By Namini Wijedasa –
In the learning of English in Sri Lanka, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing, warned Michael Meyler, author of A Dictionary of Sri Lankan English.
In June, Meyler was awarded the title of a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services he provided to the English language. Now, seated in a noisy Colombo restaurant, I strained to hear the soft-spoken Brit explain why he rejected the idea that English was dying in Sri Lanka.
Standards have dropped
“A lot of people would argue that, since 1956, Sri Lankan standards of English have dropped,” he said. “That’s probably true to a large extent because so many English speaking people emigrated and English was not taught as a medium in school for a generation or two. Those are obvious reasons why the English standard has fallen in the country as a whole.”
“But there has been a revival,” he said. “There are international schools. There’s probably much more connection with the outside world now, with the internet, than there was before. By no means is English dying in Sri Lanka but, a bit like economics, the divide between the haves and have-nots is growing. There’s an increasingly international school-educated or foreign-returned elite who are competent in English. And there is the other, mainly rural community who don’t have the same access to the same facilities to learn English.”
Meyler came to Sri Lanka as an English teacher in 1985 and has worked at the British Council since 1995. He has a degree in modern language and qualifications in English language teaching. The Dictionary of Sri Lankan English was published in 2007. Today he teaches a beginner’s (colloquial) Sinhala course for foreigners at the British Council.
Some of the reasons why English language skills are not equally distributed, he mused, might be insufficient teachers, inadequate facilities and infrastructure for English teaching, and not enough institutions to develop English language teaching. “These are probably insufficient to deal with the huge demand,” Meyler observed, stressing that he is not an expert in this.
I asked him whether there were immediate steps that could be taken to reverse the decline. He replied, “Not really, because I think it’s a huge task and I don’t have an easy answer to that question. The only point I would like to raise from my one experience is that I had hoped ‘Speak English our Way’ might be one positive way of making the language more relevant to a local situation , making it more accessible to people in a more practical way.”
This has not happened, Meyler said. “I do think Sri Lankan English as a concept has a small role to play in making the language more accessible, more relevant and more practical for learners of the language in this country.”
Stripping off colonial baggage
Meyler was reluctant to comment further on the government’s ‘Speak English our Way’ initiative saying he did not know how it was progressing. But in a presentation made in October at the ‘Language and Social Cohesion Conference,’ he observes that, “As a publicity campaign it seems to have been remarkably successful. Suddenly everyone was talking about ‘English our Way.’ The comments at the time seemed to divide roughly evenly between those that welcomed the initiative as a way of taking ownership of the English language, stripping it of its colonial baggage, and making it relevant to the practical needs of ordinary Sri Lankans, and those who feared that it was a sign of falling standards, creating and validating a devalued variety of English which would disadvantage Sri Lankans on the world stage.”
It seemed that scarcely a day went by that there was not an article about Sri Lankan English or ‘English our Way’ and the two terms started to be used interchangeably, Meyler said at the time. “The confusion was understandable, but I feel it is important to differentiate between the two terms because of their different origins and connotations.”
Meyler explained that ‘Sri Lankan English’ was an inclusive term incorporating all the various ways in which English is used in Sri Lanka, by people from different regions, different ethnic and linguistic groups, different religions, different generations, different social classes, etc.
“But in the political context in which it was introduced, the term ‘English our Way’ aroused suspicions that ‘our’ was not an inclusive term, but one which defined English the Colombo way, or the Sinhala way, or some other way which was not necessarily what everyone would call ‘ours.’”
Not agreed or clarified
In his interview with LAKBIMAnEWS, Meyler said there was uncertainty because a lot of people interpreted it as saying teaching English or teaching people to speak anyway they liked, with no standards. “I said at the time that if by ‘our way’ they meant standard Sri Lankan English, it would be a very good idea,” he asserted. “It would be a good, sensible policy to have rather than trying to teach an outdated British standard which is not really relevant to the current situation in Sri Lanka. But my impression is that what they mean by ‘our way’ has not been agreed or clarified. Therefore, the critics are probably right to be concerned about what is really meant by it.”
“I think that you can’t each a language without having some kind of standard and there are two meanings of the word ‘standard,’” Meyler said. “When they talk of Standard English, they mean Standard British or Standard American English. But there are many different standards of English around the world. In the Sri Lankan context, Standard Sri Lankan English is a valid one to have.”
Gee, all know some English…
Commenting on the teaching of languages in Sri Lankan schools, Michael Meyler – who has two sons, said, he wished there was a bilingual culture within educational institutions. “I had some reservations when I wanted to admit my children to school,” he confessed. “The regret I had was that there was not a genuinely bilingual educational opportunity for my children, where students could study maybe some subjects in English and maybe some subjects in Sinhala or English and Tamil.”
His children attended a local private school – where they studied in the Sinhala medium up to age 11 after which they were both enrolled in international schools. “It was because of this lack of bilingual education that we made the decision that we want our kids to come out of the (local) education system,” Meyler explained.
That said, there is definitely a widespread knowledge of English in Sri Lanka, he noted. “There are so many English words used in Sinhala or Tamil so even somebody who speaks no English still does know English,” he explained. “They know ‘car’ and ‘van’ and ‘bus’ and ‘jeep’ and ‘train’ and ‘glass’ and so many other words. All these are used every day in their Sinhala or in their Tamil. I think it’s probably true to say that everybody in Sri Lanka has a fair knowledge of English vocabulary, in some cases several hundred words of English.”
“Pretty much everybody knows the alphabet even though they don’t know much about what to do with it,” Meyler pointed out. “They know A-B-C-D, they know how to form the letters and they recognize the letters. That’s a big thing.”