Seven myths about English Education in Sri Lanka

1. English language skills of rural youth are miserably low: A myth. Vast majority of Sri Lankan youth now, irrespective of their origins, can understand basic English well. However, they may be poor in expressing themselves. Not a surprise, because they do not get sufficient opportunities to do so. In the right environment, most such cases can be addressed with minimal coaching.

2. No modes are available for rural students to improve their English: Not true anymore. According to the latest consumer finance survey by Central Bank, TV penetrates 71% households while radio covers 78%. Both these media broadcast enough English programmes. Sri Lanka has six English weeklies and three dailies. English is a core subject in primary and secondary education – even in schools in the most remote parts of the island. There is still room for improvement, but only for creating interaction.

3. Demand for English is high in rural areas: Demand exists, but not as high as most believe. Going by the advertisements, demand for other foreign languages like Japanese and Korean appears higher. Learning the latter obviously opens a short cut to a relatively well paid foreign job, but English is not such Aladdin’s lamp. (Observation: Demand among the recently moved Tamil youth in Colombo looks higher for Sinhala than English.)

4. Good English knowledge is a must for a job in private sector: Not always. Advanced English is not expected at the entry level. Most such positions need nothing more than ability to understand and speak simple English. Filling a form demonstrates sufficient written skills. Anywhere in private sector, enough ‘on-the-job’ training opportunities exist, and once in, they can improve.

5. What bars rural youth from private sector is ‘kaduva’ (and may be IT skills): Not necessarily. Having interviewed hundreds of applicants for entry level jobs I do not remember even a single case where the lack of English knowledge was the only (or even primary) reason. Risk aversion and poor attitude count for more failures. I have recruited at least one with questionable English knowledge but exemplary technical skills. He was a fast learner. After less than 3 years in that position he now works in a better position in Middle East.

6. English can drastically improve the marketability of rural youth: Again not always. English adds value but it per se does not. Most of the entry level jobs in private sector require some sort of technical skills. For example when the opening is for an Accounts Trainee, pure language skills will not land anybody there. A CIMA part 2 or even 1 might be a better qualification.

7. English should be taught/learnt in a class room: This might be the biggest myth. Why teach language in a class room? Is that the only possible environment? Why not use books? Radio? TV? Cassette? CDs? English movies in DVDs? Internet? Blogs? Will not Steven Spielberg be more effective than Wren and Martin? Why follow same obsolete methods used in the pre-technical era? Why ignore the power of technology?

What the state should/should not do:

During the colonial times state played the role of the tutor. It produced English educated administrators because dependency on Madras government was too costly. In fact, the primary objective of creating Colombo Academy – now Royal College – was just that.

However, times have changed. Today government operates largely in vernacular and faces no dearth of human resources. If at all English is valued, it is by the private sector. So why should the government spend tax payers money to create personnel for private entities? Even if state sees from the angle of addressing the issue of unemployment by minimizing the demand and supply mismatches, taking a holistic approach in building vocational skills rather than focus only in English would be more sensible.

Still if someone thinks it is state’s dire obligation to make rural youth armed with Queen’s the best is to use an informal approach. Adding extra slots to time tables will not do. Education reforms might help, but it is a long term solution.

What would be more practical is to introduce some job oriented English teaching programme on TV; or to do some CDs. Need interaction? May be Internet or if not residential crash courses. Anything but typical classroom teaching within school/university curricula. Use technology generously. Teach English not as a language per se but as a life skill. (eg Ability to self learn a software using help functions is more important than to read Treasure Island) Not that these would make rural youth Shakespeareans. Neither that per se will position them in private sector overnight. Still it would make the gap less. It might even make few ex-Marxist economists, those who are so worried about inequality, happy.

(This was written by a friend for some other purpose. I thought of reproducing so that we can initiate a discussion. Photos are from the flicker photo streams of Sri Lanka Education Froum, Fofiko and Cerno)

4 thoughts on “Seven myths about English Education in Sri Lanka

  1. In my opinion, it’s more about the attitude of the so called ‘rural’ school children. They still consider English as a demon. It’s their most feared subject in school. It was the same with me, even after entering the Royal College from a remote village school. I was a very weak student of English for years until I met this fantastic teacher in school who managed to put me on the right track.

