English language learning, its psychology and sociodynamics

A shortage of teachers competent in English is a major drawback in teaching the language successfully across the country. (Courtesy Ministry of Education)

HGS Prematunge

Indian linguist Braj Kachru was spot on when he said, “…across cultures English has been successful in creating a class of people who have greater intellectual power in multiple spheres of language use,” in the 1990 publication ‘World Englishes and Applied Linguistics’.

English language is often responsible for creating subcultures and various varieties of Englishes in developing nations, while countries where English is spoken as the native language, such as UK, USA, Canada Australia and New Zealand, set the standard.

While different varieties of English are evolving, the prime example of which is Indian English with its proud guttural ‘R’, it’s a shame that Sri Lankan English is still hampered by a fear of dilution driven by a superiority complex. M. Gunasekera in ‘The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English’, observes a bias towards British English, particularly among English speakers of Colombo. However, her findings also suggest a growing acceptance and awareness of Sri Lankan English in the face of growing bilingualism.

Psychology of English

Failing to cultivate a truly Sri Lankan variety of English maybe a major reason for the rejection of the language altogether. Teachers often discourage students from using the question tag ‘no’ at the end of a sentence when speaking English. ‘No’, accompanied by a question mark, is usually used at the end of a sentence as a means of seeking affirmation, necessitated by the Sinhala equivalent ‘Neda?’ It can represent any question tag from ‘Isn’t it?’, ‘Aren’t they?’, ‘Can’t she?’, ‘Wouldn’t they?’ to ‘Doesn’t he?’ and many more. It’s by no means a phenomenon exclusive to the Sinhala speaker. The French use it in place of ‘n’est-ce pas?’ and the Spanish ‘no?’, and is not frowned upon.

The result of such discouragement is that students become reluctant to speak English or resort to a question tag such as ‘isn’t it’, which is not always grammatically appropriate. For example, to say ‘She is very shy, isn’t it’ is not only grammatically incorrect, but far worse than saying, ‘She is very shy, no?’ Of course one can argue that students should be taught to say, ‘She is very shy, isn’t she’, but it’s easier said than done. Likewise, direct borrowings of Sinhala or Tamil expressions, such as ‘Ayyo’, ‘Aney’ and ‘Apo’, differences in pronunciation, morphology and syntax are unique and integral to Sri Lankan Standard English.

T Bernaisch and C Koch in ‘Attitudes towards Englishes in India’ in World Englishes 2016, says of the Indian Standard English, “Indian speakers of English have a positive attitude towards their local variety, which is attitudinal evidence for the status of IndE as a variety in its own right.”

Kadda polish

In ‘Awareness and Attitude of Undergraduates towards Sri Lankan English’ in the Scholars Journal of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Dinali Ariyasinghe and Rohini Widyalankara point out that learning English is considered an advantage and requirement to earn a prestigious position in countries where English enjoys official language status in many public domains such as administration, media, legislation and education.

Ariyasinghe and Widyalankara explain how the English language has become a social indicator rather than a tool of communication. After being declared a British colony, a group of locals were taught English for interpretation purposes, which led to the emergence of the westernized English-speaking elite in Sri Lanka. English has been increasingly identified as a class and social indicator since, in the backdrop of a widening gap between the Westernized English-speaking elite and the Sinhala and Tamil speaking masses. Gunasekera in ‘The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English’ points out that proficiency in English eventually became synonymous with the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

True to the metaphor ‘Kaduwa’, English became a weapon of subjugation and oppression for the non-English-educated masses and a cause of frustration as they were deprived of social mobility due to the lack of English language proficiency. Though the resentment towards English among Sinhala speakers peaked in 1970’s, Gunasekera observes that within the Tamil Community “English is admired as the language of professionalism and upward mobility and is learnt with enthusiasm…”

Student issues

In ‘Problems of English teaching in Sri Lanka: how they affect teaching efficacy’, Mahan Aloysius identifies the four main issues afflicting English Language Teaching as being related to students, teaching and the learning contexts (such as the classroom and the school) and the curriculum and teachers.

