The pursuit of English for decades now in this country has been undertaken with the same zeal as the quest for ‘Excalibur’, the legendary sword of King Arthur. Many who have been deprived of learning it have likened it to the mythical weapon, aptly dubbing it as the language with the cutting edge, the kaduwa (the sword).
After independence, English continued as the foremost language of business, mainstream education and the bureaucracy until 1956. The administrators in these fields until then, had to be conversant in English, and so it remained the language of the elite. But the then Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, catapulted to power on a springboard of screeching Sinhala nationalism. He made Sinhala the official language in 24 hours.
As a result, for more than 60 years, millions of Sri Lankans have had restricted access to a proper education in English. The primary constraint has been those same social and political forces which have been viewing English as a barrier to the domination and sweeping forces of nationalism. It had been easy to spot the political drift during the first decade or so, following independence which became an era of gloating regalement for extremist forces made up largely of nationalist cranks.
It provoked a professional brain-drain, which resulted in a mass emigration of a large sector of the elite educated class of all races to various parts of the world. But those were horrible intolerant times when state-sanctified class envy was allowed its crazed stampede towards a disaster we have still been unable to recover from. It was decidedly the foreordained age of the ‘yakko’ when hordes of egotistical, cloddish louts were allowed their shining hour.
When Sinhala became the country’s official language the medium of instruction at secondary school level and later at universities switched to the local language.But university graduates soon realized that the paper chase had become as meaningless and impracticable as the nationalistic drivel it had been grown and fed on. It became even clearer that their degree certificate was not worth the paper it was written on.
Changes in economic policy and political orientation in 1977 were accompanied by a sudden volte face by tens of thousands to learn English. By that time only the foolhardy would have had the temerity to disclaim the certainty that the English language had become the most formidable weapon as a means to both economic and social success.
Although, political leaders were careful to retain a veneer of nationalism when it came to language reforms, the emphasis had begun to change dramatically over the past quarter century or more. Because everyone had perceived that right throughout, the advantages enjoyed by the English-educated class has continued, while those who had been denied its benefits remained in the same unenviable position.
Over the years succeeding administrations have been drawing up plans to introduce three subjects to be taught compulsorily in the English medium in government schools. That is a trend that accentuates the importance all administrations have placed on the revival of English education. Several cabinet ministers notwithstanding their party affiliations have of late been stressing the vital need for learning English as a tool to communicate with the outside world.
For decades, no one had really pushed for educational reforms in English, although every successive government has bragged about its commitment towards fostering racial harmony and their objective of equal opportunities for all under the free education system. That is because the narrow-minded nationalist lobby is still denouncing it as a symbol of colonialism. But apart from its economic advantages few politicians have been able to envision the need for a more compelling reason to bring about an educational renaissance in English for fostering national unity.
True, English is a legacy of the British Empire. But the language for practical considerations can no longer be viewed as some outmoded colonial language. It is the means by which we in Asia are able to communicate with the world and with one another. Over the past three and a half decades, Asia’s boom has been built on outward-looking export-orientated economies. That in turn, has given an added impetus to the urge to learn English. But the main attraction among its manifold rewards for learning English is primarily because it is the language of the future, of opportunity, of money.
English, whether one likes it or not is the language most people in the world understand. Pig-headed national sentiment is one thing. Practical considerations are altogether another. No one, I repeat no one can begrudge the people their inalienable right to study a language of their choice.
As my brother Denis, an English teacher of English teachers claims that everyone is hell bent on wielding the kaduwa. He quips: “The need of the hour is to teach them all not fanciful arcing swordplay or wordplay but to practically cut and thrust their way to learn effective English. And never you mind if they behead the Queen in the process!”