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On the Subject of Teaching English: Why Don't Our People Listen?

Dr. Gunapala Edirisooriya

Ninety-nine percent of the Sri Lankan (SL) population under the age of 60 received their K-16 education in the swabhasha medium. I am one of them. For well over four decades, universities in SL have been trying to teach English for the undergraduates who received their K-12 education in the swabhasha medium. This attempt is an utter failure. On this conviction, as an educator, I made a small, single-handed attempt to bring this issue to the forefront of discussion in the academe in SL. Here is a brief chronology of this attempt.

1. In 1992, on the eve of my trip to Sri Lanka, I wrote to the Vice Chancellor (VC) of a university (I used to work at this university for some time) asking him to set up a meeting to include head of department of English, Dean of Arts, VC, and me to discuss my instructional strategy to teach English. In my letter I provided my contact information in Sri Lanka during my vacation. I wrote to this particular VC because of my conviction that this individual was receptive to new ideas, but I did not know he was out of the country during that time period. I accidentally met the then acting VC in an informal gathering and he took the initiative to inform me that he had forwarded my letter to Dean of Faculty of Arts for his review and action. Although I met this particular Dean of Faculty of Arts a few days later, my letter had escaped his mind. I am yet to receive a response to my letter from this university. That's not all. I have not even received an acknowledgment of my recent communiqué, which is described in #4 below, I sent to the VC of this university,

2. In 1999, when I visited Sri Lanka, at a seminar, I alluded to this problem (teaching of English) and invited the participants for discussion who might be interested in my instructional approach to teaching English for children who have no exposure to the language. I made this plea because I was cognizant of the fact that the audience consisted of some administrators who were responsible for preparing teachers to teach English K-12 grades. I received no response so far.

3. In the latter half of 2000, Ministry of Education embarked upon the idea of making English the medium of instruction across all schools and the plan was to implement this policy starting from the top, GCE (AL). In response to that misguided attempt, in February 2001 I sent a detailed memorandum to Her Excellency the President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the then (and now) Secretary of Education, some other secretaries of related ministries, and some directors in Education related ministries. I even contacted, via telephone (yes, personal calls at AT&T rates), the President’s Office and the Ministry of Education. (Yes, I was trying my best to convince the policy makers on this misguided attempt. I was not against the idea of teaching English, but the way these people were trying to do this, which is doomed for failure. Unintentional, may be not!) On these attempts, I received only one response from the secretary of an education related ministry with the usual reply—your memo has been forwarded to the attention of the Secretary of Education. That is best they can do, I guess.

4. In September 2003, a revised version of the memorandum in #3, was sent to four VCs in SL. My success rate of at least getting an acknowledgment was 25% and the honor goes to the VC, U of Peradeniya. Other VCs may not even know that it is a decent practice to acknowledge an academic-colleague’s communiqué. I also sent another copy of the memorandum in #3 to a university registrar whom I knew during my undergraduate days and asked him to check with his VC for an update. No response from anyone of them so far. Also, I sent this memo to the two largest English daily newspapers in SL, but they did not care to publish it.

5. A news item in Oct. 09, 2003 Daily News read, "World Bank funds English, IT development at universities." I was flabbergasted. I immediately sent my memo to the governing council of universities in SL. I received no response. I sent three reminders in quick succession. In response to my third reminder, I received the following (the complete message) on October 20, 2003..
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“Thank you very much for your e-mail dated 09 October 2003 and your interest to design something worthwhile, meaningful and workable for English education in Sri Lanka. I must indeed congratulate to you on your very keen interest in this matter. We are having a World Bank Project Launch on 28th October 2003 at the Hilton Hotel, Colombo and I intend referring to you by name. The Hon. Minister of Tertiary Education & Training and others will participate. Would it be possible for you to send me 2 power point frames summarizing your thoughts on teaching of English and the globalisation scenario (Please do not send more than that).”

