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Sri Lanka’s constitution acknowledges that English is the country’s unifying language, while Sinhala and Tamil are both official and national tongues. On the one hand, the English tuition classes and international schools that have mushroomed across the country are indicative of an insatiable desire to learn English. Along this vein, touts on buses and trains sell books teaching “spoken English” to potential students desperately seeking overnight results.

On the other hand, the reference made to English as a kaduva (sword) signifies that this erstwhile colonial language continues to serve as a class marker in Sri Lanka. In like manner, English occupies an ambivalent position in the local linguistic landscape.

Buddhist monk and politician Athuraliye Rathana Thero’s recent appeal to the government to ban English-medium education at the primary level reflects an ill-founded phobia toward the English language. Rather than imposing laws on education, moving away from rote learning to critical thinking skills is essential for preparing students for a changing world. Most importantly, focusing on English speaking skills is of paramount importance when democratizing the English language.

Children are more proficient than adults at learning languages. In other words, psychological barriers such as inhibition and anxiety may prevent adults from mastering a language. Hence igniting an enthusiasm to learn English should be prioritized at a young age.

There have been vociferous calls for regulation of international schools in recent times. Certainly, identification of deficiencies in some substandard international schools is the need of the hour. Admittedly, international-school students are generally stereotyped as “spoiled rich kids” who have readily adopted “Western culture.” In reality, most parents who are themselves not competent in English send their children to international schools so that they gain greater English proficiency.

United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) parliamentarian Bandula Gunawardena’s criticism of the achievement of an international-school student who achieved top marks in the 2018 Advanced Level (AL) examination testified to ever-increasing populism in Sri Lanka. Unsurprisingly, the current government seems to engage in abrupt policy decisions without careful planning. For instance, the move to replace textbooks with computer tablets has drawn flak, as most rural schools lack basic physical and human resources.

Arguably, mother-tongue education can give learners a sense of pride in their heritage and identity. Yet drawing an analogy between a person who has received his or her education in English and a traitor to his or her native country seems to be a part of the bigger problem that is linked with the English language. English will remain a badge of social privilege as long as only a minority of people have access to it.

English will remain a badge of social privilege as long as only a minority of people have access to it

It is a remote possibility that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration will ban English-medium education, given that the two parties are embroiled in a power struggle after the 2019 Easter bombings. If it ever happens, those with means will definitely learn English outside school. Inevitably, financially challenged students will be deprived of learning English at an early stage in their life.

Designing an integrated and comprehensive curriculum to raise English levels among all students would be a far more sensible option. Unless people are truly capable of using English, making grand statements about the language serves no purpose. At the same time, learning the language of the ethnic other is central to bridging gaps between communities. Thinking ahead while considering the realities is a good way to avoid problems. Is it wishful thinking to ask political leaders and policy planners to do so?

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Dishani Senaratne

Dishani Senaratne has university experience teaching English in Sri Lanka. She is also a published poet and a short-story writer.

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