium afterwards. Discussion covered the merits of 1956
changes to official language policy introduced by former PM SWRD
Bandaranayake as well as their negative consequences when the teaching of
English was given low priority. The latest in the series of these articles
is by Uswatte-arachi in The Island (02.01.2017) where he comments on the
role of Central Schools as well. He states that the problems in education
started when the teaching in Sinhala and Tamil media was started in the
university. Lack of reading material in these languages at the time is
mentioned as a contributing factor to the deterioration of education. He
highlights the continuing practice of teaching in English in the medical,
engineering and some science faculties in comparison to teaching in social
sciences and humanities where the medium change to Sinhala and Tamil was
religiously adopted harming the advantages that would have been gained
otherwise. He even suggests that the undergraduates should have been given
instruction in English language study during first two years in the
university. In writing this short article including my experiences, the aim
is to show that this is a highly complex issue requiring systematic inquiry
by the authorities.

I entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in September 1968 from
Walasmulla Maha Vidyalaya. I was among two who were fortunate enough to
enter the prestigious university, the other being former professor of
philosophy at Kelaniya university, V.G. Kularathne. The closest Central
School to my place of residence was at Weeraketiya where the study of
science was available at the time. I had no knowledge of science subjects
at Horewela Primary School and the only other opportunity available for me
was to get admission to Walasmulla Maha Vidyalaya. Following the trend at
the time, I spent one term studying in the science stream in that school
but I was not able to cope with the sudden exposure to an alien subject and
the challenges it posed without prior preparation. Tasks associated with
lab work, use of science texts with a lot of technical terms etc. and even
learning the science concepts and principles were difficult. The principal
Mr. Jayawickrama called my father to his office and courteously advised
both of us that it is better if I join the arts stream as I was the last in
terms of one term results in the science stream. We accepted his advice and
the rest is history. I excelled in studying subjects such as Buddhist
civilisation, history, government/political science, etc for the HSC in
1967. We had not only university graduate teachers who were qualified to
teach in the school but they had a passion for teaching. However, the
English teacher used to sleep on the table keeping his head on it as
students showed little interest in learning the language. By the time I
entered the university, I had little to no knowledge of English and even
avoided those who spoke English in my first year to avoid embarrassment.

I was among those who were taught in Sinhala medium during the early 1970s.
In fact HL taught me sociological concepts and theory in my second year.
Other reputed teachers such as Ralph Peris (had no skills in teaching in
Sinhala), Gananath Obeysekera, Kitsiri Malalgoda, Sunimal Fernando did
their best to explain different aspects of sociology and anthropology. Mr.
J. P Delgoda, commissioner of prisons taught criminology as a visiting
lecturer. He brought practical experience to the classroom compared to some
others who had field research experience e. g. Obeysekera. Arm chair
thinking was anathema to anthropologists and sociologists who advocated the
merits of empirical field research and data collection. In sociology,
positivist research methodology dominated whereas anthropologists
emphasised other methods such as participant observation to gather
information. We were taught to look at our own society, people, culture,
religion, economy, education etc through the concepts, theories and methods
from these disciplines which had their origins in Europe and evolved later
in the US.

My story of learning English at the university to be able to qualify and
undertake a special degree in Sociology is an unusual one characterised by
personal commitment ,hard work and desire as well as peer support.
Therefore I would not try to generalise my experience for the time. The
university had English classes but their emphasis was to give us reading
and comprehension skills. However, teachers we had such as Hemamali
Gunasinghe, Mrs Gunawardene (wife of an engineering professor) taught us
the value of communicative English also. Most of all, their teaching
approach helped us to eliminate fear within us about speaking in English.
Additional tutorial classes in Gampaha (duringuniversity closure due to
1971 insurrection) and in Kandy privately conducted by a talented Tamil
teacher from Trinity helped me to further my English language skills. The
encouragement received from my seniors was invaluable. But my main
intention here is to throw some light on learning in Sinhala medium and
later teaching sociology and anthropology in Sinhala and English medium
until 1986(for more read Gamage 2014).

There is no doubt that if I had better English knowledge when I entered
university or in the first year it would have been much easier for me to
learn and absorb alien disciplinary knowledge, principles and methods and
research findings as all our text books, reference books and journal
articles were in English and some in German and French. Even though our
teachers at university did their best to translate and present knowledge
originally available in English and other European languages, comprehension
of Sinhala translations was not easy as we had to use a lot of technical
terms that were not in the vernacular. However, my colleagues in the
sociology classes such as Tudor Silva, Amarasiri de Silva, Jayantha Perera,
and my senior Sarath Chandrasekera were generous in sharing knowledge in
the discipline. I was fortunate enough to grasp the fundamentals of the
disciplines with perseverance and burning mid night oil. Learning English
language and Sociology/anthropology at the same time was an uphill task
that I had to overcome. As I had set my personal academic goals clearly by
then, such perseverance and commitment were not obstacles but vehicles for
future success i.e. getting an upper second class in the honours degree.

