Why English as the medium of instruction has a host of benefits

BY Goolbai Gunasekara

The fact that reintroducing English as the medium of instruction has been mentioned in the media is a great leap towards a globally organised education. Minister of Education Dr. Susil Premajayantha mentioned it to the media once but has not referred to it in public since. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has openly said it has to be implemented and I recall his father strongly encouraged teaching English islandwide with Elizabeth Moir’s help.

Now, what methods can be adopted to help to switch over to English as the medium of instruction?

A few chauvinists are going to protest vigorously. But they are most definitely in a tiny minority. I feel strongly that if the matter was put to an islandwide referendum, the population of Sri Lanka would vote for a unifying language in which all can study.

The national languages should be given the sort of attention that the Indians give Hindi. It flourishes – but not at the expense of a good global education for their citizens. India has reaped the enormous benefit of allowing its people to study in English.

Apparently, Nigerians are so proficient in English that they no longer need special testing when entering universities in English-speaking countries. In fact, English is Nigeria’s national language now. A sad comparison with Sri Lanka, is it not?

So how do we set about bringing English to a virtually non-English-speaking populace? Many Sri Lankans understand English. So that is a start. One method is to establish the English stream from grades one and two, and then keep adding a class every year until all 12 years are covered.

This will give teachers who are fluent in English time to be trained. It will also give universities a few years to enlarge their English departments so that there would be more graduates who could be co-opted into teaching. However, the number of teachers will still be inadequate.

The sensible method would be to start the new stream in classes up to the O-Levels in areas that already have a fair number of teachers who are fluent in English. Cities with good schools can lead the way. But there could be a problem with this system if the entire country expects a fully fledged English medium to leap Athena-like from the head of Zeus.

This cannot be done efficiently. But it can be done messily, the way former prime minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike did when he switched over to Sinhala within a few days and doomed hundreds to give up any ideas of higher education in their own country. Those who could afford to go abroad did so. Others floundered desperately.

Sri Lanka has fallen so far behind the rest of the educated world that it would be a folly to attempt a plan that isn’t wisely crafted by proper experts – not idiots who have no experience of switching over. Politicians who are hoping to attempt this wonderful idea (at last) must choose a perfect method of application and actually carry it out to the letter.

The egregious quota system should be discontinued immediately and the university raggers, who are said to be more powerful than the educators, will have to be handled firmly. Politicians must stop thinking of their votes and expel students if they do not fall in line.

Let us remember that this lot are not fluent in English and they want to make sure no one else is either. They will see future employment going to the English educated children and would have to be handled with some sort of plan for their lack of fluency in it.

Of course, the really smart students will cope, and settle down and learn English. After all, our students often study in foreign languages when they go abroad. Germany has amazing methods that teach fluency extremely quickly. We can copy them.

All these methods and ideas are going to be expensive. Education generally receives far less money than defence. We no longer need such a large army or navy. And what exactly does our air force do? If 50 percent of the monies allocated for military expenditure are spent on education, the English medium system could be up and running faster than we think.

A general system change is in the air and people are demanding it. Perhaps it will be denied for a year or two but would eventually come. There is too strong a feeling in the country at the moment, and a wise government will listen to the desperation of a population denied a good education and provide them with a soundly planned future.

The government must divert the costs of running parliament and paying for the upkeep of those dozens of uneducated parliamentarians as the first sensible financial step!