Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sri Lankan English and English Language Teaching

Sri Lankan English and English Language Teaching
Rohana R.Wasala
(This present article appeared in the Midweek Review of The Island newspaper on 23rd June 2010)

A truncated version of this article first appeared in The Ceylon Daily News of Wednesday April 24, 2002 under the title “Sri Lankan English? The question of an acceptable model”. The same article in its complete original form, though now naturally dated, is being offered here to the Island readers because of the relevance of its subject to the current revitalized state English Language Teaching (ELT) enterprise. I have slightly edited it without altering its general content - RRW.

The reality that we encounter in the English language teaching domain today is that we no longer can claim that there is a single form of English which we could adopt as the universal standard; instead we have many standards, all equally correct and acceptable. We are obliged to talk about Englishes, not English.

The multiplicity of standard forms of English is a formidable problem for the practical teacher in the language classroom. In Sri Lanka where we teach English as a second language at all levels from the primary to the tertiary we obviously cannot tell our pupils, “Unlike in the past we now believe that there are many acceptable standard Englishes, not just one. You must learn the variety of English that is the most appropriate one for you”. Such advice may be enlightening to people who already know their English quite well. Where learners are concerned, it is teachers who must deal with the problem of “standard” in terms of which they may arbitrate on matters of linguistic acceptability/correctness.

This is where “the importance of advocating a standard for the language” comes. In fact, the question regarding a suitable standard for us to adopt in teaching English as a second language is in the process of being settled by local scholars in a context where the “many Englishes” idea is accommodated. This means that a standard Sri Lankan variety of English is being identified. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty, controversy and unfinished work surrounding the subject, which is naturally likely to put off those who, in any case, have not taken kindly to what appear to be deviations from the “standard English” of yesteryear.

The main aim of this present article is to suggest how “old” views about “correct” English could probably be reconciled with current perceptions and practices as far as “Sri Lankan English” is concerned. Let us have a closer look at the situation.

It is well known that the English language has never had anything like the academie francaise of France, i.e. a central authority invested with the power of regulating its use. Nevertheless, over the last two hundred years or so of its roughly 1500 year history to date the two predominant varieties – British English and American English – have provided models of accuracy or standards against which to judge the acceptability of the language in use. Although these two major English dialects have existed as two distinct standards, the divergences between them in terms of grammar and vocabulary are minimal; even the differences in spelling and pronunciation (which are more readily noted) are never so wide as to render them mutually incomprehensible in the least. In effect, they represent nearly identical models of correctness.

However, with the recent emergence of English as the global medium of science, technology, industry, trade, culture, computer, communications, etc the function of serving as a measure of authenticity is being rapidly decentralized away from the native British and American standards to peripheral non-native forms of English such as Canadian, Caribbean and Indian. In other words, there is a growing tendency among users of English as a foreign or second language in different regions around the globe to consider the varieties of English evolving in their own sociocultural contexts to be as “respectable” as, and, for their particular purposes, even more effective and efficient than, Standard American or British English.

Consequently, it is difficult today to talk about one single authoritative form of English. Rather it is the case that there are a number of Standard “Englishes” - a notion that could be reprehensible to some of us who were educated when the English we were taught was securely bound to the flagship of Standard British English (or whatever was locally supposed to constitute it) and characteristic deviations from “the norm” among the local users of the language, whether they resulted from an imperfect mastery of the standard or from natural sociolinguistic causes, were rightly or wrongly outlawed as erroneous forms, or as “Ceylonisms”.

While the persistent conservative standpoint is understandable, the global trend appears to be an accommodating attitude towards the phenomenon of a plurality of Standard Englishes. In terms of this tendency which may, in fact, be seen at one level as a manifestation in the field of language of a certain desire amongst previously colonized peoples for emancipation from lingering Western dominance, some of us in Sri Lanka too might feel justified in trying to adopt a Standard English of our own. If what could be identified as the local educated variety of English is to be accepted as our autonomous model, this must be done in such a way as not to depress even further the already low levels of competence in English among our students.

It is even possible to imagine a worse scenario than the mere decline of proficiency levels: the threatened extinction in Sri Lanka of English as we know it today, or its final degeneration into an autonomous tongue, a creole perhaps, alienated from the rest of the world! However, where English is concerned, such fears may be baseless because the centrifugal movement towards diversity is being countered by an opposite movement towards uniformity in the context of easy international communication and the virtual obliteration of national borders due to globalization.

David Graddol writes in his The Future of English? (London: British Council, 1997) “The widespread use of English as a language of wider communication will continue to exert pressure towards global uniformity as well as give rise to anxieties about ‘declining’ standards, language change and the loss of geolinguistic diversity. But as English shifts from foreign- language to second- language status for an increasing number of people, we can also expect to see English develop a larger number of local varieties” (Graddol, 1997, p.56).

