Thirst for English

The Observer


The English language is big business in Sri Lanka. In a stark reversal of those heady early days when Sri Lankans felt they should speak only their own languages — actually abolishing the teaching of English as a compulsory second language in 1957 — the mantra now across the island is “English at any price”. And it is not hard to see why. English is not only the language of choice for the island’s elite as it always was but it is also, crucially, the main language of government and business. Speak English in Sri Lanka and the employment opportunities are there — don’t, and quite simply, they aren’t.

The situation is made worse in that the two boom sectors of IT and tourism require fluency in English virtually before job seekers. And while India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, is a world leader in IT, Sri Lanka without a broad mass of English speakers languishes in her wake. More than 17,000 graduates from Sri Lankan universities, who studied in their mother tongues, struggle to find work in the burgeoning private sector, as they can neither speak nor write English, while what government employment there is where they can work in their own language is shrinking fast. English has polarised Sri Lankan society between those who know it and those who don’t and had it not been for the availability of jobs abroad for nearly one million Sri Lankans, the division would, some suggest, have led to serious unrest. Now, in an effort to catch up, English is, once again, a compulsory subject in schools, but after so many years in the educational wilderness, there is a massive shortage of English teachers. And parents, exposed only to Sinhalese or Tamil during their own schooling can’t help their children either. The result is that government plans to make English known throughout the island within five years.

With the thirst for English seemingly unquenchable English tuition has become something of an industry in Sri Lanka with a new type of school — the ‘International School’ — emerging. The only language spoken in these ‘International Schools’ is English and pupils are taught from kindergarten upwards within a British syllabus with a view to sitting for British examinations and with an eye on university education abroad. The relative cost of these schools is high. Government schools are free; in state assisted schools families have to find between Sri Lankan Rs 600 to 1,000 for their children per term while for the International Schools parents need to find Rs 25,000 each term.

Rich families have the money anyway and the poorer somehow manage to scrape the fees together — often with money earned doing semi-skilled jobs abroad. The industry meanwhile booms and even the Buddhist clergy, who were, ironically, in the vanguard to ban English education in the past are getting in on the act, hiring out their preaching halls, and renting space in temple premises for English tuition classes. But as people clamour for English, cheats and conmen move in to relieve them of their money and dreams. Attractive posters advertising private tuition classes by particular ‘teachers’ can be seen on walls drawing more attention even than those for popular Sinhala, Tamil or Bollywood films. Among the urban underclass and in rural communities across the island parents will pawn their jewellery or use their meagre savings to send their children to these ‘expert’ English language classes.

Misleading books offering easy access to the language are in circulation and untrained and inexpert teachers often conduct classes of more than 200 eager students. Many of these students do finish their courses with the promised diploma, but with little knowledge of the language they sought to learn. The desperation to learn English is common across Sri Lanka and is neatly summed up by a phrase current among unemployed Sinhalese graduates. For them, quite simply, the ability to speak English is the ‘sword’ they need to win the battle for life.

Sri Lankans are desperate to learn English. Having insisted the island’s native tongues should have precedence; Sri Lankans are now clamouring to master the language of the former colonial power.