By Uditha Devapriya –
There are two magic numbers people point at whenever there’s a debate about the state of English: 5% and 95%. The first represents the percentage of those who are proficient; the second represents the percentage of those who are not. The latter predominates, while the split between the two has been there since J. R. Jayewardene moved a Sinhala Only resolution at the State Council in 1944. It is said that during the debate over the resolution, which was modified to accommodate the reasonable use of Tamil, Jayewardene remarked that Ceylon was split into two nations: one that spoke the vernacular and one that spoke the coloniser’s language. 12 years later, reflecting on the shift in the linguistic divide from swabasha versus English to Sinhala versus Tamil, Colvin R. de Silva, alluding to and paraphrasing Bernard Shaw, would ask, “Do we… want a single nation or do we want two nations?”
Sri Lanka has not exactly picked up when it comes to the language. According to the EF English Proficiency Index, which ranks more than 80 countries worldwide, Sri Lanka’s ranking slipped from 30 to 61 over the period from 2013 to 2017, recording a mild improvement this year to 58. While the 5%-95% split is conveniently paraded around as evidence that the system has failed our children, a conservative estimate of those who are fairly proficient puts the figure at 22%. That, by the way, is the English literacy rate among Sri Lanka’s population above 15 years of age.
What befuddles me is that this downward spiral continues despite the fact that very many people, particularly school going youngsters, have become conscious of the importance of mastering if not grasping the language in a society that is leaving the analog world behind. (We still haven’t transformed into a digital economy, but we are on our way.) Worse, that spiral continues despite the proliferation of English classes and spoken English courses practically everywhere. I can only quote the tagline that Kamal Addaraarachchi used for his classes, “kaduwe naduwa api visadannemu”, and remark that we still haven’t resolved that naduwa.
As a person who studied in English in school but was brought up in a completely vernacular household, I am in a rather awkward position. On the one hand, I can relate to the problems of the vernacular population. On the other hand, I am constrained by an English education from reaching out to those problems and proposing reasonable, cohesive solutions. In the course of this essay, the first in a series to come, I therefore will endeavour to tread on easy territory through two broad objectives: a delineation of the problems attendant on the teaching of English and the busting of myths that have coloured much of the discourse relating to this issue.
In a country like Sri Lanka, still reeling from centuries of colonialism, there is bound to be both affirmation and suspicion regarding the way English is taught. It’s self-contradictory at one level, but the attitude is one of casual self-mockery: we laugh at ourselves and at others when they commit mistakes in the language, yet at the same time understand the importance of learning it, and chide ourselves.
At the end of the day, this dualism, which is prevalent in other postcolonial societies as well, congeals into a dichotomy between the elite and subaltern. Simplistic though it is, this is what has made up the debate surrounding which English we should teach, and simply put it coalesces into the following proposition: English education has been the preserve of the elite who have enriched themselves by perpetuating a rift between them and the subaltern. In other words, the point isn’t about the language. It’s about the language standard. Raise the standard, and you kill the elite.
So, on the one hand, you have a whole bunch of language experts, from Arjuna Parakrama to Manique Gunasekara to Doric de Souza, arguing that the subaltern is oppressed because he or she has not been provided with the language to curse, as my friend Dhanuka Bandara puts it. On the other hand, you have a set of young writers, including Dhanuka, who argue that that shielding the subaltern by, for instance, filling local English textbooks with local experiences (which is what Parakrama has argued for in his essays), ends up shielding him or her from the very reality of oppression. If I am to simplify this further, it boils down to the rift between Sri Lankan English and Standard English. Without taking sides, let me say that both sides have compelling arguments and ideas, but that the latter side is more convincing.
A month or so ago, I wrote on a speech Dhanuka delivered at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Kandy last August titled “Can the Subaltern Speak English” (my article can be found here ). I argued that his point, which is that promoting a “nativist” pedagogy of English prevents the subaltern from empowering themselves (since it assumes that the subaltern are unable to resist the hegemony of Standard English without the intervention of academics like Parakrama), can be borne out by the fact that English is no longer the kaduwa it used to be: people, particularly the Sinhala and Tamil speaking youth, have found other ways of reaching the top of the social ladder without relying on the language.
This subaltern (a great many among them) have succeeded economically, in other words, where they have failed linguistically. I contended in my article that far from being a cause for celebration, this was in fact a precursor to a social tragedy that can only worsen if we perpetuate the English Our Way discourse the likes of Parakrama used to parrot. And why? Because by shielding the subaltern from Standard English, we promote a culture of linguistic licentiousness where anything goes. Even the most well off subaltern, illusorily basking in the armchair of English Our Way, will, in the end, find himself crippled when faced with the language standards demanded of him by the rest of the world. It’s a dilemma we must resolve, and fast.
At the hands of the language experts, moreover, the dualism I mentioned above, i.e. between the elite and subaltern, transforms into another: between the snobs and the nationalists. As per Dhanuka, the nationalists, or the radicals, by whom we include Parakrama, perpetuate a society of dependants who can be liberated only by them. Paraphrasing what Dhanuka said, the subaltern can achieve self-liberation in the realm of English purely through the benevolence of the academics, most if not all of whom hail from the class of the oppressors or the snobs. The oppressors have become the benevolent saviours, in other words, turning into saints who, as Orwell once put it, “should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.”
If we are to come up with a meaningful program for the teaching of the language, it goes without saying that we need to equip those who are taught with the tools with which they can guard themselves against the oppressiveness of that language. While Dhanuka inadvertently gives into the dichotomies that he himself slays, i.e. by differentiating between the academics (the false prophets) and the subalterns (the falsely led), his speech is nevertheless, the way I see it, a useful starting point.
I say this because I share with Dhanuka the paradox of being educated in English and brought up in Sinhala (though unlike me, he was educated in Sinhala at school as well, and studied English at Peradeniya). Dhanuka, like Vihanga Perera, does not come from the institutions of privilege that educationists in Colombo and other big cities do. (I do not mention this because those who hail from them are the worst teachers you can get. I mention it because they are not equipped with the kind of experiences that Dhanuka and Vihanga are, with their English schooling and vernacular upbringing.) They are therefore in a much better position to prescribe solutions for the conundrum of English education.
Which brings me to my earlier point: the need to eradicate, if we are to move ahead and come up with these solutions, the elite/subaltern, snob/nationalist dichotomies that the likes of Parakrama have resorted to in their writings. It is difficult to escape from these dichotomies (as I pointed even Dhanuka subscribes to them), because it is easy to adorn a politically neutral issue with populist slogans (the most classic example of which I can think of is: “The rich are bad, the poor virtuous”).
When it comes to THIS issue, it is easy to, for instance, distinguish between a student at Kekirawa Central and a student at Royal College and argue that programs for English education must be catered almost exclusively to the former, because the latter, owing to the privileged position he is in, can obtain the tools of resistance that have been denied to the rural child. It’s like the ending of the film Goal, where the village school football team comes to a formidable position through Jayalath Manorathna’s coaching and, defying all expectations, beats no less an elite institution than Royal College in Colombo. (Yes, for the record, that is how the movie ends.)
Unfortunately, reality does not always subsist on binaries like this. When it comes to the teaching English to the Sinhala and Tamil speaking child, one must be aware not only that one mould does not fit the problem, but also that it takes several moulds to attack the problem. And why? Because no matter how privileged he may be, the student at Royal College, if he hails from a Sinhala or Tamil speaking background, has a set of problems relating to the teaching of English which need attending to as well. In other words, he belongs to that 95%, and ignoring him on the basis of the elite-subaltern divide would be not only futile, but also self-defeating.