By Dyan Seneviratne
One of the many reasons that propelled Singapore from being just another backward Third World country to that of a thriving First World Nation was adopting English as their ‘working language’, whilst not forgetting Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. In this context let me quote extract from Chapter 11 ‘Many Tongues, One Language’ from memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore and Leader par excellence, from his book ‘From Third World to First; The Singapore Story: 1965-2000’:
“Bilingualism in English and Malay, Chinese or Tamil is a heavy load for our children. The three mother tongues are completely unrelated to English. But if we were monolingual in our mother tongues, we would have not made a living. Becoming monolingual in English would have been a setback. We would have lost our cultural identity, that quiet confidence about ourselves and our place in the world. In any case, we could not have persuaded our people to give up their mother tongues.
Hence, in spite of the criticism from many quarters that our people have mastered neither language, it is our best way forward. English as our working language has prevented conflicts arising between our different races and given us a competitive advantage because it is the international language of business and diplomacy, of science and technology. Without it, we would not have many of the world’s multinationals and over 200 of the world’s top banks in Singapore. Nor would our people have taken so readily to computers and the internet.” – Lee Kuan Yew
Whilst on the subject of languages and unifying our people, let me also quote relevant extracts of Sri Lankan K. Godage’s letter to Editor Daily FT of Tuesday 22 December 2015 captioned: ‘A Shocker’:
“A few days ago I met a group of Colombo Medical College students who were protesting over SAITM Medical College affair and fell into a conversation with them and I was horrified to find that they could not converse in English.
When I enquired from them as to whether they were not taught in English at the Medical College they said yes, but since they had studied in the Sinhala Medium till A/Levels, they were unable to follow what was being taught; one of them said that she was intending to go back to her village in Embilipitiya.
“……. It is incumbent on all of us to do whatever we can to address this issue which is a national issue to equip the leaders of tomorrow of our country with the most spoken language in the world – English.
“…..No greater service could (teaching of English) they render to our country and our people for they would also be making the most significant contribution to uniting our multi-racial country…”
“We should have English taught in all our schools after Grade Five, it would be an investment in the people and it would build them and our country” – K. Godage. Well said sir!
Whilst much of the globalised world is making vast strides in being proficient in the English Language for reasons patently obvious, 21st Century Sri Lanka pathetically, still continues to dither and dilly-dally about embracing English and at least as proposed by K. Godage above, we must take the bull by the horns and ensure that English be taught in ‘all’ our schools after Grade Five, period!
Whilst not discarding our mother tongues, Sinhala and Tamil, let us pragmatically ensure that English be the common denominator of unifying our races and creating that oneness as Sri Lankans.
Besides having a skilled work-force proficient in English, like in Singapore would be a magnet for Multi National Corporations (MNCs) to set up businesses. Remember: No English; No boom in FDIs!
Finally let me quote Ms Tara de Mel, former Secretary to the Ministry of Education vide LMD of August 2009: “One of the main negatives of many students is the lack of English Language skills. Sadly, attempts at teaching English as a subject (for nearly three decades) have not made a significant impact on improving language skills and the competence of school-going children. This is amply vindicated by the huge demand for enrolments in international schools, and by the large number of tuition classes offering ‘spoken and written English’.
“I strongly believe that the Government is obliged to provide all facilities, including learning material and trained teachers (that are) required for English-medium teaching. Students should be given the option to study in Sinhala, Tamil or English. The medium of instruction should be the choice of the students and their parents. The authorities have no right to prescribe what they think is best, whether (this be) in primary, secondary education. The Government’s responsibility should be to provide the opportunities and enable those who opt for English-medium instruction to do so.” Tara de Mel, former Secretary Ministry of Education, then government of Sri Lanka.
Tara de Mel’s words were proved by the numerous requests from urban and especially rural areas, for books and teacher training, when the introduction of optional English was announced back in 2001 – that is 15 years ago! Sadly we are still wallowing in despair and depriving our present students and future leaders of this proven tool towards relevance and indeed excellence – English proficiency!
For far too long Sri Lanka’s education policies have been based on antiquated theories and political expediency – let us at least now courageously pledge to ‘do’ what is ‘good’ for our future generations and follow what has worked in Singapore that climbed the mountain of Third World hopelessness in 1965 to emerge as a Global Economic Star with a GDP per head: $ 54,000 and Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of a whopping $ 86,550 whilst PPP of USA at $ 57,620; Germany at 48,060; UK at 41,500, Japan at 38,260; Norway at $66,860; Denmark at $ 46,620. Source: The Economist – ‘The World in 2016’.
Shall we now stop merely hoping to be ‘another Singapore’ and ‘do what’s needed to be done’?
I rest my case!
(The writer is CEO/IPM and Governing Board Member CMS (Ladies College, Colombo, Hillwood College and Mowbray College, Kandy, St John’s College and Chundikuli Girls College, Jaffna)