We, as business people, know that the most valuable asset of our business is none other than our employees. Similarly, the most valuable asset that a country has is its people. People can be developed in different ways among which education plays a major role. Here is an area that engaged poor attention in people development of the country.
Even though many economic development policies are made to attract more foreign direct investments (FDIs) into the country, a question has to be raised as to whether the country has an English-speaking workforce that is capable of communicating with the world. The time has gone by during which foreign investors looked for workforce with higher literacy rate. As a majority of Sri Lankan population consists of rural people, whose main communication medium is either Sinhala or Tamil, the idea ‘English-speaking workforce’ has been a challenge for the nation over the decades. It is needless to mention that an isolated community can never move forward in this globalized world. Hence, local community has to be armed with English language, which is considered the passport to visit the global village.
The social stigma of broken English can be identified as the culprit responsible for holding the nation back in terms of English language speaking. Stigma means a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. Broken English refers to a poorly spoken or ill-written version of the English language, sometimes considered a pidgin.
If you can remember how you began speaking your mother tongue, your vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar were poor. As nobody laughed at you, once you spoke in your mother tongue, you have become fluent in your language. Unfortunately, we have been unable to apply the same theory into our second language. As a result, the stigma of broken English is on the increase.
The reason is nothing other than the misconception of the language. Language is the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way. However, it seems that the local community, who stigmatizes broken English, has misunderstood the primary task of the language. Some people, who are embarrassed to speak in English in front of the local community, do not hesitate to speak with white-skinned people in the possible way.
English is just like a horseshoe but not a crown. Furthermore, a horse whose foot is attached with a horseshoe made of metal can run very fast and comfortably. Similarly, a person who is fluent in English can move forward very fast and comfortably. However, it is not a crown of which we should be proud. The problem is that people take it as a crown, not as a horseshoe. It needs to be noted here that this stigma has opened a can of worms, intensifying the social stratification which has resulted in many social issues, even riots in the country. When it comes to university level, the plight has gone from bad to worse. That is why, university students are used to calling it ‘kadda’ (sword). Sword is used to behead anyone. That example depicts that how far English language has become a sharp tool to move up in society and can be used as a class tool.
As we were subjects under the imperialism of Great Britain, we are used to respecting those that speak in English but do not know Sinhala and look down upon those that speak in Sinhala but do not know English. Due to this attitude, people coming from non-English-speaking background are to a great extent discriminated in society.
It is very difficult to find a person who has not followed two or three English courses, spending much money on that. However, we obtain the same results, as the same theory is applied. We all know by experience that teaching English at schools has been futile. If so, the question is, what ought to be done.
The language is not something restricted to the book. It is to be practiced. It should be with people, not in the library. The languages that people do not use are called dead languages. Therefore, the time has come to change the approach towards English teaching and learning. Nobody can say this is the point at which one should learn or teach English because it can vary from person to person. For many people, grammar is not the point to be learned or taught. We should speak English in our own way, which we call Sri Lankan English. If we eradicate the stigma of broken English from our minds, we, as a nation, can move towards a new era that is branded as the era of knowledge. It can be reached only if we prioritize human resource development over infrastructure development.
(Amila Muthukutti holds a BA in Economics from the University of Colombo and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)