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When I received the invitation from Father Placidus which I felt privileged and happy to accept, my mind went back to my early days in school and recalled the awe and adulation in which we held that great icon of the education system of those times - the Late Rev. Fr. Peter Pillai. I had my schooling at Royal at a time when the Rector of St. Joseph’s, Fr Peter Pillai together with some other great principals of that period like L.H.Methananda of Ananda and Warden de Saram of St Thomas’ was a colossus striding across the secondary school system of those times.
As I grew up and reached the higher classes in school, we were experiencing for the first time in our post independence history, the increasing pressure from students desiring to enter the only two universities available at that period, Peradeniya and Colombo. The establishment of Aquinas was a response to this reality. Fr. Peter Pillai took the important step, - highly innovative and brave for that period, 54 years ago, - of making available to the children who could not enter either of our two universities, and could not afford to go abroad, an opportunity to follow a university course leading up to a degree, at a very affordable cost in their own country.
Aquinas was therefore a path-finder, a trail-blazer. And for those of us who looked up to your Founding Father as one of the greatest scholars and educationists of our childhood and youth, it brings a sense of joy and satisfaction today to find his dream realised in this respected University College.
Warns against neglecting English
As an educationist, Fr. Peter Pillai is known to have warned us, time and time again, against the dangers of neglecting English. He maintained that a student’s education could not be rounded and made complete without the knowledge of English which he saw then as emerging to become the global language of communication and trade.
At the same time, his passion for social justice and equality of opportunity saw the need for the democratisation of educational opportunity while empowering the indegenous Sinhala and Tamil speaking communities. Fr. Peter Pillai therefore while emphasising the importance of English, at the same time was strongly of the view that Sinhala and Tamil should be the media of instruction in our schools.
This is the conundrum. This is the crux of the problem of English in Sri Lanka today. In a resource poor country such as ours, how does one resolve the tension between two sets of objectives that are apparently at conflict with each other?
On the one side, the crafting of a just and democratic society in Sri Lanka demands the dismantling of privilege, - and English was the trade mark of privilege and elite status and a powerful instrument of social repression, while on the other side, in an increasingly globalised environment, English is rapidly becoming an essential requirement for social and economic advancement. This is the dilemma.
Development with democracy, - or equitable development for all rather than a fast track development for a few, - requires that neither set of objectives should be reached at the cost of the other.
Throughout the last six decades, our educationists have been unable to resolve this clash of development objectives reflected in this dilemma. Fr. Peter Pillai, despite his vision, was no exception.
In his extensive writings Fr. Peter Pillai did not venture to analyse this clash of development objectives or suggest solutions.
It was within this framework and against this background that the President recently launched a National Initiative to disseminate job-oriented spoken or communicative English skills across the country.
A Special Presidential Task Force on ‘English as a Life Skill’ supported and guided by Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President has been mandated to ensure that English is progressively made available as a Life Skill to our people. I function as the coordinator of this Presidential Task Force.
English and the Social Process
In crafting the strategy to try and reach the objectives laid down by the President, our point of departure was a comparison of Sri Lanka and India in relation to English. Both are resource poor countries.
Both countries have strong democratic traditions. Both countries after independence have been progressively dismantling privilege and generating processes of inclusiveness in the sharing of the benefits of development.
And both are former British colonies and share a broad South Asian culture. With such commonalities in recent history and social process, how is it that while English skills got weakened in Sri Lanka, they got strengthened and further enhanced during the same period in India. The answer to this inquiry is most revealing.
English and elite formation
Sri Lankan social elites of the colonial and immediate post colonial periods were highly Westernised. They crafted and delivered an English language product to serve as a hallmark of their exclusive elite status which was defined by them largely if not wholly in terms of westernisation.
English was crafted by them as a gateway to the west, as a rejection of one’s cultural roots, a language therefore that should be spoken as an Englishman would speak it - unblemished diction, perfect grammar, and technically perfect pronunciation.
The colonial and post colonial Indian elites in contrast were not westernised in the same way. They were strongly rooted in their own culture and tradition. And westernisation was not the hallmark of elite status in India as it was in our country.
English was crafted by them simply as a tool of communication, as a life skill and not as a language as such or as a gateway to elite status. Indians spoke English the Indian way. They had no obsession with perfect diction, perfect grammar or perfect pronunciation.
