Wednesday, March 6, 2013


The Question is not Why but How

Santasilan Kadirgamar

               “Let the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, though I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” Gandhi

There was a time when the quality of English, written and spoken, was of a high order in this country. Jaffna is known to have had the second highest literacy rate in the country second only to that of Colombo and well above the national average. Schools and the quality of education imparted within the approximately 1000 sq. km. that constituted the Jaffna peninsula was comparable to the best in the world and without doubt well ahead of several countries in Asia. The products of the Jaffna schools manned the public services in Malaysia and Singapore beginning late in the nineteenth century right into the mid-decades of the twentieth century. These achievements are well documented in S.Durai Rajah Singam’s “A Hundred Years of Ceylonese in Malaya and Singapore.” In the 1960s and 70s several of the graduates produced by the Undergraduate Department of Jaffna College took up teaching positions in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and several other African countries. They were able to do so because they had sat for the external exams of the University of London in the English language. Within three decades we have lost this tremendous advantage we had – a legacy of a hundred and twenty five years of English education beginning with the founding of the Batticotta Seminary in 1823.

This article is being written on the assumption that the readership addressed is convinced of the importance of English in our educational system. As the title suggests I am not engaging in a discussion as to why we should teach and study English. I focus below on how it should be done.

A Word of Caution

I may however add one word of caution. Here I enter controversial ground. There is one school of thought in this country that believes in restoring English as the medium of instruction. I have strong reservations on this policy. At any rate we do not have the teachers to do this and will never have in the foreseeable future the required number of teachers to do so on an island wide scale. If we do this in just a few schools we would create an elitist class – a class that is already coming into existence with the proliferation of the so-called international schools with their exorbitant fees. In some of these schools Sinhalese or Tamil is not even taught as a second language. This class will be culturally alienated from the large masses of people calling for another 1956 – echoes of which are once again audible in this country.

The decision to change the medium of instruction from English to the national languages was taken when free education was introduced in 1944, long before 1956 came around unleashing the forces of extreme nationalism. Any attempt to change this policy must be approached with caution and a national consensus. Some subjects may be taught in English if adequately qualified teachers or foreign teachers are available. But basically the medium should be the national languages. The leaders of the Jaffna Youth Congress many of whom later became eminent teachers and principals of schools in Jaffna adopted this policy as early as in the 1920s. In the 1940s and 50s the Northern Province Teachers’ Association composed of eminent educationists was committed to this vital change in the firm conviction that the child learns best in his or her mother tongue. This is a policy that was not imposed by the state and should not be confused with the Sinhala Only policy of 1956, which the Tamils rightly resisted.

Two Fundamental errors

What then happened to the place occupied by English in our educational system? Two fundamental errors were committed. Adequate planning and effort was not put into developing a curriculum and the training of teachers to teach English as a second language. Graduates who had passed the B.A. exam in the English medium were called upon to teach English.  By the 1980s this stream dried up. Ad hoc policies were adopted and the schools drifted into a state in which anyone who had some command of the language was called upon to teach English. We are now in the sad predicament where some teachers of English do not speak English. We have a whole generation of young people who have never heard English being spoken either at home or even in the school.

We have to ask ourselves why we allowed this to happen. Was it a lack of commitment or the result of a people adrift having lost their moorings? A parallel development has taken within the Tamil Diaspora settled in the west. The first valued heritage to go out of the window has been the Tamil language and the Tamilness that went with it. The speed with which this has happened abroad exceeds the pace at which we gave up on the English language here at home. The Tamil language with its long and rich literary heritage is a difficult language to learn. One does not give up such a heritage with ease. The Chinese, the Japanese, most Indians, the Thais, and many other Asian communities do not give up their language and culture with the callousness and never mind attitude we have displayed. And let us remember this happened in the heat and strident assertion of Tamil nationalism. We have a great deal of heart searching to do.

