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English; Linguistic tool for communication or discrimination

December 1, 2020

When intercultural communicator Mariana Pascal noted, “when learning a language speak it like you are playing a video game”, and elaborated on how important it is not to be overly conscious about grammar during communication, there would have been a significant number of linguists and lexicographers who would have grasped at their last straws! There is no doubt that a sect of linguists will not budge on their stance on retaining the origins and this school of thought too cannot be fully dismissed.

These two continuous polemics on whether a non -native speaker should aspire to achieve the standards of Received Pronunciation or Queen’s English or adhere to a particular variety of English influenced by one’s native language and be free and confident when speaking has been an ongoing one, even creating a conundrum for ESL educators. But there has been significant favouring of the trend of ignoring the grammatical aspects of English especially during spoken discourse among interlocutors.  What is the situation in Sri Lanka in this regard? Is this the attitude among a majority of Sri Lankans? Which school of thought are we favouring?

Sri Lanka according to the EF English Proficiency Index is still in 78th place, in the very poor category. Are we still stuck in the notion of getting grammar right even in conversation? Is the fear of the grammar Nazis and watchdogs holding us back? And are these grammar Nazi ideals deep seated roots of colonialism? When exploring this aspect, one cannot ignore the attitudes concerning English among various ethnic groups.

“There is a strong relationship between the languages used in the society and the attitudes of individuals towards language used.” States Subathini Ramesh and Mitali P. Wong in Sri Lankans’ Views on English in the Colonial and Post-Colonial Eras. It is a truth many don’t acknowledge: that diverse social groups have certain attitudes towards each other and that these insolences affect the attitudes towards English language and individuals of that certain society.  Therefore, a huge attitudinal transformation in this regard is imperative. Also, if not addressed through proper curriculum development, societal attitudes stemming from colonialism will continue to create a psychological barrier that make learners lack confidence to speak in English.  This in turn make them suffer from Language Attitude Anxiety (LAA )This issue can be addressed at the primary/ lower secondary classes where they are not fully aware of societal language perception. Thus, also needed is a significant change in pedagogical practices if we are to be a nation of proficient and confident speakers of English.

The statistic of only 23% of the Sri Lankan population being fluent in English Language after a decade long education at school is proof enough that, clearly, exam oriented, paper-based methodologies of ELT (English Language Teaching) is a failure. Therefore, as explained by Pascal making students confident speakers by making the non- native speakers to realize that perfection is not expected while acquiring the language is vital. It does not mean that one should be disrespectful of the language and completely ignore its linguistic rules but rather be aware of the fact that making mistakes is part of the learning process and that in turn should not be a point to lose confidence or become wary.  Hence, teachers who are the most important stakeholders in English Language Teaching should be more equipped with professional knowledge, insights and pedagogical practices. One such practice can be to make students realize that hindrances such as being overly conscious about grammar when thinking of replying rather than actively listening will greatly affect the effectiveness of conversation.

It is also of paramount importance to build learner confidence to speak English as part of the teaching methodology. Teachers should not be agents of “linguistic imperialism” rather give students access to a very important linguistic tool and be agents of change. Therefore, if Sri Lanka is to move forward from its stagnant position of English Language Learning, a balance between both these polemics should be adopted where during the learning process language should be used as a communication tool, yet not forgetting that mastering it and achieving proficiency is the objective of any language course.

Virajini Bandara