Unlike in Sri Lanka, the post independence processes of democratisation, social justice and social inclusiveness in India therefore did not demand the dismantling of English which in India was not a privilege or a trademark of elite status, but simply a life skill, a tool of communication.
Crafting a new strategy
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s initiative ‘English as a Life Skill’ will try to resolve the conundrum that still continues to impede the diffusion of English language skills in our country. It strategises the dissemination of English skills in such a way that while communication skills in English and employability are enhanced, English is not packaged and delivered as a hallmark of social power and status or an instrument of social repression.
English is packaged and delivered quite simply as a ‘Life Skill’, as a communicative skill that is needed for employment and not as a stamp of westernisation. It is a strategy that is crafted on the historical experience of India, especially of its four States south of the Vindhyas.
The short-term objective of the new strategy is the enhancement within three years of 50,000 persons with job-oriented spoken English skills for employment in services such as the IT related BPO industry. Such sectors presently do not attract investment opportunities in Sri Lanka largely, though not exclusively, because of the absence of adequate and appropriate spoken English skills in our country. Employment can also be sourced by those acquiring communicative English skills in already existing businesses that are desperately searching for persons with spoken English skills for employment.
Skills and its output
Where the present state of delivery of English language skills is concerned, the ground reality today presents a kind of paradox or riddle. On the one side there is in our country a tragic paucity of job oriented spoken English skills. On the other side in a small country like ours there are as many as 21,850 English teachers in government schools and more than 4,000 private tutoring institutes teaching English among other subjects.
Thus while the English language is being delivered so widely and so extensively in all parts of the country, the sad experience of employers is that they cannot find persons with adequate spoken English skills for employment.
It is the view of the Presidential Initiative on ‘English as a Life Skill’ that the key to this riddle lies in the way in which English has been, and continues to be perceived and delivered by the English teaching mainstream in the country. It still continues to perceive English as a ‘language’ rather than as a ‘communication tool’; and it still continues to deliver English to students by using teaching methods that were developed in English speaking countries such as England, Canada, USA and Australia, to deliver the structure and rules of the language to students who have already learnt to communicate in English in their English speaking homes and environments.
When the language is delivered through a structure, grammar and translation approach to learners from non English speaking homes and environments such as those from Sinhala and Tamil speaking rural homes, a fear of English grips the mind of the learner - resulting in a dreadful fear to speak in English. This is why we have the paradox of nearly 21,000 teachers and over 4,000 tutoring institutes producing but a dreadfully small talent pool of employable English speakers in our country.
In mainstream education, English continues to be delivered using more or less the same approach and methodology through which dead languages are delivered to learners, - Sanskrit, Latin, and Pali, - not to be spoken, but to be read and with difficulty written, usually with the help of a dictionary.
A new approach to English teaching
The overriding strategy of the Presidential initiative, therefore, is to bring about a radical if not revolutionary transformation of English teaching methods in the country. The transformation will hopefully replace the teaching of English through structure, grammar and translation with the teaching of English through listening, speaking, reading and writing (the LSRW method) - a teaching methodology developed in India and rapidly refined in the course of the past 10 years.
India and particularly her Southern States provide the role model of a developing country where the new IT-related service sector employment opportunities of the last 10 years, especially in the BPO sector, have resulted in the radical transformation of English teaching methods and course content. Concomitantly it has seen a recent growth of a successful and expanding spoken English teaching enterprise in both the government and private sectors of education.
Navigating the Presidential Initiative
The Presidential Initiative has already launched two processes through which an English teaching methodology transfer, - the transfer of a soft technology, - from India to Sri Lanka will hopefully be navigated. Sri Lanka receives the fullest support of the Government of India in these endeavours. While one process targets the private tutoring sector, the other has as its focus the 21,000 strong government English school teacher base in the country.
To introduce the new job-oriented spoken English teaching methods to the private tutoring sector, the Presidential Secretariat together with the Board of Investment (BOI) organised a three-day “Business Mela” where 11 Indian English teaching institutes displayed their state-of-the-art teaching methods and course content to more than 300 Sri Lankan tutoring institutes in the last week of April this year.