Secondly we accepted without protest the soft option of accepting the national languages as the medium of instruction in the field of tertiary education, especially in the Universities. The latter was a blunder of Himalayan proportions. While English through a painful process has been retained as the medium of instruction in the Medical, Engineering and Science faculties; in the faculties of Arts, Business Studies and numerous other faculties the national languages have been used. We now have an army of unemployed and unemployable graduates. The Indian experience has been entirely different. At the International Association for Tamil Research (IATR) sessions held at the Madurai Kamraj University in 1981 Nedunchelian, the Minister of Education in the AIADMK government led by M.G.Ramachandran, made an eloquent and powerful plea defending the policy of his government to continue with English in the field of higher education.

In Partnership with the Community

For failures in the educational system both the state and society at large must share the blame. Most secondary schools in Jaffna until 1961 were denominational schools - Christian, Catholic and Hindu. These were assisted schools, that is, the state paid the teachers. The overall all development of the school including buildings for class rooms and dormitories, laboratories, libraries and sports facilities were the result of the planning and work initiated by dynamic principals backed by dedicated teachers with the support of the alumni and the community. The Christian schools may have had some access to foreign funding but not much with the exception of Jaffna College. Three Hindu schools in particular developed rapidly and became outstanding within a space of two decades (1940-60). These are Kokuvil Hindu College, Skantha Varodaya College and Mahajana College. The development took place under distinguished principals, namely, Handy Perinbanayagam, Orator Subramaniam and T.T, Jayaratnam, all three held in deep reverence by the alumni of these schools to this day.

But something snapped from the 1960s onward. The rapid political changes that took place from 1956, the rise of Sinhalese nationalism, the nationalization of schools in 1961, the termination of the holding of the external examination of the University of London in 1965 and the eventual escalation of political violence, instability and the consequent migrations have all contributed to the crisis. I do not wish to go into the details. It may be noted that the valuable place given to English succumbed to the forces of Tamil nationalism as well. This was unfortunate. Today we have to go back to that tradition more than ever to solicit all the resources and talent available in the community. 

A Place of Honour to the Tamil language

While making every effort to restore English in our schools we must take care to retain the pre-eminent place given to the Tamil language in our part of the country. I may repeat here what I have stated elsewhere.

National resurgence among the English educated class, with a few exceptions, in its social, cultural and linguistic dimensions happened in the south in 1956 and thereafter. Even then it happened for public consumption, several members of this class having a dual life style, one for political purposes and the other for their domestic life aping the west. In Jaffna and among most Tamils there was no need for a 1956 type upsurge with it’s donning of the national dress, kiributh breakfasts and high profile visits to temples. A genuine national and cultural revival free of hypocrisy had taken place in Jaffna in the 1920s. Some of these men had discarded their western attire, as students, in the Gandhi led bonfire of western clothes in 1921. (see The Jaffna Youth Congress and its Legacy, Handy Perinbanayagam 100th Birth Anniversary Commemoration Lecture, The Kokuvil Hindu College Old Students’ Association, Ramakrishna Mission Hall, Colombo, March 28, 1999.)

Tamil had always been given an honoured place in our society, including our churches and Christian schools. The prospectus of the Batticotta Seminary (1823) gave equal importance to Tamil and English. In 1919 a symposium was held at Jaffna College on “An Up-To-Date Literature in Tamil.” Participants included the Hon.Mr.K.Balasingam, distinguished Alumni and member of the Legislative Council, and the Rev.G.G.Brown (one time Principal of Jaffna College) and the Rev.S.Gnanaprakasar. Mr. Brown made a proposal that can be considered radical coming as it did from an American missionary.

Do not allow any boy to be promoted who fails to pass a worthy test in Tamil reading, grammar and composition. Create a sentiment in the country which will make a student feel ashamed to be able to speak and to write in English while he cannot do equally well in Tamil. (Jaffna College Miscellany December 1919).  

Some Suggestions on what can be done

I am drawing from my experiences both as a student and later a teacher for forty-one years in a variety of institutions. I must admit that I have not had any training or qualification in the specific discipline in the teaching of English as a second language. While working professionally as a lecturer in Modern History and International Relations, I have spent a great deal of time teaching English especially in my nearly twenty years in Tokyo. The comments I make come out of these years of teaching experience. I focus on three practical suggestions.

