Professor Manique Gunesekera

A discussion of Professor Manique Gunesekera’s speech at Hyderabad University to an audience of Asian teachers.

by Wilfred Jayasuriya

Manique Gunesekera, the much loved and much admired academic and public figure died recently. Her speech is on u tube and can be accessed on utube direct or via the Kelaniya University website. A reader of the speech wrote this note to me: I also accessed her rivetingly  absorbing speech made in Hyderabad on the Internet, where she explains at length, the approaches  she had adopted to enhance the English language  skills as well as certain ‘social etiquette skills’ of students, which were treated by employers in the private sector, as imperative attributes prospective employees should possess.  I am  forwarding the email to a select few who will, I am sure,  appreciate its contents.


The speech is a review of English learning and teaching, after English was ousted from the list of eligible languages by the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and given ambiguous status as a link language by the Constitutional Amendment of 1987, half implementing the Indo Sri Lanka pact of 1987 between JR and Rajiv Gandhi, which wanted to make it a national language like Sinhala and Tamil.

The most recent development in this history (I am told by a student who intended to sit for it in the next year) is the abolition of the English medium O Level exam by the current government in the immediate future. What is the significance of this move? Can we place it in the context of Manique’s argument?

Manique couples Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as less fortunate entities than India because India retained the continuity of English as a full-fledged official language. English is one of more than 10 official languages in India, with equal status with Hindi, Marathi, Tamil etc nationwide. It is the original link language which unified India as well as Ceylon. Perhaps we have now set forth on the path of reunification. So we are told.

How does abolishing the English medium O Level support it? I have heard that the reason is because very few sit it. That is because students are not encouraged under free education state policy to study in English from Year One onwards. Only the well to do are encouraged by the fee levying private school system. Under the Indo Ceylon CEPA which encourages mutual interchange, the Sri Lankan professionals cannot afford to compete with the Indians. If we are to be equal with them is it by spending money on cricket and not spending money on English that we can do it? Is the increase of the vote for education meant to improve the chances of the poor through free education in English? Isn’t that the most worthy aim that the present polity can dream of? Would a woman be stoned to death in a foreign land if she had been able to understand the basic legalities which only an English education can give? Manique does not push her argument with an example such as this because she was not aware of such an implication. But it illustrates the basic question. Can you be employed without English?

Yes, you can! But only in the state sector. In a series of beautifully selected examples Manique illustrates the pros and cons of public and private sector attitudes. There was a young man, full of enterprise who built up a business from scratch and he was so proud of it and he had a son whom he educated and who, he believed, will fulfil the dream of self dependence and pride in achievement he had himself fulfilled. But the son, after all that was done, was much happier to join the public sector! Not because he did not know English. But maybe for many reasons and one of them would be status and public recognition.

On the other hand my own father was a government clerk and I fulfilled his ambition of my becoming a state executive. My sons did not see any virtue in joining government. Perhaps avenues are not that open now as when I was young. But the argument is that public office supports lack of enterprise and shirking of responsibility. Manique gives the example of how she and other university students who studied western languages were recruited to work at the non aligned meeting of 1976, especially those who were students of French. An occasion arose when an announcement had to be made in French. But none of them, including Manique herself came forward! She sees this in hindsight as an example of shirking responsibility that the public sector promotes. "Why should I bother?"

I have my own recent example of this. I teach at Aquinas University College and most of my students are teachers doing their B.A. One of them had just left government as teacher and joined a private school. I asked her casually what was the difference. She replied: "In private school it is the teacher that is responsible for the children to do well. In government school the parents are responsible, not the teacher." What could be more telling? Does this arise because in private school the parents pay the teacher whereas in government the salary comes anyway and the teacher is not obliged to the student or the parents.

The teacher’s true responsibility is to the politician who is the real paymaster. So how can state education be truly responsible to the child or the parents? Is that why English is not taught in state schools but only an elaborate pretext called "English language training" carefully sees to it that the children will never really learn the skills and therefore be unemployable except in the politician dependent state sector? This is the import of Manique’s argument.

To clinch the argument let me quote a story which I heard from a former Minister of Education and which was confirmed by a lady Member of Parliament, whose husband was also a Minister. Should English be made available as an optional medium of education was the topic of discussion in 1960 and the clinching argument came from a well known SLFP nationalist "If you are going to teach English to every kiri kitta, who is going to pluck the coconuts on our trees?" Can we connect this with the recent decision to abolish the English medium Sri Lanka O Level ?

So the question of employability is inextricably tied to English if we wish to promote development and democratic equality and it is only through making English an optional and available medium that such aims can be achieved. The entertaining part of the talk is when Manique starts talking about how the already English educated, who judge the employability of others at interview boards, think and talk about the candidates who present themselves.

