1 December, 2021


English Or “Kadda”: What Shall It Be?

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

In a speech titled “Can the Subaltern Speak English?” delivered at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Kandy on August 9, Dhanuka Bandara takes to task those he sees as academic messiahs who write about emancipating the marginalised Other who cannot wield English as the privileged can. For Dhanuka, such “messianism” is a cover for “crass careerism”, a path to de-hegemonisation of language standards that promotes traditional intellectuals (“reactionary appendages of dominant minorities”) over organic intellectuals (“at the forefront of social change”). Such careerists can only speak of the marginalised Other (the “native non-English speaker”) in terms they can relate to, based overwhelmingly on Western scholarship.

Over the course of his speech Dhanuka refers to, among others, Arjuna Parakrama, Godfrey Gunatilleke, and the late Manique Gunasekara, and contends that the work of these three intellectuals revolves around one pressing question: how does one deliver an English education to a country to which “English” has always been at best an alien experience, and if so, how can one deliver it via an authentic “Lankan” experience? 

Parakrama condemns the inability of English educationists to relate what is taught to the society around them (because of texts which overwhelmingly relate foreign items, from fruits to films), an issue that is supplemented by an even bigger one: “the current paradigm that Lankan history is the triumphal march of Buddhism.” In other words, according to Parakrama, not only is the rural student unaware of what is taught in English textbooks, he is made to grapple with another tier of exclusion: the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony that holds sway over our education system.

Dhanuka’s issue with this line of thinking is that, at one level, it is a promotion of a way of teaching English that limits the rural child’s way of seeing. Which is true, I should think. Much of the discourse surrounding English Our Way (which Malinda Seneviratne tore to pieces years ago), after all, is rooted in the assumption that we should all speak English the way we and our countrymen want, free of grammatical and syntactical constraints. This culture of “linguistic licentiousness” has, at the end of the day, the effect of promoting a rift between those who speak and those who “spik”, between those who can wield the language and those who can barely put two words together. Dhanuka’s speech in that sense sheds light on another aspect of this debate: are those who idolise Sri Lankan English, as Orwell once put it, saints who should be “judged guilty until they are proven innocent”?

Dhanuka Bandara

In my experience so far, limited though it is, “English education” is not a problem prefixed by social class and background. At a basic level, there are “poor” children, coming from rural backgrounds, who can speak the language better than their more privileged counterparts from the city. It is also not a problem of experience, which means that the debate over whether our textbooks should limit the items and other things (again, from fruits to films) to what is “local” is actually a nonentity.

Dhanuka himself is a case in point: eloquent writer of English that he is, he came from a Sinhala speaking background, didn’t go to a popular or private school, and learnt the language on his own. But then, as he points out, he “first experienced snow two years ago” and “learnt by rote Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ in Grade Eleven”, and yet “[did] not recall any particular difficulty relating to it.”

I myself can think of several encounters I’ve had with students who, while alienated from foreign experiences, nevertheless relate to them quite instinctively. (Just get them to watch an American thriller film and you’ll see how they react.) Neither social class nor inability to relate to foreign experiences, factors though they may be, seems then to have much of a say in determining why one class grows up ignorant of English and another grows up wielding it as though it were the most natural thing.

The issue of class, in the context of English education, has been examined from every angle by scholars like Parakrama and Gunasekara. Parakrama’s didactic assessments of this problem (read his essay “Naduth Unge Baduth Unge: Some Thoughts on the Language of Privilege and the Privileges of Language”, which Dhanuka refers to in his speech) can be simplified to an observation Doric de Souza once made: that the items exhibited in English textbooks are outside the frame of reference of the typical Sri Lankan child. Parakrama offers a more academic take on this:

“There is no room for the radical alterity of these who are not caught within the nexus of power/access to power/the possibility of access to power in the future. For those outside the pale, as it were, the logic of resistance and protest as we understand it does not clinch. For this group for whom the trendy term would be ‘subaltern’, other paradigms of resistance and protest need to be conceptualized, since, to echo Ranajith Guha, there is dominance without hegemony.”

In other words, the subaltern, who happen to be the majority, are denied the very tools of resistance which a proper English education should equip them with. English in this sense can be both a “kaduwa” (oppressive) and a “hiramanaya” (utilitarian), and in the right hands, it can turn from the one to the other.

The reductionism of this Elite/Other dichotomy is felt in every debate, but nowhere else has it been felt more than in the debate over English education. What it does, as Dhanuka and other scholars opposed to the tenets of Sri Lankan English have argued, is to presume the ignorance of the rural child and the eliteness of the urban child, and the God given right of academics to “safeguard” the “innocence” of the rural child by (inadvertently) preserving the rift between him and his urban counterpart, when the reality can and should be quite different. Or as Dhanuka puts it:

“… the assumption is that so called subalterns remain as empty vessels, they do not have the language to curse, are bereft of means of resistance, unless they receive their liberation as a benevolent gift from those who oppress them.”

