By Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
In the recent past I read with great interest a project initiated by the government encouraging people to speak English. Saw the ‘Master Blaster’ Sanath and the Sprint Queen Susanthika on TV giving encouragement to the concept: Speak any way you can; forget grammar and pronunciation; the intention is to communicate.
The media splashed how the President himself appointed English experts to find new ways to convert the masses from their ‘fol toppee and fan cake’ silence to Higgins’s English that transformed Eliza Doolittle. Good luck to the Presidential team, the idea is to get out of the shell and fire away with what little you know even if you are barbecuing Elizabeth Windsor along with the entire royal family. How far that project proceeded I do not know. Did it blossom or fizzle? That too I don’t know.
Yes, grammar may be important and so is pronunciation, but that should not be a deterrent. The more important ingredient is to ignore the shyness for speaking English and eradicate the dominant fear factor of being laughed at.
Queen’s language to youth
We, from CandleAid started our own campaign to bring the Queen’s language to the youth. Small as we may be, there was always that smidgen we could add in support of the youth to speak English. The young of today need to find means to get out of the ‘barefoot walk’ and speak English. This is one sure way to improve their Sisyphus efforts to find gainful employment, especially in the corporate world.
CandleAid currently has 138 libraries - Sinhalese, Tamil and Maths - spread around the island. The latest are six English Books Only (EBO) libraries. Mathugama, Galewela, Point Pedro, Habarana, Kelaniya and Gorakapola are the locations. The seventh and the eighth will be added in the first week of September in Bandarawela and in the little village of Kotawera near Welimada.
That is the foundation, the availability of an English book for the non-English speaking young. We will build from it, starting with a two-week English course named ‘Trigger Action to English’ taught to a total of 24 hours, three hours a day and four days a week. May sound absurd to experts, but then this country is full of experts who have mainly been preaching mythology from their erudite pedestals. The non-English speaking youth still march on, singing the haunting ‘saadukin pelenawun’ with strained vocal chords to a world that has turned deaf. No English, no job.
The CandleAid course was designed by a newcomer to the teaching field, ADCELS, Academy for Communication and English Language Skills. Guess who will teach the course? You who read and whoever is keen to go to a village and spend a week and teach. It is four days of work, then the teachers change. The script is laid out and has been evaluated and re-evaluated to get the best possible mix.
Of course there would be a ‘train the trainer’ done in Colombo and newcomers will tag along and play second fiddle to a lead instructor. Then they learn to lead and teach with a he or she apprentice. This will be the game plan, may be some corporate people would support, simply the sponsoring part. We often hear of the young facing interviews and failing simply because they cannot speak English. It is the corporate world that needs the youth to be fluent in English. The subject is in their interest.
Trigger action to English
How wonderful it would be if someone who sits in a boardroom would read this article and spare me a thought? How wonderful it would be if someone looking for a change in life makes up his/her mind to go to a village with CandleAid and teach ‘Trigger Action English’ for a week? It only needs one to think outside the box, hear a different drummer and march to a different beat. Of course CandleAid is small and we are no Rockefellers. We are just a grass root organisation. Hence, the constant look for CSR Dons to join hands with us to elevate the neglected young of this land.
Yes, we need teachers, volunteers with a commitment, not party tale seekers or Samaritans trying to add lines to a CV. We have open doors for good communicators who will stay a week in a village and eat with the villagers and jingle-jangle using English as a medium of communication. ‘Trigger Action to English’ is a small beginning to a large problem that is facing the youth of this country.
It’s been perennial, propagated by the simple fact that it was never properly addressed. More than anything else, it is a culture change we need here, especially in the universities. English has to be spoken to go parallel with the degrees they read, that is the only way the young will have an equal chance of facing interviews successfully in the elite corporate world where fluency in English is almost a must.
The young have two problems when dealing with the use of English; the fear of being laughed at for mistakes and the lack of a reasonable vocabulary. The secondary negativity is no one to speak with and no books to read. The same youth of Sri Lanka are capable of going to Patrice Lumumba University and learning Russian and studying medicine. Some would go to Beijing and some to Havana and repeat the process in Chinese and Spanish. Let’s say that is the brighter crop.
The Marawila fishermen land in Italy and speak Italian which they never heard before or a housemaid toils in Saudi or Kuwait, speaking Arabic and in Cyprus they learn Greek. How come? It is the ‘no turning back’ need that propels the learning of the language of the foreign land.
Here it is different, the truth only comes out when you try to get a job with your management degree and cannot coin two sentences together when facing an interview conducted in English. John Keells tells you to go home and so would NTB and NDB or the hotel mandarins gearing for the two million tourists. They all need English from their staff. That is the reality and the blame certainly does not lie with the corporate entity.
Education powers that be
The guilty are the ‘Education powers that be’ (all colours) who sat through the years in Parliament formulating policy and spoke patriotism to the masses whilst their offsprings hightailed it to foreign universities. What was good for the pedestrian goose was certainly far below the acceptance level of the ‘politically god-fathered’ gander.
Let’s not dwell on drain water that has been bathing us all. Let’s ring the bells that we can ring. ‘Trigger action to English’ is a beginning. Five kind people took part in a triathlon in Sri Lanka and raised funds for education and gave the entire proceeds to CandleAid. Many others too are contributing. It is the efforts of the ordinary that will tilt the scales in favour of English amidst the masses.
Yes, in CandleAid, we start small and think big and move fast. That simple philosophy has brought us to where we are today in the service of our fellow beings. Come walk with us if you may, there is so much to do in this homeland of ours that can be done by people like you and me, if we put our thoughts together and add our commitments. That we have seen before and it sure can be repeated.
The call is current and urgent and the youth wait, let’s see what we can do.
Mr. Corporate, think of funding CandleAid to teach English; it is a project that will indirectly benefit you. As for volunteers, he or she who wants to teach in a village, please contact us.
It is the collective little efforts that will make a vast change to the young, to get out of the ‘fol toppee and fan cake’ limitations and enter a new culture of speaking English.
(The writer is the Founder/President of CandleAid Lanka and he can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org)