Reading and Discussion

Without doubt importance should be given to the total method - reading, writing, conversation and listening. Among these my preferred choice is reading and discussion. I enjoy these classes most. This does not require specialized skills. The method is simple. Get the students to read a short passage and then discuss the contents. This can be practiced at elementary, intermediate and advanced levels. At the most elementary level the teacher selects a very short passage or story. Having explained difficult and unfamiliar words and expressions the teacher asks as many questions as possible based on the passage. Pair practice can follow. The use of the five Ws and H is the commonest approach. The questions begin with what, when, where, who, why and how. Incidentally these are basic questions journalists ask and answer when reporting news. It is amazing how many questions and answers are possible based on a passage of about a hundred and fifty words. The use of English to English dictionary should be obligatory. I have observed that many students today have not seen, leave alone used, English to English dictionary.

The reading and discussion method was very successful in all my classes in several universities in Tokyo. Most challenging were the classes at the Sophia University Community College where enrolment was limited to not more than twenty-five students. Participants ranged from high school kids to undergraduates, office workers, businessmen, doctors, engineers and university professors. On one occasion I had a grandmother in her seventies who told me that she selected my class on the advice of her grand-daughter! The title of the course was “Contemporary Issues in International Relations.” But the purpose was to improve communication skills in English among the participants. 

International issues that dominated newspaper headlines that particular week were selected. Students were expected to read the news both in Japanese and English. TV stations in Japan provided bilingual-news programmes. That is one could listen in either Japanese or English. With the nearly state-of–the-art audio-video laboratory facilities available all I had to do was to instruct the lab assistants to record the news and give me a videotape. In the classroom having introduced the topic the tape was played in English and if absolutely necessary was repeated in Japanese as well. I used recordings of BBC, CNN and CBS Evening news. Thus students had an exposure to American and British English. The presentation of the news was followed by group discussions. Every week a different student was required to lead the discussion in his or her group and would submit an oral report of the group’s views on the given topic. The students were reading the news, listening to the same news on videotape, and later talking about it. This method excluded writing skills. Students were anyway attending other classes devoted to developing writing skills. The course had the added advantage that while learning to communicate in English they were being exposed to the great events and issues that shaped the contemporary world. Often the students forgot that they were learning English, as they got absorbed in the issues. Though my specific interest was in International Affairs, topics can be selected from the sports, business and entertainment pages of newspapers as suited the interests of the students. At times English movies with Japanese subtitles were used. Unfortunately we have not reached that stage of having movies with Tamil subtitles though it is increasingly becoming common in the Sinhalese channels of TV stations here. In Japan today several Tamil movies are available with Japanese subtitles.

Reading Aloud

On my return to Lanka and when I founded my own small Center to teach English a Professor of English, told me that it is increasingly being recognized that one method that demonstrates tangible results is reading aloud. I remember that when I entered the University of Ceylon in 1955 in the English Literature class of just forty students (incidentally I was the only student from Jaffna in this class that particular year – we were already giving up on English as early as in the fifties) the eminent Prof. Ludowyk insisted that we read the text aloud. He told us that we had been conditioned to read in silence, and that literature is best understood and enjoyed reading aloud. I believe he was also trying to break inhibitions and shyness prevalent among some students. I belonged to this category. In our school days we read aloud in the lower forms but not in the higher classes.

During our student days at Jaffna College a well-known chemistry teacher who was admired for his excellent English used to read the Bible aloud in his home every morning. His voice could be heard in the neighbourhood. Too often teachers opt for the trouble-free technique of silent reading simply to keep the students quiet.

