ELTWeekly Vol. 3 Issue#103 | October 31 | ISSN 0975-3036
Reintroduction of English as Medium of Instruction in Sri Lanka
Thirunavukkarasu Karunakaran has been an ESL teacher for10 years at University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He has MA and MPhil in Linguistics from the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka. His research interests are in the areas of borrowings, bilingualism and bilingual education.
English is now instrumental to accomplish our goals in our career and life as it is the powerful global medium that links different ethnic groups from different parts of the world. In the present day world English and computer literacy are key things which elevate one’s career and income in a big way. In Sri Lanka too, the need of English medium is realized and step is taken to raise the proficiency level of English from all levels of the students. As a change in the system of education, bilingual education was introduced to promote learning of English.
English as Medium of Instruction
English was reintroduced as medium of instruction to General Certificate Examination of Advance Level (G.C.E.A/L) science classes in Sri Lanka after using two of the country’s local languages, Sinhala and Tamil for nearly half a century. The step came into effect in 2001 and English was permitted to be used as medium of instruction along with the two local languages in certain selected schools. Different competing theories, such as the conspiracy theory and the grassroots theory, offer to explain the world wide spread of English as medium of instruction at present. The proponents of the conspiracy theory claim that there is a planned, calculated effort by both British and American agencies to assert the dominance of English and to persuade other countries to accept it as superior to any other language.
Grassroots theorists, on the other hand, maintain that English has an economic role in the world that induces its spread independently of the political and cultural hegemony of one nation or nations. Similarly, according to globalization theorists, English is considered as the language of globalization par excellence.Government of Sri Lanka reintroduced English as the medium of instruction to secondary schools in 2003. In other words, the ministry of education issued a circular instructing the principals that they could introduce English as the medium of education. Indeed, English medium education is an optional one, that is to say, those who wish to learn their subjects in English medium can continue their education in the English medium, once they complete their primary education in vernacular. The parents and the students who are lower level bilinguals acclaimed this step of the government. Consequently, in Jaffna peninsula, firstly, the national schools and missionary schools started the English medium education and the first batch of students who learned their subjects in English sat for the General certificate of Examination of ordinary level (G.C.E.O/L) in December, 2008.
The effect of globalization on education makes nation-states restore their educational systems in order to train a labour force demanded by global economic activities. It has been argued that the various facets of reform programs in education could range from curricular reforms favoring science and math based courses through cost recovery measures at upper secondary and higher education levels to reforms in language of instruction in a given context (Carnoy, 1999, Phillipson, 1999, Brock-Utne, 2000 cited in Lakshman Punchi, 2001). Transformations related to language of instruction have been related to emergence of English, as a medium of instruction both in developed and developing countries. If globalization is the economic activity that joins big business with the people across the world in real time, a global language to communicate is also needed. This wills unavoidably be English as it has got the status of the most dominant global language now, according to some linguists (Crystal, 2003b).
English is given utmost importance and it is spoken by a large number of people in the world. Though it is a ‘God-given asset to Great Britain’, the demand for it is insatiable (Phillipson, 1992). This powerful international language has a short history. After the fall of British Empire, English lost its dominance it had for many centuries and the fall led many countries to gain sovereignty from the British in using their local languages in education and administration (Punchi, 2001). For instance, in South Asia, several nationalistic movements were headed by Gandhi in India and this inspired the Sri Lankan nationals to start the use of indigenous languages as medium of education and administration. In the post-colonial India, three language formulae was introduced and in the post- colonial Malaysia, Bahisa Malaysia minority language was introduced as medium of instruction and subsequently it was made as the official language in Malaysia (Tollefso& Tsui, 2003). Because Sri Lanka was under the British rule for quite a long period, people of Sri Lanka were unable to get equity and access to education, as British rule only provided education in English medium only (Jeyasuiya, 1979).
