Sri Lanka has free tertiary education, but only two percent of students are accepted to university. As a generalization, those accepted to University have excellent English skills; those lacking proficiency in English can be held back and prevented from going abroad on scholarships and grants.
The history of English in Sri Lanka is long and complex. During my orientation I had the chance to meet the gentleman who is the Director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission – Tissa. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, retired English literature professor. One day at lunch he told my fellow Fulbrighters and I, “We have destroyed the foundation of English teaching because of stupid political mistakes, because of nationalism and ‘equality’”.
He continued to tell us that the Sinhala word for English is a metaphor for the word ‘sword’ (කඩුව, Kaduwa). It is a weapon of those who speak it to repress those who do not. I recently read an op-ed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times which stated:The privileged classes will learn an international variety of English and will be able to maintain their higher position in society permanently. The underprivileged classes who are being taught a local variety of English will be further disadvantaged. Those who will stand to benefit, will be the elite.
As an English Teaching Assistant, I will be sharpening that sword, in a sense. While I’ll be working through an NGO, teaching English at a community center, I need to be cognizant of the political and social implications of English in Sri Lanka.
English is a powerful tool, and it enables developing countries to improve their relations with the global economy. There is a profound need for English teaching in Sri Lanka, but I need to be constantly aware of the way that I teach English – so I don’t inadvertently criticize Sinhala.
I’m not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but I am excited for the challenges which lay ahead.