Literary Associations and English Speaking Societies

The second proposal I make is to revive the literary associations. In our time students learnt the art of public speaking, techniques of debate and how to conduct meetings in a proper away including the writing and reading of minutes of previous meetings in the literary associations, namely the Lyceum, Forum, Brotherhood and culminating with the Academy. Weekly meetings were obligatory, lively and mostly held in English. Every third meeting was in Tamil. I presume these are still functioning in some form. In addition we had the hostel unions where it was more fun than business but it was all in English and the less articulate students opened up free of inhibitions since no girls were present. Added activities that should be encouraged are elocution or speech contests. These contests were tough in our time, especially extemporaneous speech. These were held on Alumni day. The Alumni could take an interest in reviving these activities.

Inter-school debates could follow. In 1982 I presided at a mock sessions of the U.N.Security Council organized by the Rotary Club of Jaffna at the Chundikuli Girls’ College. Twelve schools participated debating the “Right of the Palestinians to Self-Determination.” I must admit that the quality of the debate was of a high standard. In Japan most schools and universities have English Speaking Societies that organize a variety of activities including speech contests. I was for a period staff advisor to the Meiji Gakuin University English Speaking Association (MESA) and have functioned as a judge at several of the inter-university contests in Tokyo. The quality and content of the speeches delivered were impressive, the result of hard work and preparation. These societies organized camps for their members when about fifty students would spend three days at a holiday resort. A self-imposed discipline was that participants were obliged to speak only English throughout this period day and night on the pain of a fine. The proceeds were donated towards the expenses for the concluding party.  

In some fifty countries there are nation-wide English Speaking Societies affiliated to the main one in the United Kingdom. The English Speaking Society of Japan organized an    annual debate contest culminating with an exhibition debate by the Oxford and Cambridge University debating teams. About twenty universities participated. (I was invited to act as one of the judges and this gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of young people in the country.) Some such society is supposed to have existed in this country but is now defunct. This could be revived catering to both universities and schools. There is some international support available for such activities.

A College or Institute for the Teaching of English

Thirdly and finally I suggest the establishment of special Colleges for the teaching of English and the training of English teachers. This will have to be a major project with substantial funding, equipment and trained personnel. Ideally this should be undertaken by the state and a section of the Peradeniya University should have been allocated for this task. But politics and planning being what they are in this country I do not see the state making any progress in this direction. Over dependence on the state is undesirable. This is a challenge facing the community. A well-equipped institution with a highly qualified staff composed of competent nationals and foreigners, catering to hundreds of students and teacher trainees is possible only in Colombo or Peradeniya at this juncture. Given a continuation of the peace process an institute on a smaller scale should be possible in Jaffna. The initiative could come from one institution or ideally a Federation of Alumni Associations could initiate such a project. Funding is not the major problem here. Credible and dynamic leadership, with transparency free of sectarianism is called for. Funds and expertise will flow.

Such an institute should provide intensive or semi-intensive courses in English. Today most students begin the study of English at grade three and continue to do so until grade ten. That is a student has eight years of English instruction. There are five periods of forty minutes duration a week in a year of 180 school days. In other words a student gets 120 hours of English instruction a year leading to a total of 960 hours of instruction in the eight years he or she learns English. At the end of all this effort the average student is functionally illiterate in the language and can hardly utter two sentences. One way out is to compress these 960 hours into one year of instruction. I am not suggesting that we abandon teaching English in schools under the present system. While that goes on and efforts are made to improve the quality we introduce in the proposed institute mentioned above an intensive course in English as is available in several countries abroad. This would cater primarily to those who have completed a minimum of ten years of schooling.

Intensive Course

In explaining the content of such a course I once again go back to my own experience in Japan. It is a requirement in the International Christian University in Tokyo that all foreign students have one year of intensive Japanese. All Japanese students study nothing but English in their first year. I followed the Japanese language course in 1973 when I was close upon forty years of age. Today English levels in Japan have gone up so that twenty per cent of the Japanese students at ICU are exempted from the above requirement. The graduates of this university are bilingual and most work in Japan or abroad for international companies, banks, the United Nations etc. 

