Years ago, when Malinda Seneviratne and Michael Meyler crossed swords over English Our Way, the debate was between Standard English and Sri Lankan English.
My contention then, as now, was that disagreement with one does not necessarily imply agreement with the other, since such dichotomies don’t play out in reality.
If the World English’s project assumes a world of language practices and standards, it makes perfect sense to acquaint oneself with both default and local variants of those standards. For Malinda, this was a first step in facing the ghost of colonialism. For me, the rationale was simpler: intellectuals who spill ink over the non-speaker assume that the Native Other requires their benevolence. It is to break this cycle of dependence that I believe we must get out of the rhetoric of Sri Lankan English.
The truth is that English Our Way failed because it empowered a community of non-speakers to wield English the way they wanted to without making them aware of the base on which it stood. One can say, “Screw it, we don’t need English as she should be spoke.” One can say, “Screw it, we can create our own standards!” But to break away from tradition, one must be acquainted with that tradition.
The truth is that English Our Way failed because it empowered a community of non-speakers to wield English the way they wanted to without making them aware of the base on which it stood
All these seem peripheral to the debate over English and how it is perceived by the majority in this country, but these issues are vital to our understanding of the debate because, believe it or not, the subject of English education is never as hard as it’s cut out to be. As far as languages go, English is, if we are to quote Malinda himself here, “eminently learnable.” And if it is, then that means that all those other issues pointed out above are, for the lack of a better way of putting it, nonentities which have been turned into profound, self-apparent problems by academics and practitioners.
Sure, it’s not the easiest language to learn but that’s because it operates on two layers: written and spoken. Unlike Sinhala, English does not operate on a rift between these two layers, but in post colonial societies like Sri Lanka, the myth of elocution and its poorer cousin “Spoken English” has been sustained for so long that spoken and written English remain miles apart. That is why students from Grade Six and even before are sent to two kinds of classes, to write and pass exams and to pronounce.
Unlike Sinhala, English does not operate on a rift between these two layers, but in post colonial societies like Sri Lanka, the myth of elocution and its poorer cousin “Spoken English” has been sustained for so long that spoken and written English remain miles apart
Parents tend to privilege English during their children’s middle school years, since when the O/Levels and A/Levels are around, they get them to concentrate on more important subjects. Needless to say, tuition Sirs and Madams profit from this trend to such an extent that one hardly, if ever, come across English tuition classes at A/Levels or O/Levels (even though English is compulsory for the latter). The free market, in other words, squeezes money out of student while he is in middle school.
Just what is taught during this period, within and outside the classroom, is a matter of debate. As a subject, it falls into that classic self-contradictory dilemma: children are taught too much, and also too little. The way I see it, this reflects the entire country’s attitude towards the language: we want it, but can’t have it, and we want to speak it, and are assailed every day by a pop culture that has democratised the standards of that language (rap, hip-hop, the American thriller film), but still can’t find the courage to put two words together. Teenagers who sing the latest Ed Sheeran song start trembling when asked to recite a poem or deliver a speech in front of a class. It’s as soft as a rose, as flexible as it can get, and yet, as a language, it is also as hard as steel, if not harder: we’re told that everyone can penetrate it, that through some magical formula called English Our Way we can master it, but in reality, we cannot.
Part of the reason for that, of course, is the dependency culture we’ve grown used to. At a basic level, we believe that tuition teachers can deliver. That they can and that the more gifted of them can spoon-feed their students well is another story altogether, but even accounting for this, the fact is that parents believe all it takes for their children’s marks to improve is a visit to the tuition master.
There are young people I encounter who want to learn “Spoken English” for reasons which exist outside their classrooms. Some of them neglected tuition in their middle school years and regret it. Others heard their friends speak it eloquently. Still others feel that they may be seen as “goday” if they don’t pronounce words properly
For a hard subject that requires memorisation, there’s no harm in entertaining such an attitude. A language, by contrast, be it English, Sinhala, Tamil, or Swahili, thrives on more than just rote learning. It thrives on a literature, a culture of connoisseurship that enables the student to wade through using every possible means, including the popular culture. (For pop culture, despite its derogatory overtones, can become, in the hands of the astute student, a means of learning: after all even Shakespeare, before he became the subject of academic treatises, belonged to that culture once.)
There are young people I encounter who want to learn “Spoken English” for reasons which exist outside their classrooms. Some of them neglected tuition in their middle school years and regret it. Others heard their friends speak it eloquently. Still others feel that they may be seen as “goday” if they don’t pronounce words properly. Either way, they see in English one way of climbing the social ladder. They do not want to master it. They do not even want to speak it eloquently. They only want to speak the language, passably. And they want to get their diphthongs correct, even if they don’t practice with marbles in their mouth.
No, they are probably not enthusiastic about the Henry Higgins school of Received Pronunciation (who is?), but while they are not students of elocution, they do want to get their accents and inflections correct (regardless of whether or not those accents and inflections are “posh”). However, even with their feelings of inferiority, for them English is no more than a mode of communication. “I understand what people say, I’ve learnt the grammar the way I can, but to talk back to those people with the same intensity, the same ease and passion, is what I want” is the typical response I get from students when I ask them about what they feel they lack.
It’s a paradox at one level. These young people do not want to master the language they hanker after. Advertisement after advertisement preach the virtues of Spoken English (for the Sinhala speaking lower middle class) or Elocution (for the English speaking middle class), and these youngsters are aware that they should speak it, but they want to be through with it quickly. “Actually, we do want to speak it [“actually” figures in the dictionary of the Sinhala non-English speaking youth: the most obvious reason for this I can point out is that, as with words like “therefore”, they feel every sentence has to be prefixed by it, almost as a matter of etiquette], but you know, we want to speak it really fast,” one young man told me.
There lies the paradox and the tragedy: when it comes to the “kadda”, the non-speaker has been forced to acknowledge its importance through reasons that exist outside the classroom. The textbooks and workbooks they use are worthless, so they resort to the next best thing: the Spoken English class, overseen by teachers whose credentials are, if at all, suspect. And yet, when they resort to it, they want to speak it swiftly. So out of the window goes the need to learn the language by its literature. Out of that same window also goes that culture of connoisseurship, through which a language can not only be spoken, but more importantly also mastered.
At the end of the day, this is the problem English Our Way has not resolved. The free market has castrated English (it’s castrated Sinhala too, but that’s another story).
It has divorced language from literature. It has created a class of wannabe speakers out of the non English speakers, separating them from the snooty writers who, as Malinda once put it, talk about English Our Way “over a cup of tea at 2.34 pm in some living room in a non-Sri Lankan English that the people of this country are now being told they don’t have to learn.” It has messed up everything, turning us at the end of the day into a nation of gandabba English speakers, neither here nor there.
In another essay I shall delve into the mannerisms and characteristics of the young non English speaker, as I have come across him/her. For now, however, I will close with a contentious observation: while the snooty speaker dwells on Sri Lankan English as the “way forward” for the country, the country is being fragmented by an inadequate and unsuitable level of English education, even as intellectuals who’ve benefited from the elitist structures it has spawned lament those same structures (and that, I should add, in a rather unsatisfactory, hypocritical way). A tragedy? You bet!