By 1940’s, the local authorities realized the disparity and took steps to introduce free education in vernaculars, Sinhala and Tamil as medium of instruction to Sri Lankan education system at all levels. Despite the protest from the elite group, free education was successfully implemented and the vernacular medium of instruction was first introduced in the primary schools in 1945, in secondary schools in 1953 and at the tertiary level in 1960 (Little cited in Punchi, n.d.). As a result of this, the science subjects were taught in local languages, Sinhala and Tamil in the secondary schools throughout Sri Lanka and the myth that English was necessary to learn the Science subjects was dispproved by the better performance of the students who learnt those science subjects in local languages (Ranaweera, 1976). By this, everybody in the country, regardless of poor or rich, was given equal chance to learn Science subjects from grade six to collegiate level (General certificate Examination of Advanced Level) which decides the university entrance of the students. In fact, because of this educational policy in 1960’s the rates of the students’ enrollment of primary, secondary, and tertiary education rose up drastically. And there were rapid changes in the education sector and these resulted in a positive way elevating the literacy and life expectancy to 90 and 70 respectively (Jeyaweera, 2002). In the post-Independent Sri Lanka, gender equity in education and women participation in the labour force have been paid enough weightage .Some elitists’ groups were opposing the mother tongue medium of education and it went on uninterruptedly for so many years. Due to the global changes, the educational authorities switch over to English medium education from the year 2001.
In the realms of political Science, economics, and cultural studies, globalization went to zenith in the closing years of 20th century. The globalization is the integration and organizing of economic activities at levels which transcend national boundaries and jurisdictions. The common powerful international language turned out to be mandatory to establish an international relationship in order to interact with each other. Apparently, the globalization had a tremendous impact on the education policy of many countries and especially many periphery countries were forced to revamp their educational policies in order to encounter the demand of globalization (Phillipson, 1999). Since globalization links the business across the world, a need rises to foster a global language to communicate. This has placed English at the top in the hierarchy of languages and it is wide spread all through the world now. Besides, the use of English in the global economy, English has become a common language to a larger extent on the internet and active language in the international symposium and academic publication(Gray,2002 cited in Punchi, n.d). In this regard, Phillipson says
“At the heart of all education is language policy. English is at the heart of contemporary globalization processes, a dominant language…It is quite possible that the forces behind globalization would prefer the world to be monolingual. To those who see the world in exclusively economic terms, the transnational corporations and banks, this might represent rationalization. In the academic world too there are also those who assume that a single global lingua franca would be a desirable state of affairs (Phillipson, 1999:199-200).
At present, English has been reintroduced as the language of instruction in countries which got independence from Britain. In this way, Sri Lanka which got independence from Britain also drastically opened up a way for English to make its come back as the language of instruction in secondary and tertiary levels of education.
1.7.8 Conspiracy theory and Grass Root Theory
Conspiracy theory and grass root theory influence the choice of language to be used. Conspiracy theory explains the universal pervasiveness of English in education (Phillipson, 1992).The grass- root theory as opposed to conspiracy theory holds a view that pervasiveness of English is not the result of any conspiracy (Fisman, Cooper & Conrad, 1999). Writers like Phillipson (1992) and Pennycook (1995) say that the global spread of English was linked to Anglo-American political and economic interest. They are of the opinion that the pervasiveness of English is far from being balanced as illustrated by some linguists. According to Phillipson (1992), the international spread of English is happening because of globalization. In this regard, Phillipson employs a notion of linguisicm that is similar to the concepts such as sexism and racism (Punchi, n.d.), when he talks about linguistic imperialism.
Linguisicm talks about disparity in terms of the language one uses. Phillipson (1992:46) defines linguisicm as “ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language.” He demarcates linguistic imperialism as specific linguistics in which ‘‘the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstruction of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (ibid:47). In view of this, Phillipson (1999) explains that linguisicm happens in a situation where more money and resources are allocated for the purpose of teaching English ignoring other languages, even if there is a policy of other languages. He goes on elaborating the idea of legitimating of linguisicm which happens in two forums called ‘political discourse on language issues’ and ‘in language pedagogy.’
