The Ministry of Education says the new bilingual teaching system - of using a mixture of English and the mother tongue (Sinhala or Tamil) to teach the school curriculum - allows better absorption of the English language and overall better educational performance.
The bilingual teaching system is currently applied in a few schools from Grade 6 onwards. The system teaches some subjects - like mathematics and science - in English, and other subjects - like history - in the mother tongue. Children are anyway taught English, as a language, from Grade 3 onwards. Available data shows that children exposed to the bilingual system do better than children in the traditional monolingual system of learning only in the mother tongue.
“We do not want to compare Sinhala and Tamil medium students with bilingual students, because our ultimate goal is to provide bilingual education for all children in Sri Lanka. But the available data shows that bilingual students perform better,” said the Deputy Director of Education at the Bilingual Education Unit of the Ministry of Education, Priyatha Nanayakkara, speaking at a World Bank seminar on Innovations in Education, last week.
“The 2007 GCE Ordinary Level (O/L) results, for instance, and available data from the 2008 O/L results, show a higher level of performance from students exposed to bilingual teaching. For instance, in general, the average pass rate for mathematics in the country is very low. About 50%. But in 2007 the bilingual students’ pass rate for O/L mathematics was close to 90%. These children also show high performance in subjects taught in the mother tongue,” said Ms Nanayakkara.
Students in the bilingual system can sit for exams in either language. The education authorities say students do better in the bilingual system because the teaching technique allows better absorption of the subject and also the English language. The bilingual teachers are able to teach in both English and the mother language. Teachers are told when to use English and when to use the mother tongue when teaching.
“Children exposed to the bilingual system seem to show higher cognitive development than children exposed to the monolingual system. They can use both languages (English and mother tongue) more fluently and are more adaptable,” said the Director, Bilingual Education, at the National Institute of Education, Asoka Hewage.
Educationalists say the bilingual system is also better for Sri Lanka than the monolingual English medium teaching system. This is because unlike English medium education, the bilingual system does not distance children from their mother tongue and local cultural concepts. In the bilingual system, subjects closely linked to Sri Lankan culture like history and religion, are taught in the mother tongue. Disciplinary matters are also handled in the mother tongue.
The English medium system is also seen to have increased the social gap between English speakers and others. The bilingual system is seen to actually reduce this gap. “There was more social prestige given to children who studied in the English medium because of their access to English. But in the bilingual system, they all learn both languages. So this has reduced the social gap between those who have access to English and those who do not,” said Ms Hewage.
The purpose of the bilingual system, says the Education Ministry, is to produce young people that can function comfortably in a work environment and an academic environment, using English, and can also be comfortable in broader Sri Lankan society using their mother tongue.
The bilingual system has gradually been put in to practice in Sri Lanka since 2001. Last year (in 2008), the education authorities ended the English medium system. The bilingual teaching technique is currently applied only to a few schools in Sri Lanka (601 schools including the North and East ). So a majority of schools continue to follow the monolingual system of teaching only in Sinhala or in Tamil, with English taught only as a single subject.
The Bilingual Education Unit at the Ministry of Education says it wants to expand the bilingual teaching technique all over the country. But the unit is slowed down by lack of bilingual teachers and shortcomings in text books. Sri Lanka also does not hae a national policy for bilingual education at this point.