In the same context Graddol attributes these opposite strains that English is presently undergoing to the fact that “… English has two main functions in the world: it provides a vehicular language for international communication and it forms the basis for constructing cultural identities…”. The former pushes towards uniformity, intelligibility and common standards, whereas the latter tends to lead towards fragmentation through the creation of local forms and hybrid varieties.

However, there is no evidence to suggest that English is in any danger of breaking up into an infinity of mutually unintelligible dialects. The diversity of varieties of English is nothing new after all. Different brands of English have always existed. What is new is that with the unprecedented expansion of its adoption in every part of the world this plurality of standard forms of English has become more evident than before.

The best future we may perhaps extrapolate for English from the current trends is that, notwithstanding the localizing movements leading to “polycentrism” (i.e. a number of standard forms), the momentum towards global uniformity will prevail and that, as a result, “a supranational” (Graddol’s phrase) will emerge, transcending all these competing “native” and regional varieties. Strevens (1992), quoted by Graddol, speculates that the ELT industry will play a significant role in maintaining such an international standard for both communication and teaching purposes. The prevailing tendency though is towards the recognition of non-native regional models.

The replacement of what once enjoyed a monolithic status as the correct form of English with a regional variety will obviously have important implications for ELT activity as well as international communication. While lack of uniformity could hinder easy exchange of information, it may also pose problems for ELT practitioners in the matter of designing curricula and compiling teaching materials. Nevertheless, the current advocacy of a standard Sri Lankan variety of English for teaching will not, I believe, lead to such a complete break with the native varieties of English,( especially British and American, however protean and elusive to boot these themselves may be) as to hamper our communication with the outside world. Curriculum designing, material preparation, and other pedagogical problems will not be insurmountable obstacles either.

Probably a major reason for championing a local brand of English in our country is the recognition of the changed image and function of English as opposed to its past. Under the British, it was the language of administration and business, associated with elitism and power, and the colonialists restricted its availability to a subservient minority for their own purposes. Even for most of the half century of independence since 1948 English has been almost exclusively the prerogative of the power-wielding national bourgeoisie. As a result of the spirit of resurgent nationalism which swept the country in the wake of Independence (and which culminated in the 1956 political changes), English was given a back seat in the national consciousness, but this was temporary. Even during this time, Sri Lanka’s educational policy makers were not oblivious of the importance of English for the development of the country through education. A programme was implemented to teach English as a second language to all school children irrespective of their social class.

Education through the medium of national languages began to be available to far larger numbers of students than education through the medium of English ever was under colonial rule. This immensely benefited many children of the dispossessed classes who were previously denied that opportunity. A rapid expansion of mother tongue education happened broadly between the 1960’s and 1980’s during which period English education was virtually downgraded. The reality today is that English is being restored to its position of prominence in all important spheres – education, economic development, communication, business, industry, etc. Most of all, there is a widespread reawakening to the immense significance of English in the field of education.

The vast majority of those who learn English intend to use it as a second language, especially in education and work. First language English is still confined to a small percentage of the population. Therefore English is mainly important for us as a second language.

Local academics in the field generally assume that we have a distinctly identifiable variety of English with its own characteristic pronunciation, vocabulary and idiom. However, as outlined in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (ed. Tom McArthur, 1992), Sri Lankan English “… is not itself a monolithic system; it consists of a range of subvarieties based on proficiency in it and the users’ language background. It is in fact a subvariety of South Asian English similar to Indian English with which it shares many features…”

Out of this range of subvarieties the form of English that is normally used by educated Sri Lankans is the one that can be described as Standard Sri Lankan English, which is the variety generally accepted as correct. I believe that the educated variety of Sri Lankan English derives from what used to be regarded as Standard British English. The reason is that the British have dominated general education in Sri Lanka including the teaching of English during most of our two hundred year association with them. Particularly in educated English medium discourse we used to believe that we were following the British standard. Even our conscious accommodation of the other major national standard – the American variety – began relatively recently. Out of all major forms of English, it is “British” English that is most readily intelligible to us in its spoken and written forms. The other varieties are comprehensible to us to the extent that they resemble the (assumed) standard British model.

The “British” habit is so ingrained in us, at least in some of us, that we should be excused if we appear to cling on to a so-called British Standard that is being debunked, and exorcised by modern linguists. Yet, I believe that this British connection is an essential link between the Sri Lankan variety that is being advocated, and the global English that is probably emerging in the world at large.

In this context, the usual confusion between standard and accent must be resolved. The standard form of a language is the form that enjoys the greatest prestige in educational and official contexts, in the media, and in writing systems; accent usually refers to features of pronunciation that reveal a speaker’s regional or social background. There was a time when Standard British English was identified with RP (Received Pronunciation) among native British speakers. Today this is no longer the case. Standard English is now spoken with a variety of accents. The “Standard” is maintained more in grammar and vocabulary (not without occasional lapses) than in pronunciation. Even in Britain, only about 3% of the population are said to speak RP.