If you look at the video of Manique’s speech on u tube, because of the speaker’s vivacity and the liveliness of her mind, you begin to wonder whether this isn’t the best piece of entertainment that you ever got, as an educated and sophisticated Sri Lankan. She talks of how private sector interview boards categorise interviewees from the state universities as possibly yakkos and /or yakko buggers. They are straightaway categorized as "aw" or "ow" pronouncers of hot/pot or as users of "f" and "p" in the wrong place or. (Doric de Souza, once a Senator used to talk about how speakers in the Senate would refer to the Pederal Fact when they were discussing the Federal Pact). Or you could listen to someone talking about W.H.Samaranayake’s grammar book "English With A Ismile." There you have the same jokes that Lanerolle’s "Well Mudaliyar" played with such hilarity for the English speaking locals in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, who over generations had enjoyed the stability of middle class and lower middle class existence, which was a gift of colonialism that led to the transformation of the country from a feudal society to a modern society. (See Patrick Peebles, The Mudaliyars of Ceylon , unpublished Ph D thesis in the Colombo Archives) But Manique noted that Sri Lankans had perhaps got past the Well Mudaliyar situation. Students did pronounce correctly when the wished but they were resistant to correction. They preferred to be yakkos or yakko buggers.

If Manique had been speaking to a local audience, those words would have sounded so offensive to a middle class crowd. To the Indian audience at Hyderabad they were just some labels. I particularly liked the authenticity of the double barrelled version: yakko buggers. This is common parlance in colloquial SL English. She explained the first word as something similar to "yokel" but did not try to explain the second one because it was not needed. Whatever its literal meaning it was a class reference. This discourse can be conducted because of the assumption that the ordinary poor will never learn English because it will never be made available. This has been policy since the time of James d’ Alwis, the local pundit of the 19th century, who wrote an introduction to the Sinhala /Sanskrit grammar titled Sidath Sangarawa, which was longer than the substantive text. His introduction was a history of English literature, where he tried to make comparisons with Sinhala literature.

When the GCE O Level is no longer available to the poor Moneragala student or the Chavakacheri student in the English medium how are they going to meet on common or equal terms as members of one nation, building the future together? If English was a national language everyone would have had a legal right to learn it and in it as it is in India since Nehru.


The essence of what I am trying to say is that the English For Employability is an issue which involves English as a medium and NOT English as an additional skill in a second language while the employee’s basic academic skill is obtained through a first language such as Sinhala or Tamil. That was made very clear to me, when as National Coordinator for English at the UGC and the Ministry of Education, in 1986 to 1989, I came to know students in the A Level islandwide by setting up an general English program for 6,000 students who had obtained admission to state Universities. This was an outcome of the JR Rajiv agreement.

The students were in 95 teaching centers (schools available after the normal school hours) spread out from Dondra to Chavakacheri and 305 English teachers taught them. The syllabus included the English Everyday Series for the levels equal to Std 6 upto O Level, created by the British Council, and the Integrated Course In English for the A Level series created by the US Fulbright Commission’s consultants from American Universities, for the students with better than O Level skills. At the end of the six months prior to stepping in to the portals of Universities, they sat an exam created by an American ESL professor. I added to that a short questionnaire drafted by me.

Q 1: Now that you have gone through a pre-University English course would you like to sit for an A Level General English paper?

Q2: What are your thoughts about the future?

The answers (almost unanimous) were

Q1: We don’t want to sit for a General English paper.

Q2: We want, when we enter the University, to study in the English medium. (unanimous)

So this is what the students want! As simple as that!

That was in 1986! And after 30 years the answer to their prayer is to cancel the English medium Ordinary Level so that students in the state schools will never be able to study in the English medium once they enter University! Instead of that target, money was and will be spent on ESL programs and speeches will be made on how to teach and how to learn English as a subject like learning Latin or Sanskrit or Chinese or Japanese or Hindi. The hypocrisy of the ruling class can be easily tested by counting how many politicians have children educated in English medium private schools like the CIS while the politicians do not give a thought even now to the basic demand but want to introduce new subjects like "Peace" in the schools.

The way to make English a medium in stages has been explained in international reports like the Norwegian report on Education of the 1960s where the basic idea is to teach English to primary school teachers first, paying them for studying it. Then they will use English intermittently with Sinhala/Tamil in the primary classes SO THAT CHILDREN GRADUALLY BEGIN TO USE ENGLISH AS A MEDIUM TOGETHER WITH SINHALA / TAMIL IN PRIMARY SCHOOL and then shift to their medium of choice in the secondary school but continue to use the other two languages. At University they will be able to study in English, if they want, because at that level a sufficiently high standard cannot be attained in the other two languages as media. This has been demonstrated over and over again in India.

P.S. I did a test exercise in the Norwegian proposal about primary school teachers learning and teaching intermittently in English in a couple of schools and it was excellent in results. It appears to be the way out for the problem. It may appear to raise more questions than answers but that will not happen if at every stage the overriding principle is that the student makes the choice of medium and not the educationist. It may also involve payment of costs or partial costs by some students based on their choices within the context of so called "free education." It will dilute the baneful influence of the politician. Is that too much to ask?

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