Book Review
Douglas Walatara’s ‘A bilingual English course’

By Siromi Fernando
Professor of English, University of Colombo
Dr. Douglas Walatara is well-known among many readers. Any past student of the Government Training College, Maharagama, who has studied English there, will know him and acknowledge his competence in the teaching of English. So do alumni of the University of Colombo who have studied English in the Faculty of Education. This is because Douglas Walatara was a notable Lecturer in English at Government Training College in Maharagama for twenty years, then an Associate Professor of Education in the University of Colombo. Later he was director of the Institute of Workers’ Education, University of Colombo and Consultant in English at the University of Pali and Buddhist Studies. But he is as well-known for his personality as for his particular method of teaching English, the Bilingual method or Reconstruction, and for his famous book "A Bilingual English Course".

This book has now been published as Revised Edition 2001 with well worked-out contents and an attractive cover. I received a copy sent by Dr. Walatara himself with a note saying "This is the controversial book. I hope you can stomach it." Over the last two months, I have been visiting various hospitals and where and whenever I sat in waiting rooms reading the "controversial" book, many people kept looking into the book and seemed very attracted by it. Most of these people, of course, were Tamil or Sinhala speaking and, as one told me, "I know only little English".

It is mainly for the population who know "only little English" that this book is most appropriate, for it starts at zero or zero plus level. It opens with only five sentences with drastically restricted constructions and vocabulary, beginning with the words "The farmer works hard. He works in the fields. He works in the fields every day.

The lessons in "A Bilingual English Course" start with a Sinhala passage and readers are asked to express it in English by first saying it, then writing it. Next the "Reconstructed" English passage is presented, allowing the readers to see and check their own passage against this. After this, there is a comprehension passage or passages, which are very close to the structures of the original passage but include new vocabulary. The accompanying questions are painstakingly worked out. These questions are at first very simple and are given both in English and Sinhala, but as the lessons proceed, become more demanding and are given in English only. Finally there is a Drill Section, or a section of exercises and as the author says in an introductory note, "There is a lot of repetition to reinforce your learning." The beauty of these exercises is that these exercises require only n + 1 answers, that is answers that ask for just a little more than the answers that have already been given. The bilingual method or Reconstruction provides much of the vocabulary through its Sinhala version and it supports readers in developing their competence in English with accuracy.

In content, this book starts with the simple farmer in his simple field, but then moves on to his harvest, villagers who help him, paddy and vegetables he grows, a typical Sri Lankan village. New people in new occupations are also introduced, the smith, carpenter, fish vendor, postman etc. From human and concrete nouns, the content now expands to take in abstract nouns, festivals, the Sinhala New Year, 1st January, Vesak, Poson, Deepavali, Christmas Day etc. Narrative passages like "Jayasena and his children celebrate Vesak", "Four-year-old Walter" etc. are added to the earlier descriptive passages. Finally more academic passages like "Monsoon Rains" and "Scientific Knowledge" are also introduced. So by the end of this book, the reader is acquainted with a fairly wide range of ideas and several types of passages.

"A Bilingual English Course" contains 28 lessons. The Present Simple tense is introduced in Lesson 1 and for the next six lessons, the writer keeps to this same tense, extending vocabulary, transitive / intransitive verbs and the verb BE, questions and answers, count / non-count nouns, articles / quantifiers, prepositions and even the conjunctions AND, BUT and OR. The Past and Future tenses are introduced in Lesson 8 and once again, the extension of vocabulary and background syntax continues, keeping within the framework of these three tenses. Once the reader is equipped with many ideas in English, vocabulary and background syntax, the notoriously difficult constructions are swiftly and quite easily presented from Lesson 18 onwards. The Past Perfect and Present Perfect tenses are introduced in comparison to the Past and Present tenses. Then the book goes on to the Passive Voice; Relative Clauses; the more difficult types of Adverbial Clauses; the Noun Clause. By the end of the book, readers should be able to understand a range of Beginner English and write clearly and accurately.

So why should you not like this book? Why was it called a controversial book and why did Dr. Walatara hope that I could stomach it? Although many of our English teachers in Sri Lanka use a grammar-translational method in teaching English, policy makers and language material writers, at least those with most power, are fairly will hooked on to communicative methods. This means teaching all four skills, speech and listening as well as reading and writing, whereas Dr. Walatara’s book concentrates on reading and writing. Communicative methodology asks for fluency over accuracy. It also requires a context that is rich with opportunities for the acquisition of English. Therefore it avoids the use of the mother tongue in the teaching of English. On these criteria, one would never expect "A Bilingual English Course" to be recommended.

However, there is something to be said on the contrary. Practising teachers have long found the uses of the mother tongue in teaching another language. For teaching English to zero level students in Sri Lanka, most English teachers have found Sinhala or Tamil a great support in bridging the initial gap. That such mother tongues or L 1 s can be highly supportive in teaching English has at last been discovered by H. G. Widdowson, an eminent researcher in the field of Teaching English as a Second Language.

It is against this background that we view "A Bilingual English Course" . Let me recommend this book to any learner who wants a book for independent learning. But I should also advise you to have ready a friend who knows English well to help you out whenever difficulties arise. This book could also be used alongside a Speech or Listening and Speech course for zero level learners. Let me also recommend this book to teachers of Zero, Beginner and Lower Intermediate Levels, who are already using other lesson material. They could fruitfully use exercises from this book from time to time. Having such a book would also be useful for all teachers for their own edification. Even private companies which are desperately looking for ways to improve the English of some of their staff, could advise them to use this book in order to gain more accuracy in writing. The book costs Rs. 250. Most important, the Tamil version of this book will be published shortly.