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
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
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
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
Q. What are the constraints in learning English in Sri Lanka
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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’
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,
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.