The leading communicative or spoken English teaching institute of Tamilnadu, VETA of Chennai, has already established several teaching outlets through a major franchise in Sri Lanka. The leading Institute of Andhra Pradesh, Russells Institute of Spoken English of Hyderabad, is also expected to start a joint English teaching enterprise soon, in partnership with a local institute.
Broad contours of the Indian learning model
In the Indian model, with around 60 hours of learning a student can reach the proficiency level of what is called ‘Survival English’, or just enough English to speak a few sentences though not continuously, but totally inadequate for employment. With another 50 hours of learning a student can reach the proficiency level of ‘Business English’ or ‘Basic English’ - a level of competence that qualifies for employment in an office, speak basic English, attend to correspondence/Email, speak to visitors, read basic manuals etc.
From here, a student can branch out to reach still higher levels of proficiency. For example, ‘Executive Level English’ with capacity to write reports, conduct negotiations etc in English will require another 50 learning hours; or language proficiency for employment in a Call Centre which requires advanced diction, accent neutralisation etc will require another 70 learning hours; while industry specific language training will require a further 20 - 25 learning hours.
Re-training Teachers with Indian Assistance
For re-training the 21,000 strong government English teacher base, India and Sri Lanka will establish, hopefully by January 2009, a ‘Sri Lanka - India Centre for English Language Training’ (SLICELT) in Peradeniya. The Government of India will provide two permanent professors and short-term specialists from the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) of Hyderabad - India’s Centre of Excellence for English Language Training. India will also gift a state-of-the-art 40 unit Digital Language laboratory to the new Centre. Sri Lanka will have to provide the infrastructure.
The Indian Government has also provided 41 scholarships for experienced English teachers from Sri Lanka who are presently being trained as master trainers at EFLU Hyderabad from September to December this year.
To ensure an equitable distribution of the awards among all provinces, four teachers from each province were selected for training in Hyderabad with two additional teachers each for the Western, Central and Southern provinces, from where the vast majority of applications were received.
On their return they will work in their respective provinces and provide the first level of training in the new job-oriented English teaching methods to government English teachers, who will then be sent to SLICELT at Peradeniya for advanced training.
SLICELT will also be tasked with the responsibility of working in cooperation with the English Language Unit of the Education Ministry and the Department of Examinations, to design a multi-tiered certification process for both English teachers and learners. No norms and standards exist for them today; SLICELT will be tasked with the responsibility of establishing the process.
Need for regulation
Some form of regulation is necessary to steer the job-oriented spoken English drive of the President in the proper direction. Today anyone can pass off as an English teacher and teach anything that claims to pass off as English.
For example, what is delivered as ‘Spoken English’ in most parts of Sri Lanka’s private education market is even lower in quality than what is classified in India as ‘Survival English’.
The vast majority of those who have followed spoken English courses in our private education sector, with the exception of those coming out of a handful of leading institutions like Aquinas, are therefore far from being employable.
Several other activities too are being planned by the Presidential Task Force. With the cooperation of the Government of India, a project is being jointly planned by the English Unit of the Education Ministry and the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) of Hyderabad to produce new communicative English teaching material for our schools.
Also, in a country such as ours where more than 80 per cent of all homes have television, the Task Force plans to introduce distance learning of English through modular type television programmes , - for instance, a course of 200 half hour TV modules in Basic Communicative English. In preparing for this initiative, the Task Force is planning to have 25 English teachers trained by Indian consultants in ‘Instructional Designing’ - the skill of converting written teaching material into television script - for producing distance learning courses in Communicative English.
Ideological Discipline and the crafting of an Action Programme
The Task Force has therefore started several activities and has planned several more in the course of its first nine months of work.
In crafting our activities we will bear in mind and analyse our country’s past failures and successes in the teaching of English and learn from them; we shall learn from the experience of our neighbours and particularly from the recent success of India in the dissemination of spoken English skills; we shall respect the views and ideologies of our educationists, past and present, about the teaching of English; and above all we shall assure ourselves and our country that whatever we propose and do shall be in harmony with the ideological commitment of the ‘Mahinda Chintana’ to the crafting of a just, democratic, inclusive and peaceful Sri Lankan society devoid of social privilege and with equitable development and prosperity for all.