    Therefore I believe some methodology should be applied to get rid of that ‘fear’ factor of these children. For that, you need quality teachers, who know the subject in and out and who speaks proper English. Most of the teachers these days speak ‘Singlish’, which is not going to help their students in any way. Even though I agree with the points you bring out here, I’m not sure how the technology can help in changing the attitude of students.

  2. I think technology is the right approach. It would be ideal if coupled with quality teachers. I find that students have a great interest in technology, and not just in connection to potential job skills, but in being able to explore and be part of the global world through music and movies, and social networking. I have an Ipod touch, and this machine allows the user to download applications of all types. I have seen and project a great growth in these applications, and they should not be dismissed in any way. In Japan, users can have English lessons on their I phones, and there is Japanese for those who wish to learn Japanese. Language in isolation can be difficult, but this technology opens up many new possibilities. I would suggest that young people with skills to to write these applications begin now to develop applications that interest them. Which languages do tourist in Sri Lanka speak predominantly? The applications can be made with these audiences in mind. A successful application can be sold on Itunes and the rewards could be incredible. If the Sri Lanka government has an interest in this technology, it might be a good investment to bring together teams that can produce some simple and basic apps, such as road conditions, hotel listings, educational facilities, and provide them on Itunes at no cost. In this way, people will become more interested in visiting Sri Lanka and one thing always leads to another. Thank-you for your insight. I can easily foresee a day when students are given gadgets, electronic readers, as opposed to books or laptops. I think the e-book market is small, but the ability to use technology in providing education, particularly for the self starter has barely been touched upon.

  3. I am a involved in teaching English.But am not an English teacher.The difference is my involvement in teaching English is Student Centered. So the student is the teacher himself.
    I believe this should be the way. I really agree with the 7th myth and a strong believer in using the modern methodologies of learning English. English is the only globally smart language. It should be apporoached in such a way that the learners get benefited not the tutor.
    Bottom line is “You should know what you want to learn”. Eg. Sri Lankans housemaid speak fluently in Arabic just after 3 months in-house use. Same should be adopted. We must have more and more English speaking Camps. At school levels,university level, household levels…………
    you name it. Then English is going to be a Pea Nut.

  4. When reading the 7 myths about teaching English in Sri Lanka and the opinions expressed by a few readers concernig the myths by referring to their pseronal experince made me to add something here. All openions and myths may be partly right or partly wrong. Becasue the writer of the myths or beliefs about English teachig says that rural youth and children can be taught oral English. It is true. A nunber of research conducted in the domain of SLA has proved that any learner at any age level can learn an additional language provided that he/she recevies comprehensible language input. Therefore, again a problem arises as to how this comprehensible language input is provided to learners. Language input is the language to which learners are exposed to. It can be listening, speaking, reading or writing. However, research has revelead that there are factors which are internal and external to the learners. These factors are cognitive, affective, and afge/maturational. These factors have some relationship with the acquisition of a second language. When a teacger is helping a leaner to acquire a foreign language, the teacher should know these factors well and his/her teaching practice should address them in his/her teaching conttext. Acquiring a second language is totally different from acquiring a first language. Therefore, I believe first teachers must be well versed not only with teaching methodlogy but also with the theories of SLA, (theoritical knowledge), what others have found through research and how they are relevant to one’s teaching context, (empirical knowledge) and how theories are applied in a classroom with real people (pedagogical knowldge). Therefore, a teacher has to be inofrmed about the issues stated above before he/she starts teaching an additional language. Anyone can make claims but they should be empirically proved to substancite one’s claim/s. Writing some points as to how a language can be acquired or taught even without knowing what teaching or learning a language entails are done by people who are similar to the seven blind persons who formed different views about an elephnat only by touching one part of its body.

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