English language teaching – Part I

Why has English language education failed us?

Even as students are introduced to modern technology, they must also have the opportunity to learn proper English.(courtesy Education Ministry)

HGS Prematunge

Why has English language education failed us? It’s a valid question, given that almost all of the school going population is taught English as a second language right from preschool.

After the passing of the Sinhala Only Act or the Official Language Act in 1956 in Parliament, an English language education, previously available to every Sri Lankan, ironically became an exclusively elite right. Although, this may not have been the intended result of the Act, this is a fact. Only those who were of an affluent background had the wherewithal to support an English education for their children, whether it be through exposure to English at home or through private tuition.

Stats don’t lie

According to the World Bank 2006 report, ‘Only 10 percent of children of the public system achieve a targeted level of mastery in English language skills.’ In fact, more than half of A/L students fail General English. According to Department of Education statistics, in 2018 a total of 250,115 took General English as a non-compulsory subject and 148,686 of them failed, which is 59.45 percent. The pass rate is 40.55 percent. This is a sorry state of affairs especially considering the fact that a pass in General English requires only basic language skills and therefore a relatively easy subject even by potential employers’ standards.

In fact, according to L Wijewardene, et al. in ‘English for Employability – the need of the hour for Sri Lankan graduates’, published in the British Journal for Arts and Social Sciences, private sector employers frequently complain that business graduates lack proficiency in English.

Lack of interest

Let’s face it. English is not considered a priority by many students, parents and even educators. Mahan Aloysius in ‘Problems of English teaching in Sri Lanka: how they affect teaching efficacy’ observes that, as studying English at O/L or A/L is not a priority for students it is not unusual for students to lack motivation to learn English as a subject or teachers the motivation to teach English as a second language.

In his book titled Teaching of English I. M Karunaratne notes that socio-economic problems also contribute to this lack of interest. Children from low income generating households are deprived of private tuition for English, putting them at a clear disadvantage over affluent children. In other words, for impoverished children three meals a day is more of a priority than spending on private tuition for English.

M. Perera in his case study ‘Why Not? But I can’t – Influence of a ‘culture of poverty’ on learning’ published in the Sabaragamuwa University Journal (2006) argues that such children doubt that education, let alone that of English language would considerably improve their socially upward mobility.

Aloysius points out that lack of parental understanding about the importance of English and lack of English language exposure in social contexts as other reason for this deterioration in English language education. He points out that Communicative Language Teaching, although an ideal teaching tool is hampered by lack of teacher student interaction and teacher-centred and exam-oriented curriculum.

Attitude

Sri Lankan foreign language students master relatively more difficult languages they are hardly exposed to outside the classroom, such as Japanese, Korean and French in months if not weeks. The only conceivable difference between these languages and English is that English language skill is perceived as a mark of affluence. English language rather than being considered a tool of communication has become elitist, a ‘Kaduwa’ or sword, to eliminate any who fall short of that elitist standard. In such a backdrop the fear of stigma prevents most students from trying to make even simple conversation in English, thereby further hampering them from honing their spoken English skills.

Most Sri Lankan students face difficulty in having even a simple conversation in English.
Most Sri Lankan students face difficulty in having even a simple conversation in English.

Dynamic

To make matters worse English is a weird language to say the least. Pronunciation anomalies, where similar spelling words are pronounced differently, homophones and homonyms compound the problem.

English is a dynamic language. Sri Lankan educators can no longer choose to be blissfully ignorant of the fact and continue to teach the school going population outdated English. The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words and 47,156 obsolete words. Yes, English words do go out of use. Unless such knowledge is continuously renewed, the Sri Lankan education industry will fail to produce graduates who are on par with the global English using populace.

Teaching vs learning

English ‘teaching’ as opposed to learning may be the major reason that most school leavers are not proficient in English, a prerequisite skill for securing a decent job, despite 13 plus years of education.

Take for example how any baby learns its mother tongue. He or she is rarely taught to speak. The first language skill babies master is listening. Babies repeat whatever they hear. This is how babies of Sinhala parents master Sinhala and Tamil parents, the Tamil language. Only much later do they learn to read and write. As such, the younger the student, the most effective the learning of English will be.

However, listening is also how older students and even adults learn foreign languages. Take for example any student who studies a foreign language such as French or Japanese for A/Ls. Educators rely heavily on inculcating the habit of listening not only as a more efficient teaching tool but also to teach proper pronunciation. It’s ironic that English educators do not focus on honing this skill in learning English as a second language.

Most of the 70’s and 80’s generation didn’t have to bother about ways to hone one’s listening skills because TV was the most effective and readily accessible source of English. The UK and the US produced cartoons and TV series were rarely dubbed and most were only subtitled. Those who were too young to read subtitles were doubly advantaged as they strove to make sense of the storyline by whatever means possible. In other words for the 70’s and 80’s babies, who were not discouraged from watching TV, English became a second mother tongue of sorts. Those who were encouraged to take up the habit of reading mastered the language in double quick time.

Unfortunately, today there are few good English programmes on TV as more and more prime time TV spots are taken up by Indian mega series and the few English TV programmes are dubbed in Sinhala. While more and more students are lured in by social media, the reading habit has deteriorated at an alarming rate in the past decade.

To quote Euclid, ‘No, sire, there is no royal way to learn English.’ Any language is easily mastered when it’s learned of the student’s own volition than by the teacher’s effort.

(This article is the 20th installment in a series of articles which discusses education related issues on a fortnightly basis in counterpoint.)

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