Socio-economic status of the parents, lack of encouragement from parents, lack of English language exposure in the social contexts of the students, difficulties faced by the students in dealing with the learning material and lack of qualified teachers are among the many student-related issues identified by Aloysius. In his research he finds a direct correlation with learning facilities, qualified teachers and student motivation, pointing out that prestigious urban schools show higher performance in English Language Learning in contrast with smaller rural schools.

Income and class disparities are major barriers to many students receiving a sound education; the gap widens when students have little or no knowledge of English.
Income and class disparities are major barriers to many students receiving a sound education; the gap widens when students have little or no knowledge of English.

As discussed in the previous installment, the socio-economic status of parents plays a major role in a students English proficiency. In fact, in ‘Teaching of English: A Sociological Study’, Madhavi Karunaratne, identifies the socio-economic affluence enjoyed by urbanite parents or English being part of the social environment, as motivational factors for urban students to learn English. The opposite is true for students of poverty stricken parents, who have resigned themselves for failure.

Despite free education, its benefits are mainly enjoyed by children of affluent origins and poor children have to bear many hidden costs such as stationery, uniforms, sports equipment and commuting costs, according to ‘Education System in Sri Lanka – I: The Problems’ by N Manoharan. Unfortunately, poverty also prevents parents from providing their children with private tuition.

According to ‘Factors Influencing in Career Choice of Second Year Undergraduate: A Case Study of Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce’ by V. Anojan and B. Nimalathasan, the attitude of students from low income households is that they do not need to learn English as they will continue their parents’ work such as farming, fishing, carpentry, masonry, etc… Anojan and Nimalathasan point out that such students pay less attention to learning activities.

Teacher issues

One of the pertinent issues affecting English Language teaching identified by Aloysius is the shortage of competent teachers to teach English, particularly in rural schools. This is most acute in the North. However, with well over 20,000 qualified teachers according to the Ministry of Education, it is clear that the issue lies with the management of the teacher force. Teacher demotivation in turn, is mainly caused by politicization of teacher recruitment, transfers and promotion procedures and the lack of incentives  for teachers who are willing to work in remote areas, as pointed out by I.M.K. Liyanage in ‘Education System of Sri Lanka: Strengths and Weaknesses’.

Anoma Gunawardana and Buddhima Karunarathna, while observing that English Language Teaching in Sri Lanka is a failure, points out in ‘Teacher Research: Remedy for Failures in English Language Teaching in Sri Lanka’ for the International Symposium of Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka – 2017, that English teachers being the most important stakeholders, their contribution to this failure is significant. Teacher skills, professional knowledge, perceptions and pedagogic practice have contributed to the failure in English language teaching in Sri Lanka.

While reiterating the importance of equipping teachers with the necessary pedagogic skills, the researchers believe that the ideal means of revamping English Language Teaching is to encourage teachers to research, ‘where teachers experiment and reflect on the problem, reason and solutions.’ Gunawardana and Karunarathna point out that research is an independent method, which contributes to improvement of teaching, and professional development, used in the global education sector.

Gunawardana and Karunarathna opine that engaging in research contributes to transforming teaching into an evidence-based profession where findings of such research could impact pedagogic practice. According to them research could be useful in identifying teachers’ own strengths and weaknesses, means to improving their quality of teaching, reflecting on problematic areas and finding practical remedial measures. The study observes that teacher research has significant cathartic potential in finding solutions for the failure in English language teaching and learning in Sri Lanka.

However, according to the study, a majority of teachers were not exposed to any kind of research related to English language teaching during their career and have often reacted negatively to any such suggestion. They also observe that training programmes offered by institutes such as the Regional Educational Service Centre, Zonal Educational Office and the Ministry of Education is not research oriented and therefore does little to improve quality of teaching and learning English in the school system.

Digging into the various issues related to English Language Teaching is like diving into a bottomless pit, which will require several more articles. The next installments will discuss other issues related to teachers, issues related to teaching and learning situations, curriculum and solutions.

(This article is the 21st installment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

 

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