Teaching English has always been problematic in Sri Lanka. It has never passed the stage of experimentation with each successive government trying to undo what its predecessor did.
Besides, the language has never been considered for its utility value. During the colonial era and even up to the cultural renaissance of 1956, English was considered an elitist language, the competency and fluency in which language bestowed an apparent superiority complex to the user.
No wonder the ordinary people began to shy away christening it as the kaduwa, which ex-communicated the vernacular speaking ordinary masses from the Church of the nobility . Though Sinhala and Tamil have been accepted as official languages, those with English language competency still has several advantages over those who haven t.
The failure of English language teaching in the school system had led to frustration among both authorities as well as parents who have realized the value of learning English through their experience.
As a result, private classes teaching English language on business lines have sprung up everywhere like mushrooms. Even the remotest villages have such tuition classes, often run by persons as equally incompetent in the language as the gullible students who enroll in them.
In their frustration, some educationists, politicians and others started blaming the switch over to swabhasha as the medium of instruction, calling it a retrograde step. They even blamed the MEP Government of 1956 for the change though the switch over was effected much earlier in the State Council days and was gradually effected year by year, grade by grade and completed in the mid-1950s.
One should not forget or belittle the fact that swabhasha education has enormously helped many sons and daughters of humble citizens to climb up the ladder of social recognition. This upward mobility, however, did not decrease the utility value or significance of the English language.
Moreover, with the development of Information and Communication Technology, particularly the increasing popularity and utility of the Internet, English language has acquired a new relevance throughout the world. It is, today, the mostly used language of the Internet. The development of the open economy and the development of service sectors associated with it have also given rise to new wave of English learning among the population.
It is in this context that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between India and Sri Lanka on Thursday attains unique significance. According to the MoU, India will set up a state-of-the art English Language Training Centre at Peradeniya, which will initially train 40 teachers each year. Those who finish training at the Centre could train many other teachers in turn, so that within a definite period all English teachers of the Education Department could be trained.
The significance of this measure will be displayed in bold relief if one recognizes that it was the lack of qualified and competent teachers that many earlier projects of teaching English language failed.
The credit for the new development should go to the Presidential Task Force on English and Information Technology and the President in particular, whose personal interest and intervention helped obtain the much valued Indian assistance.
The Task Force should be specifically commended for making a several changes in the English language teaching strategy. For the first time, priority has been given to the learning of communication skills. It is common sense to give priority to communication skills for each infant who first develops the ability to communicate long before he could read or write. That is why the UNESCO in its principles on bilingual education gives priority to communication skills.
Developing communicative skills make it possible for students to retain their knowledge throughout and enhance their career prospects. Many who have followed standard English language courses that are abundant everywhere, lose touch with the language and tend to forget even what they have learnt because they are weak in their communication skills.
Up to now, it was the practice in the Education Department to seek UK experts for curriculum development and English language teaching. Now the Government has thought it wise to seek Indian expertise.
Actually, the skills needed are those in teaching English as a second language or in teaching English to students whose mother tongue is not English. India has developed much expertise in this sphere and the English and Foreign Language University with which our Education Ministry is collaborating is a Centre of Excellence for teaching English to non-English speaking students.
We wish the new initiative success.