By Anushka Kahandagama –
The departing point of the article is the statement made by Rathana Thero ‘Teaching Students From Grades 1-5 In English Should Stop’. He bases this argument on the (ill)logic, ‘If a child is given a primary education in a language other than their mother tongue, that child would not be a citizen of that country’. This argument holds illogical, and I do not see a way to even build an argument over this statement. With all due respect, as per Rathana Thero, the ‘citizenship’ of the child is based not even on his/her ability to use the mother tongue, but making the medium of primary education child’s mother tongue. The second argument he makes based on the ‘mother tongue’ patriotism is, national unity should be achieved through making the mother tongue medium of education.
While we are aware of the fact that, 13 years or more English education is an utter failure in the public education in Sri Lanka, can we expect a miracle of teaching a language after grade five? Either the system did not want us to learn the English language properly, as it is a prerequisite to maintain the gaps between social classes, or we were fed as children that, English is a language not suitable to our ‘culture’. Either way, many of us failed in engaging with the English language. However, throughout my life, in studies as well as in carrier, I have regret in not having the opportunity to learn in English medium. I have seen much potential in Sri Lankan students, which dissolves due to the lack of English language ability. We like it or not, English is the international language, and we have to accept it. The global knowledge production is basically in the English language, and we as students are incapable of competing on the global level, not because we lack intelligence, merely due to the lack of English language skills. When making statements such as “Teaching Students From Grades 1-5 In English Should Stop”, one should not misuse the power held by the ‘robe’ to mislead the nation in one second. Throughout history, we have seen this power of the ‘robe’ which led or contributed the nation towards wars, conflicts, riots or communal tensions.
Let’s go back to the first argument again about producing ‘pure Sri Lankan citizens’ by making mother tongue the sole medium of primary education. If you are entrapped in the island with your precious language, what is the need you to especially become the ‘citizens’ of the country? Anyways, you will be imprisoned on the island forever, as you do not get any opportunity outside the country as it is impossible without the English language. Thus, there is no need for you to be present yourself as a Sri Lankan, as you would only get rare opportunities to present the country out in the world.
The second argument he makes is ironic about the national unity. As a person who has seen the history than me, Thero knows that he is proposing a system which is already in place for many decades, which is Tamil/ Muslim students learning in Tamil medium and Sinhala students learn in Sinhala medium. This has led the country towards bloody separatist conflict for many years, while Sinhala medium students participated in two youth insurrections in 1971 ad 1988, due to lack of job opportunities for Sinhala medium student. Thero does not propose a new system which can deal with the national unity, but an already existing system which caused many problems mainly due to language.
Finally, this type of an education system, which Thero is proposing, would have adverse effects on students like us who are coming from lower-middle-class or rural areas. The damage it did to my entire carrier is undoubtedly immense and can not be repaired, and I know that I am not alone in this disadvantage, but there are thousands of Sri Lankan students who are struggling to achieve their full potential with lack of English language skills. The proposed policy would sustain the class structures forever in the country and will only favorable to nationalist politics which is an advantage to a political minority who wants to hold power in the Island forever.
*Reading for MPhil/PhD in Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi