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)