Given that I certainly am not up to the task of examining this issue from an academic standpoint, a few heretical thoughts on the way English is viewed by the typical child, and the gradation in perceptions, prejudices, and perspectives regarding the subject of English between the rural and the urban child, are, I feel, called for.

The typical Sinhala speaking student (I unfortunately have not had encounters with Tamil speaking students, yet) has a name for English in their dictionary: “kadda”. It is a corruption of “kaduwa” and it is derived from the saying “kadden kotanawa” (“using language as a sword to brush away people”).

Interestingly enough, perhaps owing to the culture of complacency regarding the teaching of the language we’ve institutionalised over the decades, “kadda” is not a term of disparagement or fear. On the contrary, it is used whimsically, not to ridicule the non speaker of English, but to refer to and ridicule the speaker. (Whenever I pick up the phone and speak in front of them, I hear their giggles as they try to imitate me and poke fun at the mistakes they make.) The young non English speaker no longer regrets his lack of English education; he laughs at it and that by consciously laughing at the errors he commits. Be it Royal College or Kekirawa Central, this process plays out in almost exactly the same way.

This presents us with a rather interesting cultural phenomena, the way I see it: the ability of the non English speaking child to compensate for his failure to wield the language by resorting to a colloquialism with obvious colonial overtones (“kaduwa” as a term of disparagement of English traces its roots to postcolonial Ceylonese society) while being indifferent to or ignorant of those same overtones. In other words, the Sinhala speaking child views English through a dualistic lens: he realises its importance in a society that prioritises spoken over written English (most of the students I interviewed wanted to speak and pronounce, not to read and write), but he no longer views it as the step up the social ladder it used to be before.

Ironically, globalisation, which has “advertised” elocution in our society (which belong to the “outer circle” of Braj Kachru’s “World Englishes” model), is to blame for that: it has made it possible for the non English speaker to let go of the language, since he seeks other ways of climbing that ladder: through material things that are marketed day in and day out, rather than through ideas.

Dhanuka’s speech thus stands out because the Elite/Other dichotomy no longer holds water, since English is no longer the dominant hegemony it used to be. 50 years ago, the English speaker was privileged. He still is today, but the structures of poverty in our society have emboldened the non English speaker to “ignore” his ignorance and yet enjoy “the good life.” As a final point, we can therefore say that the non English speaker, regardless of whether he attends Royal College or Kekirawa Central, has succeeded in compensating for his weakness in the language via casual, illusory self-mockery. This, for me, is the real tragedy we should be looking at.

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Latest comments

  • 12

    Sri Lankans should get out more and see the nature and role of English the world over. It is the international language for communication across the globe. It is seen for what it is: as a language, as a tool for communication. Nothing more, nothing less. No cultural baggage. It is plain English: simple, direct and clear. Easy to learn, and easy to use. That is the kind of English we need in Sri Lanka too in order to raise the competence level rapidly. Don’t bring in urban/rural, affluent/poor, English background/Sinhala background distinctions. Who cares? When we go into the wider world, we all look the same, and our English sounds the same to the foreigners. They can’t say whether you studied at Royal or Kekirawa Central. It means nothing as long as you can communicate in English effectively. Raising the level of English competence rapidly is essential for the development of the country. It would help us improve our technology, higher education, the media and communications. This in turn would lead to economic growth. But unfortunately, because of our colonial past, we tend to fetishize English and enmesh it with the stupid social class system We are obsessed too much with grammar and something called the ‘correct’ accent, making English learning a big ordeal. And we keep writing self-regarding articles about something called Sri Lankan English. Just look at the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese. Sometimes people don’t understand their English, but they don’t care. They get their things done.

    • 3

      “not only is the rural student unaware of what is taught in English textbooks, he is made to grapple with another tier of exclusion: the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony that holds sway over our education system.”
      This is the very root of the problem. This “Sinhala Buddhist ” ethos assumes that all knowledge must be framed in that culture, eg no questioning of such things as Buddha’s alleged visits to SL, the authenticity of various religious objects, and so on. In the Western ethos, nothing is sacred and one may question anything until truth prevails. English education also comes with a certain amount of Christian baggage (many common quotes and proverbs come from the Bible), just as Sinhala has a lot of Buddhist baggage.
      It is possible for Chinese and Japanese to function without English because they have a history of local technological achievements , which we never had. Yes, yes, I can sense the super-patriots girding up to attack me with the “hydraulic civilization” , but this is nothing compared to inventions and discoveries like printing , gunpowder, magnetism etc.
      There is no such thing as “correct” English . If you can make yourself clearly understood, your accent and grammar do not matter.

