ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 16
Columns - Thoughts from London  

The language barrier that has crippled the country

By Neville de Silva

At a recent dinner for Minister GL Peiris the conversation turned to the issue of education and more specifically the deteriorating standards of English in the country.

When English is assuming greater importance even as the language of diplomacy having replaced French several years ago, it seems that Sri Lanka is lagging far behind many other countries in popularising English in our schools even though there is an earnest desire among the people to learn the language.

We still seem to be living in the past when Sri Lankans were able to hold their own in the councils of the world and institutions of learning by their fluent display in this colonial tongue which surely is the most widely spoken language in the world though not spoken by the largest number. That distinction would go to Chinese and to Hindi as the most spoken languages.

More and more diplomats, for instance, whose original language is not English are learning it in preference to others because of its importance in the world of international trade and commerce, medicine and scientific research and diplomacy.

But we, as usual, spend a great deal of time talking and underlining its importance from the dais at conferences or round a seminar table but still do little to spread it in our schools so that we produce youth who are bilingual at least and become employable in this increasingly globalised world.

As somebody at the table observed, the fault lies with successive governments that have only talked of introducing English to schools countrywide but have done little tangible to see it become a reality.

One thought that our politicians-of the past and present- would have learnt a much needed lesson from the JVP insurrection of 1971 which was a violent expression of social grievances built up over the years because of political neglect of urban and rural youth.

Those who were around in the late 1960s and early 70s and those who later read of the '71 eruption would be aware that one of the major factors that contributed to it was joblessness among educated youth who felt they were being increasingly marginalised as they were monolingual and so were excluded from the more lucrative jobs in the private sector in particular.

It might be recalled that these disenchanted youth mainly from rural schools and graduates from the less popular universities with degrees that severely circumscribed their employability had a striking word to describe their predicament. They called English the "kaduwa", the sword that sliced them out of the best jobs in a more enterprising private sector which was by no means as expansive and lucrative as it is today.

Even then they saw employment in the private sector and the better government jobs the road to upward mobility. But their path to social and economic mobility was blocked by their lack of knowledge of the English language.

Had the politicians of the day and those who came after them, grasped the significance of that social revolution, they would have taken early steps to take English to the villages or at least the bigger schools in the rural areas.

Instead, driven by leftwing politics and class considerations, the government of the day opted for land and housing reform hoping that such ill-conceived nationalisation in the guise of the redistribution of wealth and economic adjustment would solve the problem of youth unrest.

By minimising, if not ignoring, the teaching of English which would have helped open up new vistas to rural youth or those from less well known schools, our national leaders created another problem. It drove the younger generation from the two major communities further apart because they were educated in their mother tongues and had no link language through which they could communicate with each other.

The result of that shortsightedness is being increasingly felt today, not just in deteriorating standards of English and levels of comprehension but even in political circles and the bureaucracy where incoherence is fast becoming a problem for the government in conveying its views internationally.

With international attention-foreign governments, multilateral bodies, watchdogs and media- sharply focussed on Sri Lanka, it requires an articulate and coherent expression of the government point of view to explain and counter growing criticism of the Rajapaksa administration's conduct.

How many in the current cabinet could present that view coherently and in a language that could be understood by international audiences? Just a handful and I will name no names. Expansion of a cabinet to mammoth proportions does not automatically invest it with wisdom or the ability to articulate clearly its policies, particularly those that are seen as controversial.

Unfortunately ministries such as the foreign ministry, which are in the forefront of dealing with international relations whether at multilateral or bilateral level, are in the hands of those who lack the ability to present a case clearly and convincingly. The more I read the words of foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama- interviews and off- the- cuff remarks not speeches written for him by officials and others- the more I sympathise with foreigners who have to try and make some sense out of incoherence.

In an interview with the Daily Mirror newspaper last week and reproduced in the official government website Mr Bogollagama spoke of the need for "communicating based on clarity."

So I searched for some clarity in that interview. This is what I found in answer to the second question which was "You believe the international media was distorting the situation in Sri Lanka and that what is portrayed is not the reality of the ground situation. What is the ground situation in the East in your opinion?"

Here is his reply: "This is not a general statement. It was in the context of certain specific distorted versions that were getting across. There are also true ones. It becomes very difficult to isolate the distorted from the real ones. If it is the local media then it is the ground situation yes, but the foreign media can look at it from information that comes with a spin. Most of the local stories are in Sinhala or Tamil media and when they get translated the question arises if it is short of both a distorted or real version of the situation. What gets communicated doesn't go in the flow it was meant to. Then they get fairly heavy coverage and attention."

Some might be able to extract some sense out of it. But what of the world at large, the Colombo-based diplomats, the foreign offices, the international media and others who keep a weather eye open to Sri Lanka? Asked whether the large delegation going to the UN sessions in New York is not alarming, the foreign minister replies: " No it's nothing to get alarmed about going by the previous numbers fielded. Let it be what ever the number it is important to get the facts right. It doesn't matter what the number is as long as the figure is right."

If I understand correctly what he is trying to say is that the number in the delegation does not matter as long as the correct number is reported. Now is this the kind of gibberish that the public expects from the foreign minister of the country? There are more hilarious remarks not only in this interview but another with the Sunday Observer last June that I quickly glanced through. But let it stay as I wish to look at another government news source.

That is the official government "news portal" which carried these Bogollagama interviews. This website which is run by the Government Information Department under Minister Priyadarshana Yapa is a constant source of amusement and anybody who has had a bad day is advised to turn to it for some comic relief.

Since in previous columns I have already cited some unbelievable reports in this website let me quote a recent one dated September 5. "Taxes on mobiles and vehicles are for the benefaction of Sri Lanka, the government need to regain the amount they lose at providing the tax releases in Essential good to carry on the development process," said the Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle.

Its Vision, according to the government website is "To become the most credible public media machinery in South Asia through effective coordination of public and private media sources to achieve sustainable development of Sri Lanka." If these are the sources that the government has at hand to sell its story and defend its cause, then it would be prudent even now to seek divine intervention.

But this is a result of the myopic educational system and language policies successive governments have followed while their leaders sent their sons and daughters to English language schools and universities abroad. Those who did not have the means to do so ended up working for the bureaucracy or fattened themselves on politics.

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