The Intensive Course in Japanese is very demanding. The day begins at 8-30 in the morning with a twenty minutes test on the previous day’s work, usually dictation. The rest of the day is divided into four seventy-minute periods. The first period is conversation time. The total class not exceeding 40 students is divided into groups of eight for conversation practice. A conversation piece introduced the previous day has to be memorized and the students have pair practice. The whole exercise is taped and the instructor will play back the tape and correct pronunciation and other errors. The second period is devoted to reading and writing. This class would consist of twenty students. After the much looked forward to lunch break the whole class moves to the language laboratory where the next day’s lesson is introduced. Students record the lesson in tapes and take them home to listen and practice the repetition exercises. In the fourth period repetition exercises are introduced, structure and grammar explained. Time was given for questions and clarifications. This totaled five hours of instruction a day, which in turn required four to five hours of preparation. Miss four or five days and you are out of the course.

At the end of every ten days there was a test lasting 70 minutes and at the end of the term of ten weeks there was a final examination. Students who failed had to repeat the course. It was a very demanding and strenuous. But at the end of the first term students had a working knowledge of elementary Japanese having covered a textbook of 425 pages containing forty comprehensive lessons including a basic vocabulary of 1250 words and 400 Chinese characters. It was a comprehensive and carefully organized program based on research covering a period of two years and grew out of ten years of teaching experience at ICU. The vocabulary was selected from one month’s issues of the Asahi newspaper, the favoured newspaper among the intelligentsia in Japan. Some ten to twenty percent of the students dropped out at the end of the first semester and opted for the less strenuous semi-intensive course which consisted of about two and a half hours of instruction a day.  At the end of three terms of this intensive course or six terms of the semi-intensive course students were able to move into regular classes in the Japanese medium. Some students continued for another year with advanced Japanese.

As an aside I may add this little piece. As though five hours of instruction a day was not enough the three or four weakest students were called by the head of department for an additional hour every Monday, which was with a tinge of humour called the “clinic.” The writer was one of the victims and it was not fun for me. Tired and frustrated I complained that I simply could not memorize all the stuff introduced in one day. In addition I was experiencing my first winter in life without adequate heating. The head, an elderly lady professor respected and feared for her tough reputation told me something that I later realised was absolutely true. Students who memorize quickly forget soon. Those who are slow in memorizing retain what they have learnt in the long run. Some twenty years later by some chance I met her niece at a symposium in Tokyo and related this little episode and requested her to convey to this veteran teacher my regards and thanks. I never forgot what I learnt in those ten weeks. This laid the foundations for a working knowledge of what has become my third language. 

Techniques and methods may have changed over the years. But the fundamental point I make is that the only way out is to provide intensive or semi-intensive courses in English. We could begin with a crash programme for about a hundred students and gradually expand the scope of the program. A full-fledged program will call for a great deal of planning, expertise and resources with the establishment of a college or institute as advocated above. Those concerned may as well begin to address such a project as early as possible.

What I have written above are the experiences and thoughts of one teacher. These are open to debate and discussion. There are others who have spent a life lifetime teaching English. In addition we have several products of Jaffna schools now in Universities here and abroad attached to Faculties of English and Linguistics in prestigious Universities involved in research and teaching. It is time to bring together all the resources that are available to once again regain something valuable we have lost – a high degree of proficiency in the English language.  Japan has been my reference point in this article. When I first went there in 1973 the competency in the English language was higher in Lanka than in Japan in ratio to the population in both countries. Today Japan is way ahead. While preserving their culture and the Japanese ways of doing things they realised that in order to be competitive in the contemporary world they have to give English the utmost importance and have pursued this objective with relentless determination and perseverance. In our case English came without our asking for it. When the debate raged in India on replacing English with Hindi, Rajaji who had been the first Governor-General of India resisting the imposition of Hindi declared, “English is a gift of the Gods.” It was indeed a valuable gift that has to be treasured and preserved.

Published in:

The Jaffna College Alumni Association Colombo Branch, Souvenir 2003,  Commemorating the 180th Anniversary of the Batticotta Seminary (1823), and its successor Jaffna College (1872).

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