Global language, global ambition

Language politics have been central to Sri Lanka’s post-Independence arc, with the Sinhala Only Bill of 1956 marking a defining moment with prolonged and tragic consequences to this day. Education, available to all Sri Lankans under a free education policy that predated Independence, was one of the focal theatres on which the Official Languages Act was played out. The last Sri Lankans among those who received education instruction in the language of the imperialists are now well past retirement, as are the many senior civil servants and even politicians whose greater capacity for co-existence, diplomacy, and rationality may perhaps have been influenced by their Anglicised beginnings.

It took a pandemic for the Ministry of Education to announce last week that it was launching a pilot project to explore the provision of English medium education from primary to Advanced Level at schools islandwide for those who wish to pursue it. It was prompted by renewed demand to switch students from international schools to local ones given Covid-19-related economic woes. The Gangodawila Wijayarama Vidyalaya, Nugegoda (in the news recently over its proposed, now abandoned, amalgamation with Devi Balika Maha Vidyalaya) is tipped to be developed into the first such school to test the project. The Ministry has indicated that pilot schools would be set up at provincial level too before English medium instruction is made available islandwide.

This is a good move. One that has long been a necessity and one that will have lasting benefits. It is sincerely hoped that this too would not end up in the reversal bin that’s been the resting place of several policies proposed of late. Of course, there will be implementation hiccups, especially in finding the right talent and to train educators to deliver English medium education – but if the past year-and-a-half have shown us anything, it is the vast capacity of both teachers and students to adapt to change and embrace new ways of learning by overcoming their fears while battling resource shortages.

In the politics of language, English has been elevated to a form of privilege in Sri Lanka and a tool of discrimination. Predictably, therefore, there has been some opposition to the move already by teachers’ unions and nationalist parties. It is important that we recognise the demarcation between English language instruction and the anglicisation of curriculum content; learning in English shouldn’t rob us of the values, culture, and socialisation which are rooted in our mother tongues. The vast majority of Sri Lankans think and speak in Sinhala or Tamil, which become the repository of imagery, of memory, and of experience and must be preserved as such. But language is a most basic skill and if introduced early enough, bilingualism or even trilingualism can be mastered by school-going age.

Business in particular must welcome and support the implementation of English medium instruction. Nowhere is the importance of English language proficiency more evident than in the business world: It is the language of international commerce; the primary language of communication and technology; the language of negotiation and collaboration in a globalised world. In a future that celebrates diversity, English will still be the common ground.  

Corporate Sri Lanka has experienced the drawbacks of weak English language skills and it has become the burden of employers to elevate English knowledge and usage among employees. The English-speaking ability-based construction of privilege is closely linked to the private sector’s demand and value for English language capability – it is those with fluency that usually advance to the better paying, more influential roles within organisations.

Eventually, demand will determine the exact share of English medium in Sri Lanka’s education system. Having the choice of a local education in English will only make our human resources richer, globally aware, and ready to compete with the world. Sri Lanka’s growth ambitions to become a sophisticated hub in South Asia can only benefit from strengthening English language ability and therefore, it must be encouraged by all who love this nation.