(You all can guess why this person was all of a sudden got interested in what I have to say!) Although I was happy to receive this message, I was rather unhappy about the reason for the need to respond to my inquiries. Nevertheless, despite my experience with this type of exploitation, I obliged because of my conviction and dedication for this issue and prepared two PowerPoint frames. I sent those files to this person on the same day. To this day, did I receive an acknowledgment, a simple word of thanks from this person for taking the trouble to help him on this grand occasion? No! Did he keep his promise? I do not know.

6. Despite this treatment, on November 22, 2003, I sent another set of materials to the person mentioned in #5 thinking that I might be able to convince this person to take an interest on this crucial issue.

7. In response to #6 above, a message from a member of this council, who is supposed to be in charge of English teaching activity at universities sent me the following message on February 09, 2004.

Your letter of Nov. 22, 2003 to my Chairman has been referred to me for reply in my capacity as Chairman of the UGC Standing Committee on English.

I am quite in agreement with the questions you ask; particularly why we are working with methods that failed us for 40 years.

I welcome the offer of your services but right now know of no method of paying you. If you choose to come as part of your service commitment to Sri Lanka, I would be prepared to work closely with you and facilitate your meeting the university staff at our universities who teach English.

8. What does this message convey? I am not looking for a big fat consultancy job from these people. I am promoting a very simple approach to teach English as a second language to university students. What I am asking is for these people who are in charge of these activities, to examine my premise and take the necessary action to begin teaching of English using appropriate teaching strategies. That is all I need from these people. Here is the message I sent to the UGC Chairman

Dear Chairman, UGC, Sri Lanka

This brought me some mixed emotions, good and bad. For over a decade, I have been trying to get the attention of our people on the sorry state of English teaching in SL. I have not been successful in any way. What worries me is the inability of our own people to look at the way we do things and to figure out ways to do them better. Why can't our people think "out of the box"? Why can't our people think differently? Why can't our people be critical of what we do? Why our people are so afraid of self-criticism, self-realization? Why our people revere "protecting the status-quo" so much? Because protecting the way we used to do things is the best way to protect one's job! Protecting the system is in the best interest of one's own survival. Isn't it? It is imperative to identify our faults and rectify them if we are to progress, develop. I assume you a true innovator!

Here, I have copied a message I sent to four VCs in SL universities this Monday (Oct. 06, 2003). I received only one reply so far (from Peradeniya VC, thanks to him.). In this note, I describe my attempts on this issue for well over a decade now. I sincerely hope you are serious about this issue. I firmly believe that lack of English knowledge is the main reason for SL undergraduates’ frustration. They feel as if they are second class citizens; their future is doomed; they are going to be unemployed, etc. If they are proficient in English and IT, many options will be available for them. I have no doubt we can soften this "violent behavior" also. Therefore, it is high time to take this route. If our people cannot take this initiative, at least the WB's influence may force our people to do something. But, as the news item says, it is up to each university to design these programs, I SINCERELY hope our people would not opt for "to do MORE of the same". They have to think out of the box and design something worthwhile, meaningful, and workable. I hope you will get this message across to them.

The way to teach English for students who are not exposed to English is clearly explained in this note. I hope you will find some time to read this message in full. I hope you can also understand that I have a genuine concern about what is happening in SL. That is why I use my time to do whatever I can, on my own (and not because I have no other things to do!)

If you have any questions, or need further information, or need any assistance, please feel free to contact me. Thanks for listening. Gunapala.

9. This person in #7 writes in Daily News on November 20, 2004 on this subject. This is a direct quotation from his writing.

“A massive social revolution was brought about by modern education in the English medium. This revolution failed with the mother-tongue policies of the 1950s. Today, again, English medium education is on the table. I would like to use this opportunity today to explore a question. The question is whether the new revolution will flounder like before, or succeed; whether proficiency in the English language will divide us or empower us.”

