Looking at Sri Lankn English with hindsight
July 8, 2010, 8:41 pm
By Rohana R. Wasala
As an ordinary citizen and an English language teaching (ELT) professional with some experience, I have no quarrel with the notion of Sri Lankan English/es or the idea of a standard form of it being advocated for teaching in our country, provided that the two basic questions of what Sri Lankan English is, and why it should be promoted are answered to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, authorities, and the general public), and the move supported on a principled basis. Unless and until this is done the current debate will prove to be much ado about nothing.
It is not that these questions have already been dealt with by those competent to do so; what is identified by linguists as Sri Lankan English is even being codified it is claimed. However, apparently, it is only now that public discussion of the matter with a real sense of seriousness is taking shape. This is the time that the future course of the whole exercise (i.e. the implementation of the Standard Sri Lankan English proposal) is to be charted.
My sincere wish is not to tread on the toes of scholars who are known to have done much painstaking research in the field, or challenge their conclusions, but to explain, for what it’s worth, a commonsense opinion that I have had for a long time regarding the matter, something that may have been implicit in my earlier articles about ELT in Sri Lanka.
If the language of the writings of the scholars should be taken as exemplifying the Standard Sri Lankan English that they are advocating as a model – and I believe it should - , then those who fear that Sri Lankan English is "broken English" or a "substandard" variety will definitely come round to supporting their idea, and stop raising objections. The reason is that the English employed in the writings of the researchers represents a specimen of what used to be, and still is, popularly perceived as "Standard English". This is also why I am tempted to believe that adherents of that variety (for which other names could be suggested such as international English, English English, global English, supranational English, etc) need not fear that the adoption of Sri Lankan English will be tantamount to an unwarranted adulteration of English for our children.
Although I cannot claim to have a complete understanding of what Sri Lankan English (SLE) specifically consists of in the experts’ view, my assumption is that it cannot be significantly different from what used to be taught in Sri Lankan schools in the past in terms of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. (The so-called "elocution English", by the way, was rarely part of the language fare placed before our children in the past, except perhaps in a few urban schools.) As to the multiplicity of acceptable SLE dialects, one might say that it is impossible to accommodate all of them in any basic language teaching context where a single identifiable "standard" must perforce be the basis of instruction, and where the extremely unhelpful, chaotic "anything goes"linguistic permissiveness should be avoided. It is clear that there’s no reason to worry on this score.
An English language aficionado of an earlier generation than mine (a "master" of English, a so-called "compound" bilingual, but engaged in another discipline) in a casual discussion with me some time ago about what possibly might be termed Sri Lankan English, piqued by my sympathy for a "newfangled" idea that he strongly disapproved of, condemning the deviations from "the Standard" that he suspected SLE involved, asked me how I would describe the English I was taught as a kid at school in the 1960s (While my interlocutor was a product of English medium education, I learned my English as a second language at a later time); it was obvious to me that he expected me to say "Standard (British) English". But I said "Sri Lankan English (!) although probably it was not identified as such at that time". And I went on to explain to him what I meant by that answer.
What else could you expect us to learn from our teachers who were our compatriots except Sri Lankan English? True, they most probably believed that they were using British English; but they used it as Sri Lankans, infusing typically Sri Lankan elements such as a characteristic Sinhalese or Tamil accent in pronunciation, colloquial coinages reflecting the local social and linguistic backgrounds, or even slightly modified grammatical features into their English, thereby unconsciously turning the supposed "British English" into a form of "Sri Lankan English", but experienced no difficulty in being well received both among their own people and outsiders who similarly used "Standard" English.
However, our teachers didn’t make an issue of this involuntary "Sri Lankanness" of their English; they helped us to speak English "our way" without saying so, and also to avoid what were condemned at that time as "Ceylonisms" – identified as errors which were due to sheer ignorance or negligence. But when we had an occasional opportunity to listen to native British or American speakers of English, we were able to understand them without difficulty; they understood what we said to them in "our" English. When we encountered other foreigners who had learnt English as a foreign or second language like us, again we were able to carry on a conversation with them in English quite easily. We understood without being taught that different people from around the world, and even within the country, spoke English differently, but that English was English whoever spoke it in whatever way they found it natural for themselves; but we never thought about English in terms of varieties (and this didn’t harm our learning English). We grasped instinctively that English is one language, though spoken in different ways.
Much later in life we realized that what we had been taught was actually a local version of British English, which could have been described as Sri Lankan English. And it was not considered inferior to the "real" thing, but identical with it in grammar and vocabulary with a negligibly few naturally inevitable deviations. As to formal written English, we expected to find no difference between "our" English and "their" English.
Of course, at that time, as we still do perhaps, we had an insignificant minority of locals – members of the "Kultur clique" as we heard them nicknamed - who put on a "posh" accent. This we knew to be fake, and we reserved the deepest contempt for the accent and the people who stupidly flaunted it as a mark of prestige which they arrogated to themselves. We even discovered, in a few cases at least, that they didn’t know enough "good" English to go with their "posh" accent! Once, in the first half of the 70s decade, we heard about how a high official of the country’s educational establishment, a left-leaning academic from the university, dealt with a female English teacher (a Sinhalese and one of the "posh" crowd) who had come to him to complain about being denied success at her final exam at the training college because, as she assumed, she had failed in the compulsory elementary Sinhala language paper. She angrily referred to her successful colleagues, the hoi polloi, who, in her opinion, didn’t know good English, but knew their Sinhala, and passed the exam: "Un Sinhala dannawa ne!" (They know their Sinhala!) she said. The Sinhalese pronoun "un" was in this context a derogatory equivalent of the English pronoun "they". The official quipped: "Un dekama dannawa!" (They know both!). This might be an apocryphal story, but it was an indication of the already diminished prestige of the so-called English speaking elite and their English about forty years ago. (I wonder why we should be talking so much about the alleged "hegemony" of this class over ELT in Sri Lanka today.)
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