So, linguistic imperialism with regard to pedagogy is given legitimate status by means of two chief processes: One in respect of language and culture which Phillipson (1999) terms as anglocentricy and the other in respect to language pedagogy called as professionalism (Punchi, n.d.). Phillipson (1999) explicitly says that anglocentrically talks about the forms and functions of English as the norm against which all language activity or use should be measured. At the same time, it devalues the other languages either directly or indirectly and it has embodied a power that flushes out the small and the weak languages. In the case of professionalism, Phillipson (1999) argues that it is concerned with the practice of methods, techniques and procedures adopted in ELT in various classroom contexts. This kind of practice obviously ignores the broader societal issues on the prerequisite in ELT in Periphery nations and it urges those countries to adopt English as a principal language.
On the other hand, grass-root theory is a complex theory and it disapproves the fact that English is the result of conspiracy orchestrated by Anglo-American interest (Fishman, Cooper & Conrad, 1977). According to Fishman (1977), many factors precipitate the pervasiveness of English. They are based on the military, linguistic, economic, developmental, political, and religious aspects. In Africa, English was found as an important tool to uphold linguistic heterogeneity. The grass root theory is always beneficial in many ways as it helped the colonized people more than the colonizer. These grass root theorists have another point that in all countries English was a normal language in upper level and international economic and technological activities. So, the pervasiveness of English in the world now is not the result of British and American conspiracy (Fishman, Conrad and Ruba-Lopez, 1996). By this, they disapprove the claim made by conspiracy theorists that English is the indication of linguistic imperialism. On the contrary, they say people in different nations like to learn English because it gets them a lot of socioeconomic benefits and it is not influenced by external language diffusion policies (Punchi, n.d).
The advocators of grass-root theory hold a view that ‘perhaps English should be reconceptualized from being an imperialist tool to being a multinational tool. In this sense , English may well be the lingua franca of capitalist exploitation without being the vehicle of imperialism or even neo-imperialism per se’ (Fishman, Conrad and Ruba-Lopez, 1996). At present, English has been reintroduced as the language of instruction in countries which got independence from Britain. In this way, Sri Lanka which got independence from Britain also drastically opened up a way for English to make its come back as the language of instruction in secondary and tertiary levels of education.
1.7.9 The Need of Bilingual Education in Sri Lanka
Bilingual education was introduced in Sri Lanka in order to meet the challenges the country faces in the globalized world, particularly in the job market. The knowledge of English is inevitable without which, one cannot expect a prospective career in the fast moving globe. The objective of the bilingual curriculum adopted in Sri Lanka is to develop the communicative competence of the students, importantly, their ability to acquire and process information through English than the ability to analyze and solve problems, and their ability to express and think in English. Bilingual education is an effective way to attain these objectives. Students can learn English while learning other courses. As a result, they can do well in their major subjects as well as in English. In Sri Lanka, the bilingual education is widely introduced after the children finish their primary education. That is, it is introduced in grade six. In the primary education, the medium of education is the native language.
In bilingual education, non-English speaking children initially receive the instruction in Tamil. As children acquire more proficiency, they learn subjects in more contextualized language (e.g. Math, Science in sheltered classes taught in English and later in mainstream classes). When the children are at the advanced level, the only subjects learnt in first language demand the most abstract language. For example, in advanced levels, the students of arts learn their subjects in the first language whereas some students from Commerce and Science streams opt for English medium and some opt for their native language as the language of instruction. Hakuta (1997) believes the biggest advantage is that students’ English proficiency will be improved to the larger extent. Baker and Jones (2001) say that bilingual teaching should have some required conditions and it does not apply in all schools.
This article shows as to how English is accepted as language of instruction in the present day Sri Lanka and what made the policy makers reintroduce English as medium of inst ruction. Reintroduction of English medium education paved a way for bilingual education. Now, children are taught in two languages- Sinhala and English or Tamil and English- in select schools once they finish their primary schooling.
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