Anyone can see how misguided this premise is. This is exactly what I have been telling all this time. I have no doubt in my mind that the peace-mongers planted the seeds in policy makers’ mind to the effect that the LTTE fellows have been successful in convincing the western world that the K-16 education in swabhasha media led to discriminate against the Tamil medium students. Therefore, the introduction of English medium instruction is a prerequisite for peaceful coexistence. Now, examine the above quote. The cat is out of the bag. Now, if any administration is genuinely interested in introducing English medium of instruction, from where should they start? From high school (this is what they said in 2002)? From university (this is what a recent news item says—University of Colombo will start English medium instruction from next year)? Would anyone with an iota of intelligence think like this? No. Why do they do things in this way? Because, they may have certain objectives in their minds. If one is genuinely interested in promoting teaching in the English medium, she or he 1) takes stock of the current situation, 2) identifies the needs, 3) prepares a program to create the necessary conditions (resources, personnel, mechanisms, etc.), 4) identifies the best methods to teach English as a second language, and 5) start implementing it beginning from K or PK level. Is this the way they do it? No. Why? Now, look at one factor—beginning of the program. They start from the top, not from the bottom. Why? You know why? (This is still OK if it is done in a proper way, Please read my note to the VCs.) Because when they do it this way, children from English speaking cosmopolitan, resourceful homes succeed and children from rural areas fail. This is what the government aims to achieve! The government continues to maintain a group of well equipped, well-cared for schools for the haves and another set of neglected schools for the have-nots. Unequal resources ==> unequal access ==> unequal opportunity ==> unequal outcomes. The government is redesigning policies to maintain the pecking order. It is guaranteed! Whether proficiency in the English language will divide us or empower us is not a difficult question to answer. If they continue to implement this in their way, it will divide the nation on the bases of ethnicity, religion, haves and have-nots, rural-cosmopolitan, etc. How can we put a break to the emerging social conscience? Limit the access to the rural youths for social and economic development. Isn't this what want to do? (JVP, PNM, MEP, JHU, and similar groups, please take note of these dubious tactics!)

10. These examples are sufficed to explain the lukewarm reception in store for new ideas from those who are in charge of national educational policy decision-making. Here is the message, referred in #4 above, I sent the VCs in SL.
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Dear Vice Chancellor:

Teaching of English

May I bring this proposal for your attention. For you, I do not need to emphasize on the urgent need for teaching English for our undergraduates, especially for those who are from rural areas and those who are pursuing scientific, technical, and professional degrees. My communications with some of your graduate and undergraduate students (my relatives) do not seem to indicate that they are being prepared with the necessary English language skills to progress through their careers. Therefore, please consider my suggestion. Please take the necessary actions to reorient the English teaching staff to teach English through the Learning of English Through Speaking (LETS) method, which is explained in the attached document. For the freshmen, spend the English time slot in first year to teach them to learn to speak (listening, watching, conversations, discussions, debates, and so on) in English. In the second year, start teaching reading and continue the discourse in English and begin writing. In the third year, continue writing in English in depth and continue the discourse in English. If there is a will, there is a way.

What about the current students? You can mix these stages in appropriate proportions and try for the best results, but speaking should be the emphasis at the starting point. At the graduate level, if there is no requirement for oral interview (examination) in English for completing the degree, such a requirement can be designed. Faculty must organize colloquia sessions in English on some basis (daily, 2 or 3 days a week, etc.) At these sessions the main purpose should be to conduct conversations in English among the participants (everyone must speak). These sessions can be started with simple conversation topics and develop into subject related matters. There are many advantages: junior faculty can improve their speaking ability, faculty-student interactions, etc. Graduate students may have a time slot for English. If then, such time slots can also be used for improving graduate students’ speaking skills. More than anything else, the most valuable skill your university can teach these students is the ability to speak in English.
Additionally, please consider teaching all your employees (faculty, administrators, clerical staff, and all other categories of your employees) to speak in English as one of your short term goals. The same formula, the LETS, will work.

Please consider my plea. If you need any assistance or need further information, please contact me. For me, E-mail is the most convenient mode of communication. Thank you for your time.

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If there is anyone in SL soil who would agree with me, could such person(s) please bring this issue to the forefront of national policy discussion? Anyone JVP, PNM, MEP, JHU, etc. (including the academics with such lineage) willing to take this issue! (There is no point in asking those in UNP or SLFP [will the PM, I do not know] camps!) The memorandum referred in #3 appears as a separate document.


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