  • 6

    The English language is not important as many Sri Lankan’s assume. I’ve lived, worked and studied in Europe and the US. Western Civilization is based on mathematical principals. English while required for communication is secondary. There were times in History that it was Sanskrit, Pali , Latin and French. Languages come and go. Negotiations after the first world war ( 1914-1918 ) were conducted in French. French was the most important language in Europe between about the 1700’s until the 1920’s. The Normans from France conquered Briton in 1066. As someone said ” English is nothing but badly mispronounced French “
    Immigrants from China, Muslims ( for example Yemen, Morocco, Egypt etc ) , Russians, Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans etc are successful in the US despite the fact they cannot speak proper English. . It’s the ability to buy, sell and as they call it ‘ Hustle ” based on numbers that vital for success.
    The British empire collapsed in 1945. They are no longer relevant. USA will also break up in the next 20 years. In the next few decades Sri Lankan’s will have start learning Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean – if they want to move up in the world.

    • 1

      I know mathematicians or enginners in offices would not want to learn Englsih enough so that they should always need to explain things. But medical doctors or scientists should learn the langague at least to some extents in order to face their working day today life.
      I agree with you that some professionals in Maths or the like fields would not need to exchange anything with human beings, but to stay working with their cyber systems, but bio or other researchers do need to learn to share their thoughts if need to move forward.
      So, the easy langague for all has sofar been English. If Sabhguru from India did not have enough langague skills, he could not have shared his own vision to the world. Please listen to him. His simple thoughts are polarising today across the world.

    • 3

      Niro: “The English language is not important as many Sri Lankan’s assume”.
      “I’ve lived, worked and studied in Europe and the US.”
      aren’t you contradicting your self by writing in English?

    • 2

      “Western Civilization is based on mathematical principals. “

      I think you mean to say, the advance of Western civilization is based on advances in technology, which corresponds to some extent with advances in mathematics. In particular, the Industrial Revolution, which facilitated large-scale manufacturing, thereby improving the living standards of the population by leaps and bounds. Once people were comfortable economically, they began demanding more, such as free education and gender equality.

      English is still the language of commerce. So it is necessary for those who wish to go into commerce and commerce-related fields to learn English well.

    • 1

      “The British empire collapsed in 1945. They are no longer relevant”
      We are talking about English Language and not the British Empire.
      In USA soon Spanish will be the majority language.
      In some parts of USA and UK , the predominantly English speaking country , you can survive without knowing English.

      I think you are missing the point, it is impossible for every one to learn every one else’s language.

      for example you cant expect Sri Lankan business community to learn, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Hindi, Chinese etc etc to do business with each and every country.

      This is why English is recognized as the Global business language.

  • 3

    you don’t need English to live and work in Sri Lanka. In the South you need Sinhala in the north and east you need Tamil. In wellawatte you need Tamil.In the upcoming port city you need to learn Chinese.

    All Govt departments function in Sinhala. Even in blue chip companies and banks and not all speak English. Only senior managers speak English.

    Only Royalist and Thomians spoke/speak broken English

    The problem with the elites the likes of Uditha Devapriya is that they pretend not to know Sinhala and think they have mastered English. Losers on both count.

    • 5

      How false you should be ?

      If Medical litriture is based fully on English

      If Law books literiture is fully based on English

      How dare you to see that you dont need English to live in the country ?

      Today, people are so addicted to cell phones. Are there any phones that can only be operated fully by Tamil or Sinhala ?
      Sure to some extent yes, but all the basic level adjustments CANT be made without English.

      Medicine – all the names of pharmaceuticals in English.
      Srilanka is not comparable to Germany or France or any other powerful EU country not work without being dependent on English.
      Please see it right even if your stupid ego does not seem to allow you that.

      • 3


        The Sinhala Govt brought suyabasha …learn in mother tounge and translated all the books (“O” level and “A” medical , law books etc etc) in Sinhala and Tamil with disastrous effect.

        Doctors in Sri Lanka qualify in English and work in Sinhala or Tamil depending where they are.

        you can live comfortably without English language in Sri Lanka

        The other day I went to the land registry …no chance of getting done anything unless you know Sinhala.
        At Colombo Municipal Council I was lucky there were some English speaking staff who kindly helped me out.

  • 6

    Can’t understand this at all. Even those who criticize English educate their own children in English ! Most of them dream of migrating to an English speaking country-Australia, USA, Canada, UK.

    All the English speaking countries are in the First World-they are democratic, have strong institutions and generally less corrupt too.

    What will happen if we all speak in Tamil or Malayli or even Chinese ? Will the world be a better place. ?

    • 0

      The Malayali-speakers and the Chinese at least have a passport which is taken seriously.

  • 0

    One English language website, WIKIPEDIA, contains more terabytes of scientific, technical, historical and other useful information than all the Sinhala and Tamil websites combined. Just browse through Wikipedia! I am excluding all audio and video files, which are mostly used for entertainment purposes, from this comparison.

  • 0

    Forget the past, the fact is that today English is a global language. Look no further than CT.’s Sinhala page. Do you find the wealth of articles and comments that you find here? No, of course not.

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