Nonetheless, most of my colleagues in a batch of 700 were only able to
complete a general degree studying 3 subjects such as history, political
science, Economics, Sinhala, Buddhism and others. Their exposure to
disciplinary knowledge in the English medium or for that matter English
language was highly limited unless they had come from city schools or
central schools. They relied on translated knowledge by their lecturers and
tutors. I might add that such translations at the time were of the highest
standard compared to what we observe in universities today. There was also
a common view at the time that university graduates had an all round
knowledge not limited to the subjects learned. For example, an arts
graduate would have knowledge in how the body functioned, world affairs,
bureaucracy and government, how to make decisions in troubled
circumstances, psychology, dealing with police, art and culture, city
matters etc. Later on recognising the importance of providing
undergraduates knowledge in several fundamental fields of study, a
Foundation year was introduced. The degree obtained by these students was
called Foundation degree due to this and it acquired some notoriety among
the undergraduates as a result. However, I attended some lectures by Osmond
Jayarathne, E.R. Sarachchandra etc. delivered as part of this foundation
year on my own choosing. They were excellent introductions to subjects they
dealt with. For example, Osmond talked about the universe.

The point about higher education emphased by previous writers to The Island
such as Elmo, Samaraweera, HL,Karunanayake and Uswatte-aratci is whether
the country would have been better if university education was provided via
English or Sinhala, and Tamil mediam? There is no question about the merits
of having a knowledge of English and for that matter other European and
Asian languages. Such knowledge theoretically at least can open the young
minds to global knowledge and literature,achievements in science and
technology, history of civilisations etc. However, we should not forget the
fact that the social science disciplines and humanities to some extent were
subject areas with colonial trappings in their origin, introduction to
Ceylon, and translations to Sinhala and Tami student audiencesl. The
knowledge taught thus was/is not universally applicable or value free. It
needs to be adapted to local context,it's needs,culture and even nation
building exercises. In short, such disciplinary knowledge needs to be
decolonized. This has not happened to the extent that the generations of
young people who received free education in Sinhala and Tamil deserve.

Instead of text books with original ideas,concepts,theories,paradigms or
methods by our social scientists,what we still see in Sociology at least is
Sinhala and Tamil translations of texts published decades ago in English.(
This is not to say that there are no excellent edited collections of
papers,especially as felicitation books for retiring academics,published in
English). An academic dependency on western and American knowledge
inherited from a previous era still dominates our social sciences(see
Gamage 2016). We do not have centres of excellence in teaching and research
in cutting-edge fields such as post colonial studies,critical feminist
studies, post development, Southern theory that focus on recent
developments in Asia, Africa, Latin America etc.along with theorisations
from the global south In such an environment where translation of old
knowledge in the disciplines, rote learning for passing examinations etc
are encouraged instead of critical examination,evaluation and adoption or
rejection of received disciplinary knowledge,can we expect an innovative
nation to emerge? Can we expect a knowledge hub to succeed? Can we expect
our social science graduates to be on par with the bilingual graduates of a
bygone era in terms of their intellect and skills set?

When discussing the merits of education in English compared to Sinhala or
Tamil, we need to remember how a class of English educated was nurtured by
the British government and missionaries during the pre 1956 era. This class
lost knowledge of local culture,religion, language,customs etc. in the
process of trying to imitate Western style of life and fit in with the
British administrators. They imbibed in and imitated Western ways of
living,religion,language,customs and more for the benefits and privileges
received from the colonial government and missionaries. It was the locals
who learned In Sinhala or Tamil while acquiring a knowledge of English and
in some cases Sanskrit and Pali who made a critical contribution to the
nationalist revival,free education and gaining of independence,e.g Sir
Baron Jayatillake. Intellectuals of this category are called bilingual
intellectuals(see Ranjani Obeyesekera 1984).

A concerning aspect of higher education today is not only the depleting
number of bilingual intellectuals but also the lack of teaching about our
own knowledge traditions contained in our cultural,philosophical,literary
and religious traditions or even a knowledge of our history and language.
This is partly due to the heavy reliance of our social scientists in
universities on Western disciplines unadulterated. Thus even though the
universities teach social sciences in Sinhala and Tamil, the graduates are
not only incapable of accessing wider knowledge in English but lack a
grounding of indigenous or local
culture,history,religions,literature,arts,music etc. Thus they disown their
inherited identity and subjectivity plus heritage and acquire a modern
identity and subjectivity,though many struggle to achieve even this due to
the class and city-village divide. The former is in line with colonial
designs originally set in place by the British and being continued up to
this day by our higher education system via the Western and American
disciplines translated. This has deep and far reaching consequences for the
country.This is another reason for a concerted effort by authorities to
reform higher education with decolonisation of curriculum and teaching as a
central focus instead of parroting the merits of internationalisation of
education and the English language per se.

Before the country prepares graduates in social sciences and humanities for
the global economy or market with free education, it needs to prepare
graduates with a sense of pride in their own identity, culture, history,
religion, art, literature and collected wisdom. If not, we will be training
graduates whose first preference is to leave the country at the first
opportunity to be a migrant in an English speaking country thereby denying
their services to the country that trained their hand. Unfortunately, some
misguided youth who did not enter the universities also try to follow the
same path even by boats.I think the loss to the country as a result of not
reforming higher education to country's current needs is even more in
billions lost compared to the bond scam. Gamage.S. 2014.Changing Patterns
of Anthropology and Sociology Practices in Sri Lanka in the Context of
Debates on Northern and Southern Theory, Social Affairs, Vol. 1(1).

Gamage,S. 2016. Academic Dependency on Western Disciplinary Knowledge and
Captive Mind among South Asian Sociologists, Social Affairs, Vol. 1(5).

Obeyesekera,R. 1984. The Bilingual Intelligentsia: Tgeir contribution to
the Intellectual Life of Sri Lanka in the Twentieth Century, in Honouring
E.F.C. Ludowyk Felicitation Essays (eds) Percy Colin-Thome and Ashley
Halpe, Thisara Prakasakayo, Dehiwala.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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