RP could never be a model for our ELT purposes. Perhaps it never was. Naturally, as speakers of our own native languages whose sound systems are significantly different from each other as well as from English, we cannot pronounce English the way either the native or other non-native speakers of the language do unless we undergo special training to do so. We must adopt our own Sri Lankan accent, which itself is heterogeneous on account of the diversity of the mother tongue backgrounds within Sri Lanka. I think that since the time that Sri Lankans started learning English in a local context they have always been using their characteristic accents, because they cannot acquire any other accent in their specific circumstances: their teachers usually share the same mother tongues; they start learning English as a second language only after they have mastered the sound system of their native language, and so on.

Of course, there are a few who try to put on a “posh” accent, which is nothing but a ludicrous attempt to improvise what they imagine to be a “native-speaker-like” pronunciation.

Many foreigners would say that our mastery of English grammar and vocabulary is excellent, but that our pronunciation is not quite so good. This is perhaps not a fair assessment. Non-native speakers of a language can rarely achieve native-speaker pronunciation unless specially trained. Most English speech sounds are new to us; some of our own sounds are not even remotely identical with them. Where a competent teacher’s guidance is not available for the correct production of authentic English sounds, second language learners tend to substitute approximate native (i.e. mother tongue) equivalents for them.

English pronunciation can be problematic for our students for two basic reasons among others: the first is the novelty of certain English phonemes; the second, the far more difficult but also more significant problem concerns their lack of familiarity with the syllable stress and intonation patterns of English. In English it is important to stress the correct syllables to convey meaning. We do not have this feature in Sinhala, and when we speak English, our delivery is a flat even flow of speech without the correct pattern of stresses that a native speaker of English would generally produce.

Foreigners will find it difficult to understand our English speech if we fail to produce reasonably authentic English sounds and stress patterns. Since we learn English for international/global communication as a major aim of our effort, our commitment to a totally “Sri Lankan” model of English should not be at the expense of mutual intelligibility with other varieties of English, not only at the level of grammar and vocabulary, but also at the level of accent (“accent” here is intentionally simplified to mean characteristic features of pronunciation that signal the second language speakers’ mother tongue background).

Our target need not be a British or American accent, but a natural Sri Lankan pronunciation approximating the normal or neutral English pronunciation we hear around the world. The two major “native” varieties of English (British and American) which are really merging into each other, are closer to this nascent form of “global English” than any other manifestation of English. We need not bother about being able to copy a supposed native-speaker pronunciation; but we should aim at the mastery of basic phonemic distinctions and stress patterns, which are likely to cause us trouble as non-native speakers of English, but which are essential for universal comprehensibility.

The pronunciation of educated Sri Lankan speakers of English is yet to be described, and pronouncing dictionaries compiled by researchers; adequate linguistic corpora must be put together to define and describe the “educated Sri Lankan variety of English”; reference books must be written to guide teachers and students and language teaching materials have to be produced, too.

Until such time as these are ready we should turn to source materials and other relevant literature produced by native British and American authors and non-native experts who are close to the two major national standards. Going after the Indian or Caribbean varieties just to spite the alleged “English power base” will not take us anywhere.

The reason for making such an assertion is my belief that anything that is identified as Standard Sri Lankan English cannot be very different from the English found in international circulation, whose remarkable common core uniformity is due to its general similarity to the two predominant “native” standards (i.e. British and American) in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation within manageable limits. Our local standard should not alienate itself from the English of global communication.

Thus, staying close to British and American English will be to our advantage. A too exclusively Sri Lankan variety of English, which may entail the tolerance of obvious but typical Sri Lankan solecisms (that deviate from what could be considered as the emergent neutral international standard) can lead to problems relating to global intelligibility. As Professor J.D. Bowen of USA once pointed out, second language Englishes tend to deviate from each other more and in more directions than native Englishes in which the dialects are mutually supportive.

The ground realities in the local ELT scene should not be forgotten. When we talk about the “abysmal failure” of the local English language teaching programme, we still think of our failure to teach the traditional variety of English we have always been concerned with, that is, the local version of British English; we gauge the proficiency of teachers in terms of their mastery of that variety. If the adoption of the “local standard” includes the acceptance of usages previously condemned as “non-standard” and, more importantly, as interfering with efficient communication on that account, then such an innovation will not lead to any amelioration of the current ELT situation.


1 comment:

  1. Have you heard of the term 'Neutral Accent'? This is not learning to speak with a British, Australian, or American accent, but with an accent that is easily understood by all. If people have trouble understanding you when you speak English, you might want to try some accent reduction training.

    Take a look at the following site:

    They also have a great links page for further practice/information: