A more English literate Sri Lanka

A more English literate Sri Lanka

Reports indicate that 1.5 billion speak English and yet, only about 360 million people speak it as their first language. English is by far the most commonly studied foreign language in the world, followed by French at a distant second.

The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), prepared an international education organisation, attempts to rank countries by the average level of English language skills amongst the adults. According to their most recent edition released in November 2017, the Netherlands has emerged with the highest English language proficiency with a score of 72. In fact, the only non-European nation in the top ten is Singapore at number six.

Sri Lanka has very low proficiency of EF EPI score 47.84 positioning us in 61 out of 80 countries. Malaysia is in high proficiency with EF EPI score 61.07 placing them in 13th position.

Malaysian experience

It is interesting to study briefly how Malaysia reached proficiency in English within a few decades after their independence. Perhaps, we may be able to pick up few lessons from them.

English was the major language in Malaysia prior to its independence from the British in 1957. Then, immediately after the Independence, in concurrence with the Article 152 of their Federal Constitution, Bahasa Malaysia (BM), was stipulated to be the national language. All national schools were instructed to use BM as the medium of instruction for all subjects, except English.

According to many sociologists, this decision has caused the beginning of the deterioration of the standard of English language in Malaysia. The drastic decrease in the amount of exposure to English for the students was deemed a setback for Malaysia in its ambition to achieve its Vision 2020 objective.

By early 1990s, the government realised that in order to move forward towards industrialisation and globalisation, Malaysians must be proficient in the English language. By the mid-1990s, the government was gradually urging tertiary institutions to offer technical areas in English. At the same time, Dr. Mahathir, then Prime Minister, made repeated public statements assuring that such usage would not threaten the status of the national language.

Beginning January 2003, English began to be used as the medium of instruction for the teaching of Mathematics and Science subjects in all government schools. By 2009, the first batch of students sat for public examinations in English for Science and Mathematics.

There were reactions from many quarters but the government stood firm by their decision. The Government maintained that it was critical for students to be competent in the language.

In 2013, the English Language Standards and Quality Council was set up to focus on the foundation and structural changes to help raise the standard of English in the country. The result is a Roadmap for English Language Education Reform in Malaysia spanning 2015 to 2025. This roadmap is a time-tabled implementation plan for the systemic reform of English language education in Malaysia. The goal is to bring about transformation of the existing English language education system not only in Malaysian schools from pre-school to postsecondary, but also at tertiary level, and English language teacher education.

The road map also gave due attention to the urgent need to develop English-proficient and self-directed graduates. A paradigm shift is thus required for undergraduates to move away from a culture of passive formulaic learning to embracing self-directed, autonomous learning.

The Roadmap proposed the adoption of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) – an international standard that focuses on producing learners who can communicate and interact in any language, (in this instance, English). It was as a move to firstly, allow the government to view the English proficiency levels of Malaysian graduates on an international scale and to set appropriate targets for the next decade. Secondly, the CEFR provides a common denominator for reviewing and aligning English Language curricula, pedagogy and assessment in universities, while still allowing individual universities to maintain their autonomy.

The first stage of cascade training for thousands of English teachers in the country on the CEFR began earlier mid-2016. Relying on cascade training as its central training paradigm helped distributing to the big numbers of teachers, as its principle is that you train a trainer to train other trainers who then train others. Not only this exponential multiplication of learning helped development process and cut training time, it also preserved the training resources and maximise skill distribution.

The roadmap also included a joint initiative with Cambridge Assessment English. It is one of three exam boards which form the Cambridge Assessment Group, a non-teaching department of the University of Cambridge.

The Roadmap provided the framework for the execution of the plans proposed in the Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB) 2013-2025, for the future of their education system. It is also significant to note that the Roadmap has utilised the findings of the Cambridge baseline study on the teaching of English language in their schools.

Malaysia has now a clearly focused plan for English language teaching which fully aligns with their Ministry’s language teaching policy.

Sri Lankan experience

When the British took over Sri Lanka in 1815 they provided schooling entirely in English but only to an elite who were expected subsequently to become administrators in the civil service. The vernacular schools continued to function in Sinhala and Tamil principally in the rural areas.

In 1942 a special committee was appointed with C.W.W. Kannangara as chairman to report on the status of education in the country. Among the recommendations for providing “lasting value to the nation” given in the report, which was published in 1943, were that (a) education should be free from the Kindergarten to the University, (b) the mother tongue should be used as the medium of instruction in the Primary Schools, (c) English – as a second language – should be taught in all schools from standard III.

The policy of using the mother tongue at the primary level was implemented in 1944 was later extended to the post primary level in 1953. A complete change-over was achieved in the mid-1960s with Sinhala and Tamil becoming the media of teaching in the university too.

The success of the teaching of English as a Second Language in schools depended on the availability of teachers having a good command of the English language as well as appropriate training in the teaching of English as a Second Language. In the absence of either of these, the teaching programme has become unproductive as is evident in our schools today.

There is convincing evidence to substantiate the view that the teaching of English as a compulsory Second Language is a failure in spite of much publicity being given to this programme very often for political advantage.

The original policy of recruiting only teachers highly fluent in English with a sound command of the language as well as with a professional training was noticeably relaxed.

It is quite obvious that Malaysia is far ahead of Sri Lanka when compared with the initiatives taken to develop English education in the country. We had neither long-term strategies nor a solid road map to achieve a set target.

It is high time we wake up and start promoting the teaching of English in schools as a practically useful Second Language. To achieve such an objective, the prior need has to be the diagnosis of the prevailing shortcomings in the English teaching programme and the taking of the necessary steps to remedy them.

In the writer’s opinion, our first priority, taking a leaf from Malaysian experience, should be the preparation of a English Language Blueprint for 2019- 2030. And for its framework, we need to build a Roadmap for English Language education reforms for that period.

For a start, it may be worthwhile for our educational authorities to take a look at the report titled “The teaching of English as a second language – Impact study and evaluation” prepared by Sri Lanka / Norway/ UNESCO/ funds-in-trust programme in 1993. (Lionel Wijesiri)


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