Due to ever-increasing global competition, acquiring knowledge of global languages is becoming increasingly important. The concept of learning foreign languages has always been productive as it enables learners not only to speak and write in different languages but also to explore their cultures and ways of life.
For example, French, which is also an official language in the United Nations, is known as the international language of fashion and architecture. A distinct quality of this language is that approximately 50 percent of English vocabulary is derived from French. Moreover, Russian is recently ranked as the fifth most common language in the world.
It houses the best arts in the world, such as ballet, theater, cinema, literature, music, etc.
English is the most spoken language in the world. One in five people can speak or at least understand English.
It is the language of science, aviation, computing, diplomacy and tourism. English is the official language of 53 countries.
English is spoken as a first language by approximately 400 million people worldwide and is the second language of 550 million.
So we can start by teaching and learning English before venturing into other languages. Unfortunately, the teaching of English in Sri Lanka takes place in far from satisfactory conditions.
A number of issues hamper the process of teaching and learning English as a second language in Sri Lanka. Appropriate corrective actions to address these issues are urgently needed.
Most Sri Lankan students are inclined towards their native language and do not feel so comfortable when using English.
All other subjects are taught to them in their mother tongue. Most of them have poor social and economic backgrounds which deprive them of opportunities to speak English inside or outside the classroom, which has been a barrier to their acquiring English skills.
China and Singapore
It’s time to look at what other Asian countries have done. Hong Kong and Singapore are former British colonies, but in the 1990s both grew concerned that declining English language standards were affecting their international competitiveness. They have taken steps to improve the teaching of English in their schools, which Sri Lanka could adopt as a model. They sent 8,000 English teachers back to school, not only to learn new teaching techniques, but also to improve their own teaching skills.
Let’s ask ourselves a few questions.
What can Sri Lanka learn from these two countries? They were relatively new to teaching English. But in 2010, their students outperformed Sri Lankan students.
What lessons can we learn from hundreds of American school systems that have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to tens of thousands of immigrants? What new interactive technologies are available to facilitate language learning?
There is so much to learn from the world, if we put our minds to it. And then we could take a look at the state of English teaching within our borders.
lDoes our English curriculum focus on the communication skills we need for our future?
How many Sri Lankan schools have language labs that students can use to get the virtual equivalent of one-to-one instruction?
What kind of in-service training do our English teachers need to build their skills?
How many schools still follow the age-old model of group teaching, with the teacher standing in front of the class, over-analyzing grammar and speaking English rather than speaking it?
lHow can we benefit from the presence of thousands of pensioners who speak good English in the country?
lFinally, how effective is the teaching of English on state television? Who is the target audience and are the programs geared to their needs?
Building Sri Lanka’s English language skills is not solely the responsibility of the education system. The Sri Lankan business sector also has a key role to play. It must recognize the importance of international communication skills.
This means, encouraging employees to strengthen their English skills through a variety of incentives. For example, companies could pay for English lessons and also offer in-house business English lessons. They can change their reward system and their expectations.
We find that Sri Lankan entrepreneurs are not sending enough signals to their employees that foreign language and intercultural skills are important. As a result, most Sri Lankan managers and workers hide behind their mother tongue.
It’s heartening to note that UK exams are becoming more entrenched in the minds of young Sri Lankans, but there’s a problem – these exams only measure reading and writing, not speaking. These are passive exams, which test your ability to understand what others write and say, but not your ability to communicate.
Just a month before our independence, Arthur Knowles, a British businessman writing to a local English newspaper, predicted that the Sri Lankans “can never be of any use outside their island and are doomed to yield to the dominance of the English language”.
It seems harsh. If he is still alive, he would have seen that Sri Lanka has produced some of the world’s greatest literary laureates over the past half century.
But the dominance of the English language outside Sri Lanka that he predicted has now become a reality. Sri Lanka’s economic future requires a widespread effort to build English language skills. This is the harsh reality.