A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. Those who do not read live only one, according to well-known author George R. R. Martin. The popular American children’s author Dr. Seuss has said the more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn the more places you will go, literally and otherwise.
With a new National Government taking office and many analysts describing it as a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s history books, the Colombo International Book Fair (CIBF) will begin today at the BMICH and go on till September 27. Organisers say this popular book fair, which began with 28 stalls in 1999, will this year have 450 Sri Lankan and international stalls and is expected to attract more than one million people. According to the organisers, CIBF is Sri Lanka’s best-attended and largest book fair. It has already established itself as a premier fair in South Asia and is now attracting publishers and booksellers even from Europe. This fair is not only a place where visitors buy books. Many other activities take place and it is seen as an icon of literary festivals. The other activities include book launches, dialogue sessions with writers, musical programmes and stage dramas.
Significantly, September is the International Literary Month while the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared September 8 as the International Literacy Day. The aim of this day is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. Globally, some 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. One in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women. Some 60.7 million children are out of school and many more attend irregularly or drop out.
In Sri Lanka, we often boast about our high literacy rate which is reported to be more than 90 percent. But during the past 25 years, with spectacular achievements in the field of information and communication technology, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan youth are realising that without at least a working knowledge of English they cannot make much headway in their professional careers. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo are like virtual universities where knowledge could be obtained by pressing a few keys. But, English is essential.
In the 1950s, not merely for patriotism but more so to achieve party political agendas, the Sinhala-only policy was introduced. It gradually precipitated not only an ethnic conflict with a devastating war, but also an English language conflict. Sinhala and Tamil were made the national languages and in most of the schools the English medium was scrapped or reduced to one period. At one time, Sri Lanka’s standard of English was regarded as the best in Asia. But gradually, the standards were allowed to deteriorate. With the introduction of television, we saw lots of positive features and dimensions. But one of the negative factors was that it led to a sharp decline in the reading habit. As a result, most of the students who got an English Language Credit Pass at the G. C. E. O/L Examinations before the 1980s are known to have a better command of the English Language than most of those who get ‘A’s at the G. C. E. A levels these days.
Language scholars say that while television programmes help in spoken English, the finer points in grammar, syntax, spelling and other aspects of the English Language are learnt by regularly reading books. They need not necessarily be Shakespeare or other classics – even reading detective fiction novels helps improve the standard of the English Language, because even if the substance of the book may not be deep, the quality of the writing is powerful.
So, while the English medium is being revived in many schools, parents also need to take some responsibility and encourage their children to get into the reading habit. For instance, evening TV time could be cut down from four hours to two and the children should be encouraged to read books for about two hours even from the age of about five or six. It is in this light, that events such as the Colombo International Book Fair become important and we hope that parents would make use of this occasion to revive the reading habit in their children and improve the standard of English so that our people, especially the youth, could make the maximum use of the marvels of modern technology for themselves and our country.