After decades of painful hair-splitting over an appropriate methodology for teaching the English Language, particularly among the young, the Lankan state has hit on what seems to be a workable, practical solution to the apparently complex problem. As we reported last week, a special state task force headed by Presidential Advisor Sunimal Fernando would be collaborating with the University of English and Foreign Languages in Hyderabad, for inculcating Spoken English or Communicative English skills particularly among our tens of thousands of school- leavers. The principal rationale behind the scheme, as our report indicated, is to enhance and develop the employability of our youngsters because English Language proficiency is chief among those qualifications stressed by foreign entrepreneurs who have opted for Sri Lanka as an investment destination.
As rightly argued by the state, although there is also a great dearth of fully IT-proficient youngsters in Sri Lanka, the inculcation of English Language skills in these persons would help in resolving this problem because English proficiency is a key to IT competence, although suitable IT training too is considered a top priority by the state. The recognition of these dual requirements has, in fact, prompted the state to declare 2009, the Year of IT and English Language Teaching. While the BoI would be collaborating strongly in these initiatives, since it would be in the interests of the investment promotion effort to do so, the co-operation of the local business community too would be sought to bring to fruition the projects, as explained in our report.
Given that youth unemployment is continuing to be a major worry for the state and has proved a sizeable stumbling block to equitable development, we hope this effort at improving the English Language competence of our youngsters would succeed. On the face of it, the English Language teaching methodology which the authorities intend using, is sound and practicable. As pointed out by them, what is basically happening in our primary and secondary schools at present is that the English Language is being taught through, first, a painstaking effort at inculcating in the student a knowledge of grammatical rules and not by instilling in the student an ability to use the language expressively. Sentence construction takes precedence over intelligible use of the language. It is this questionable approach to the teaching of English that generates in the average local student a ‘fear’ of English. It is a very short step from this paralytic’ fear’ to nicknaming English ‘Kaduwa’ or sword.
However, under the scheme to be introduced, effective conversational use of English would take precedence over uninspiring and painstaking learning of grammatical rules. The student would be taught to speak the language first and then given a training in the application of grammar. As rightly pointed out by the authorities, in those Western countries where English is used as a first language, the young student learns to speak in English at home fluently and unaided and it is subsequently in school that he learns the grammar of the language. In the case of Sri Lanka, most students do not use English as a first language. In their formative years they speak either Sinhala or Tamil at home. It is subsequently in school that they get an opportunity to learn some English and that too through an agonising effort to learn grammatical rules at the beginning. Small wonder that the teaching of English has proved a major educational debacle in this country.
Thus we are about to witness a veritable revolution in English Language teaching methodology in Sri Lanka and it is appropriate that we go to India for assistance in this sphere because India has succeeded preeminently in schooling her students in the skills of Communicative or Spoken English, even as she has proved a resounding success in a multiplicity of other fields of human endeavour.
Accordingly, it is in the fitness of things that all relevant sections lend their support to Sri Lanka’s ‘English for Employment’ project which has the worthy objective of ensuring the employability of our young and thereby carries the promise of making a huge dent in the seemingly perennial problem of youth unemployment. As mentioned by Enterprise Development and Investment Promotion Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama, although some 50,000 youth are targeted by the scheme, 10,000 youngsters proficient in English and IT are immediately needed. This underscores the magnitude of the country’s needs in this regard and we hope the project would receive the desired material and moral assistance.
We need hardly mention that education has proved a playing field for adventurists of numerous persuasions from the time of ‘political independence’. Educational reform, for instance, has really opened the flood gates for experimentation of the most misconceived kind with governments fiercely competing with each other to try out the latest of new-fangled ideas on the young and impressionable. However, the results of these educational jousts and gyrations speak for themselves. Today, we have appallingly low levels of achievement among Ordinary Level students, for example, in Mathematics, English and Science and there is no doubt that efforts by successive governments to reduce these students to the condition of guinea pigs has contributed to these sad misadventures.
Education, no less than other important areas of public life, has been allowed to come under the blanching and withering touch of politicization. This is the reason why successive educational authorities try to outdo each other in what seems to be mindless educational experimentation. However, nothing succeeds like success and in going in for educational projects we have no choice but to be guided by success rates and other positive outcomes of these ventures. In other words, empirical results need to be attached top priority when these schemes are chosen for implementation.
In the case of the ‘English for Employment’ scheme, there is the success achieved by India in the trying out of teaching methodology, to go by. If it has worked in India, there is no reason why it should not succeed in Sri Lanka, since the socio-economic variables applicable are almost identical in both countries.
Therefore, it is incumbent on all sections of our polity to allow our educational authorities to give the initiative a try. Hopefully, a bipartisan approach would be adopted by our political parties towards the project which has the aim of alleviating some of the woes of our youngsters. It must be remembered that it was material deprivation that triggered the bloody youth revolts of 1971 and 1989 in Southern Sri Lanka. Let’s not allow this country to incline in that direction ever again.