English: The teachers are not the problem

[සිංහල පරිවර්තනය සඳහා අවසානයේ ඇති වීඩියෝව නරඹන්න]

On the 30th of January, responding to a question by an aspiring English teacher still unemployed more than a year after completing the Higher National Diploma in English and passing the English Teaching examination, the President asserted that “හොඳටම කතා කරන්න පුළුවන්, ඒක ගැන දැනුමක් තියෙන අය තමයි ඉංග්‍රීසි උගන්වනවා නං එවන්න ඕනෙ” (“only those with a good mastery of English should be appointed as teachers”). (See 1:18–2:30 in this video)

At face value, this makes sense. The Kannangara report of 1943 not only acknowledged this, it went even further:

“The teacher must not only speak the language, he must understand it as a language. He must have studied its peculiarities, he able to explain its roots, and above all have a feeling for its literature.”

But if she did not possess the competence required to be a teacher, how did she pass the Teaching examination? What use is a “qualification” if those who possess it are subsequently deemed to be unqualified?

Was she unqualified? That’s complicated — there are broadly two ways Sri Lankan children learn English: you could grow up in a home that speaks English, and learn it by immersion; or you could grow up in a home that speaks Sinhala or Tamil, and learn English formally — at school, at tuition classes targeting the school exams, or at special English courses.

By the standards and needs of those who had the privilege of the former pathway, this particular candidate was definitely unqualified. They probably wouldn't have even needed to hear her speak to make that determination — people in that group do not need to purse a HND to learn English and/or showcase their proficiency. However, people who are qualified by that yardstick rarely aspire to teach in the public school system, because they have better opportunities elsewhere.

Could improving standards in teacher training or paying better salaries to attract better candidates solve this? It’s unlikely — because the problem is not really with the teaching; as long as children are only expressing themselves (i.e. speaking and writing) only during the English period, even native-proficiency English teachers will not have much of an impact.

So is there a way out of this quagmire? Yes:

  1. Encourage children to consume English language content — in whatever medium (print, radio, TV, online, even games) that works for them, and whatever content they enjoy — it need not be “educational” content like news and documentaries; actually they are inferior to fiction for our purpose (because fiction is more likely to be fun, and is easier to source at different competence levels). You don’t need to be an English teacher to do this — any adult (teacher or family member) can do it, although having “a feeling for its literature” will be helpful. The time for this should come from their “leisure time”, not from their “study time” — that’s why it’s important that it is enjoyable.
  2. Encourage children to express themselves in English — talk to friends and family; write a journal; post on social media. For this, they need to empowered to deal with the fact that English has been weaponized as a class barrier for decades, if not centuries. This කඩුව has a double-edged blade:
    A. It’s used by those above you to laugh at your “broken English” — they are not out to help you, they do not want you to succeed, and they will find fault no matter how good you are… all because you are from the wrong class. Ignore them.
    B. It’s used by those below you to shame you for “betraying your heritage and culture”. That’s how they’ve learned to deal with their insecurities. Try to bring them up with you if you can, ignore them if you can’t.
  3. Reframe the role of formal teaching to be to help students with the problems they face when expressing themselves. It’s a bonus if the teacher has the competence to correct their mistakes (both the English knowledge and the relationship to correct without discouraging) but it’s not essential. The main thing is to encourage their questions (because it shows they are trying) and answer them — and if the teacher doesn’t know the answers, have the humility to admit it (that’s an important lesson applicable for any discipline) and go find it (or help the children find it).
  4. If you want to really learn the language, and enjoy it, ignore exams, and avoid tuition classes that promise exam results as if they were Covid19 super spreaders. Not only are they worthless (because you can pass the exam without being proficient in the language, and because you’ve already lost if you need to show exam results to prove language proficiency), but they actually get in the way.

Returning to the question of whether the aspiring teacher was qualified… for the majority of Sri Lankan children, what they need most from English teachers is the courage to express themselves — using whatever English they know. And in that regard she performed admirably: rather than backing down when challenged, she expressed herself as best as she could; and even if her grammar and pronunciation was faulty, the intent was conveyed.

And that is what language is for.

Narration of this article in Sinhala:

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