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Sunday, 24 April 2011





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Changing facets of language and language standards:

Issues of language education

Siromi Fernando was Professor of English at the University of Colombo until her retirement in 2009. She has been closely associated with materials development and course administration for English Language Teaching from the time she joined the academic staff in 1968.

Prof. Siromi Fernando
Pic: Ranga Chandrarathne

Her main interests are English Language Studies, English Language Teaching, teacher training and lesson material writing, Sri Lankan English and style in creative writing. Some of her publications are An Upper Intermediate Grammar of English (2009), English Language Activities (Lower Intermediate Level) (2002) and A Certificate Course in English (1985).

A 2010 publication English in Sri Lanka: Ceylon English, Lankan English, Sri Lankan English has been co-edited by her together with Manique Gunesekera and Arjuna Parakrama. Writing poetry is one of her lesser known activities.

In this exclusive interview with Montage, Prof. Siromi Fernando spells out her vision on English Language Teaching, dealing with myriads of issues in the sector. One of the contentious issues in modern English Language Teaching (ELT) is the higher standards that particularly the adult students demand unlike in the teaching of other international languages such as German, French, Chinese or Japanese. She pointed out that like Chinese, Japanese or Russian, the people in the rural areas find English an alien language while those who are in urban areas find it relatively easy as they have been exposed to English.

However, this relative advantage is, once again, nullified by the fact that there is an elitist class in the metropolis who has a better command of English than the less privileged. Those who are less privileged think that they learn English in an environment in which they feel that they cannot catch up or outstrip those elitist groups in the metropolis. Although this attitude on the part of the majority is common among post-colonial countries, this psychological barrier would hamper the efforts of teaching and learning English Language.

Speaking on the tuition class pes henomenon in Sri Lanka, Prof. Siromi Fernando states, that the proliferation of tuition class, among other things, indicates the great need for learning English and the demand for high quality ELT.

However, both teaching material and qualifications of teachers are questionable and it is urgent to address the issues of certification and quality; it is essential to assist the teachers and teaching material writers.

Policy initiatives have to be made in the areas of certification as an English Language Teacher to Adults and as English Language Material Writers for Adults. It should be made mandatory for those who are teaching English and writing lesson materials to attend at Workshops in English Language Teaching.

As to the standard of a language, Prof. Siromi is of the opinion that a language becomes a standard language when it is accepted by a speech community as the best variety of language to be used in a particular context. However, she is of the view that de-hegemonising language would lead to more and more confusion among language learners and language teachers.

Excerpts of the interview

Q. How important is it to know English in a globalised world and why not Chinese or Japanese, as these languages have become the common languages of powerful nations?

In a globalised world, it is important to learn an international language. English, through various circumstances, has become the pre-eminent international language today.

In addition Sri Lanka has a long period of colonisation by England, and therefore one of the important resources we have is that many Lankans are able to speak English, and we also have a number of qualified English teachers.

At present we do not have similar resources in relation to Chinese or Japanese, or other international languages like French, German, Russian etc. This is why it is thought to be important to learn English in Sri Lanka.

Q. What are the constraints in learning English in Sri Lanka today?

Many people find that there are constraints in learning English in Sri Lanka today. To rural people in remote areas, English is an alien language and languages like Chinese, German, Russian etc. are more foreign than English. Learning an unknown language like English is therefore one constraint.

People in bigger towns and particularly in big cities have been more exposed to English and find it easier to learn English. They are also more motivated to learn English. However, in this case there is another constraint.

In bigger towns and cities, there is another class of people who is more affluent, or the elite, who has already acquired English from their homes or neighbourhood. Those who do not knows English so well, are constantly restricted by the English the other class know.

Therefore, they learn English in an environment in which they feel they could never catch up or outstrip the English known by the other class. This kind of psychological barrier is common to all post-colonial countries, although this constraint reduces as the national languages advance in modernity and become more able to compete with international languages like English.


Q.What are the constraints in teaching English in Sri Lanka today?

A. Teaching Chinese, Japanese, French or German in Sri Lanka today is not as difficult as teaching English. This is because the level of language intended to be taught is relatively low, and therefore learning the language too is relatively easy.

However, in teaching English, unless the high level of English can be taught that is spoken by the more affluent Sri Lankans, it will not be considered good enough. So, the level of English to be taught is extremely high.

In addition, most people in Sri Lanka use the national languages in their day-to-day life. Therefore there are very few opportunities in which learners of English can practise the English they are taught in their classrooms. These two factors are difficult constraints to overcome.

Q. In my opinion, non-school teaching and learning or “tuition” classes, have been growing as a powerful informal sector, making a kind of “business”. How do you evaluate the long term and short term implications of ‘tuition” class-based business education in Sri Lanka?

A. Non-school teaching and learning of English has been growing steadily. Once students leave school or graduate from universities, they are faced with the problem of not knowing sufficient English in working environments.

In order to deal with this, they join small or large tuition classes, institutions etc. that teach English. Some big colleges and several universities run relatively large classes for English learners, sometimes graded into three or four levels.

On other occasions big companies contact these institutions to hold English classes for their officers. All these are part of the powerful informal sector, which is in fact a notable “business”.

This “tuition” class-based business education has both strengths and shortcomings. The strengths of this type of education are that Sri Lankans have recognised the great need for the enrichment of English skills before and during employment.

Many classes and institutions, both large and small, are using teachers and lesson material to improve the English of a large part of the population. And a certain percentage of those attending these classes improve.

The shortcoming of this type of education is that this market is captured by business sharks as a lucrative business, through which owners (or proprietors!), staff, lesson writers etc. (often of questionable quality) make undue profits from unknowing students, whose hours of English studies give no additional English skills.


With reference to short term implications of this type of English education, I think it is essential to keep at the forefront the great need many Sri Lankans have for the enrichment of English skills before and during employment. Both individuals and institutions are already busy with this work.

Prof. Siromi Fernando

However, at present very little attention has been given to assisting English teachers and lesson material writers. Having productive workshops in English Language Teaching and Lesson Material Design will help staff to promote their own abilities. English Language Associations like SLELTA (Sri Lanka English Language Teachers’ Association), as well as big institutions could be encouraged to hold such workshops.

With reference to more long term implications, I think matters of certification and quality control are urgent. And of course, the matter of appropriate fees too needs urgent consideration because business sharks are rakimg in huge amounts in fees.

People who teach English in fee-levying classes to (say) more than 10 adult students per month should be certified as appropriate English Language teachers. Such certification could be awarded by an established English Language Association or institution.

The quality of the lesson material used in such classes should also be controlled in similar ways. The fees permissible for learning English, participation in workshops etc. should also be laid down each year and should be sufficiently moderate to attract people who are non-affluent or from remote rural areas.

Q. What policy initiatives are required to make use of this informal sector for the benefit of a national English education programme in Sri Lanka?

A.The following could form the required policy initiates :

a. Certification as an English Language Teacher to Adults and Certification as English Language Materials Writer for Adults should be required for those teaching English / writing lesson materials in fee-levying classes to (say) more than 10 adult students per month.

b. Attendance at Workshops in English Language Teaching for English Language Teachers to Adults and Workshops in English Lesson Material Design for English Language Materials Writers for Adults should be required for those teaching English / writing lesson materials in fee-levying classes to (say) more than 10 adult students per month.

c. The maximum fees permitted for any of the items mentioned above should be adhered to.

New Demands

Q. “Non-school English education, new demands and standards” is a vital issue in English Language Teaching, which focuses on areas such as quality control, certification, accreditation etc. Are there any other important issues in promoting English education in Sri Lanka?

A. One important issue concerns not only English education, but all education. When I teach English, I try to encourage students to realize that they are intelligent, logical human beings.

When they learn English, they need to work hard, they need to be disciplined, but they also need to relax and enjoy their learning. Without enjoyment, they are denying part of their human life. It is when they enjoy making creative patterns in English, have fun while they are making mis

takes and correcting themselves, or finding out what they should say from others that learning is done naturally. Acquiring skills in this way will be remembered for a long time, perhaps throughout life.

So while it is important to focus on matters like quality control, certification, accreditation etc., it is also essential to help adults who are worried and tense about possible avenues of employment, to relax and not miss out on the natural, enjoyable ways of learning English.

Another important issue is the frequent erosion or wash-away of English skills. Certification is awarded on reaching a level of English skills at one point in time.

But these skills are easily washed away when the skills are not regularly practised. People should find real-life opportunities in which they can practise. Or they can look for refresher classes that could be conducted for this purpose. This will help people to keep their English skills oiled, well-charged and smoothly running.

Q. I would like to know your views as an academic on De-hegemonising Language Standards. In my understanding, standard languages and standardization itself is of a discriminatory and elitist nature, considering Sri Lankan English (SLE) which is symptomatic of other Englishes as a counter-example.

It argues for the active broadening of the standard to include diversity. Is this important? And do we have people and resources to undertake this task of de-hegemonising the English language for the benefit of the masses in the current context?

A. Standardisation and the acceptance of a variety of a language as the standard language is the acceptance by a speech community that a variety of a language is the best variety for use in a particular context.

This has to be discriminatory, since the speech community has to discriminate between more than one variety of a language. If and when this task is given into the hands of the elite, then this choice will be elitist as well.

As new varieties of English began to develop, speech communities using English in regions other than England chose their particular varieties of English in preference to British English. This is how American English, Australian English, Indian English, Singaporean English, Ghanaian English, Sri Lankan English (SLE) etc. came to be recognized as their own varieties. This was, and has to be discriminatory.

Within each new variety, often more than one variety also begin to develop. A standard variety needs to be distinguished for purposes of education etc. and this task has to be discriminatory. The task is undertaken by the speech community, but it is the most powerful, or occasionally the best qualified people who, unwittingly or wittingly regulate this. Sometimes this is elitist, sometimes populist, sometimes academic and so on.

If we consider Sri Lankan English (SLE), there are at present more than four varieties or dialects of SLE, and two main varieties can be recognised as standard languages. Some people label some of the dialects in derogatory terms, e.g. some of those who are able to pronounce [o] and [ ] differently, label those who can’t as using the ‘not pot’ dialect.

This is elitist, snobbish and unkind. When their ancestors learnt English from the British, these ancestors were unable to pronounce two consonant sounds in British English, i.e. [?] as in ‘thin’ [?in] and [đ] as in ‘then’ [đen] . Instead they were only able to pronounce two sounds more familiar in their national languages, [t? ] and [d? ], saying [t? in / ;ska] for ‘thin’ and [d? en / foka] for ‘then’.

It was fortunate that their British teachers were kind and courteous enough not to label their pronunciation as the [t? in] [d? en] or ‘ ;ska foka ~ dialect. This kind of crude name-calling is quite wrong and entirely un-academic. But this does not mean that it is appropriate to proclaim that Standard SLE need not distinguish between [o] and [?], or can pronounce [t? ] and [d? ] instead of [?] and [đ], or allow both ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘Where you are going?’.

De-hegemonising Language Standards will lead to this kind of confusion. Language changes so rapidly that regulating language or forcing dictates against the will of a speech community, in my view, is of little use. Instead it is safest to leave decisions regarding standards to the speech community. So far the pronunciation of [t? ] and [d? ] has been decreed as acceptable.


Do we have people and resources to undertake this task for the benefit of the masses? Let’s first consider the phrase “for the benefit of the masses”. What do the masses want? I have been involved in directing English courses for large numbers of adult Sri Lankans and have found that they are wanting and demanding rules and reasons for using “correct” English in order to benefit themselves. I have always maintained that there is no correctness or incorrectness in language.

There is only what is perceived as acceptable for each group as they interact in different contexts. Therefore for example, one variety of English among your close friends and another variety in English classes at the British Council can be acceptable. However, giving guidelines to learners to benefit themselves seems necessary.

They could be taught to recognise and use, if and when they wish, Standard SLE, or different dialects of SLE, or even other standard varieties of English in other countries. I would suggest this, rather than support the de-hegemonising of the Sri Lankan English standard.

Having said that de-hegemonising is unwise, it is not really necessary to discuss people and resources to undertake this task. But if people and resources are deployed for this purpose, more confusion will be perpetrated on the masses, who already seem to know what they want and are demanding it clearly and vociferously.

Q. How important is learning / teaching English as a path to promote national harmony and a common Sri Lankan identity in Sri Lanka?

A. Learning and teaching English is not particularly useful as promoting national harmony in Sri Lanka. A common means of promoting interaction between different races and people of different first languages is learning / teaching the language of the majority population in each region.

This has been the finding of researchers at the University of Colombo, whose dissertations I have supervised. Learning the languages of minority populations in each region, of course, promotes understanding and greater harmony between different races. Learning English is a common goal for all races and people of different first languages, and therefore to some extent can be part of a common Sri Lankan identity in Sri Lanka.

Means of power

Q. Do you think that, as a result of a long postcolonial history in this country, the use of English can serve not only as a means of power and authority, but also as a class tool?

A. In the early post-independence period, only a small percentage of Sri Lankans (or Ceylonese) knew English and these, the old elite, had power and authority because they were able to function in the upper rungs of government, administration, law, science, medicine, technology etc.

They may, voluntarily or involuntarily, have used English as a class tool as well. Today, with the formation of new elites, power and authority do not belong solely to those who use English. So, in our present context, in 2011, the use of English as a class tool can be seen far less and if so, this is competitively challenged by the use of Sinhala and Tamil.

Q. Is there a need to invent, perhaps a sub-standard SLE today to promote English in Sri Lanka?

A. In the 60s, when I first encountered the concept of ‘Ceylon English’ as an undergraduate in Peradeniya, the term Standard Ceylon English, as well as the super-standard and the sub-standard were referred to. Today, in the 2000s, such terms have been given up, and we refer more democratically to different dialects of SLE. When you refer to ‘a sub-standard SLE, I suppose you are speaking about a dialect of English that can be comfortably used with less affluent Sri Lankans as well as those from more remote areas.

There is no need to invent a new dialect for teaching in these contexts. Most teachers in these areas use the more comfortable dialects of SLE in their teaching. There could of course be some difficulties if policy planners, examiners of public examinations, text book writers etc. do not take into account the different dialects of SLE.

Although this is unlikely, regular discussions could help them in maintaining contact with the changes in SLE, and this would in addition lead to exciting ideas and enlivened work.

The concept that languages change is an axiom, and no languages remain static. In regions that have once been coloniswed, societies change very rapidly once independence has been granted. As a result, languages in these societies change, advance, go into attrition etc. more dramatically than usual. This has happened to all the languages used in Sri Lanka, and it is sensible to remember that SLE is just one of these languages.

In planning, teaching and learning English in Sri Lanka today, it is first essential to view language as a whole, and then consider languages of all types in all parts of our globe, as well as all languages and dialects used in our own country. This will make us see all SLE, with its standards and other dialects, in perspective and will direct us to make wise decisions regarding the important issues in hand.



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