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Sunday, 15 February 2009

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Government Gazette

Year of English and IT

The New Year (2009) has been designated as the Year of English and Information Technology. Both these are indispensable tools of survival in the modern age. Knowledge of English and IT paves the way for limitless opportunities.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who launched a series of events connected with the Year of English and IT on Friday noted that with the liberation of our people from the clutches of terrorism which destroyed our country for more than 25 years, 2009 will also be the Year of Peace, Reconciliation and true Independence. In other words, this is a year in which the North and the East will be fully integrated with the rest of the country and the youth in these provinces will also gain an opportunity to engage in English and IT activities after several years, if not decades.

As President Rajapaksa said, the Government is laying emphasis on the unmistakable need to urgently equip the youth with proficiency in the English language and to provide them with access to computers and internet facilities, through the rapid development of use of information technology.

Most youth in the cities are already equipped with these two resources.

There is widespread access to the Internet in Colombo and some major cities.

But rural youth still have little or no access to English learning resources and IT facilities. Indeed, the Net has become one of the best resources for learning English on a self-study basis with plenty of sites offering free courses. Thus the establishment of more IT points (Nenasalas) in villages will also enable rural youth to gain access to English resources. The expenditure associated with this exercise will be worth every cent in the long run. In this context, the Government's goal of establishing 1,000 Nenasalas and increasing the IT literacy rate to 50 per cent by the end of next year is commendable.

The need for at least a nodding acquaintance of English is felt today as at no other time in the past in the midst of a communications revolution which has shrunk the world opening new vistas of knowledge. But one of the most pressing challenges facing our decision makers and educationists is that English is still perceived by some as the exclusive preserve of a privileged class. Perhaps our archaic English teaching methods, based on perfect grammar and pronunciation as opposed to practical uses, are at fault. A significant number of students fail English at the GCE O/Ls, proving this assumption.

This is where the Government's English for Life Skills initiative comes in.

The fast-track programme uses the latest techniques used by Indian universities and English institutes which have a proven track record in teaching English to their rural youth. English is not treated as a 'subject' per se, but as a tool of communication and a life skill that can be mastered easily. English unlike in the past is no longer a jealously guarded preserve of the privileged but has moved out of the straitjacket and entered the domain of common currency with the technological revolution.

It is hoped that this landmark Presidential Initiative will permit wider access to English for a larger segment of the population enabling them to acquire good communications skills in English that would stand them in good stead in the employment stakes as well as in other spheres of activity. Most jobs require a sound knowledge of English, at least in terms of conducting a conversation. The teaching of English or for that matter all subjects, must be employment-oriented instead of being purely theoretical.

In fact, the mode of teaching English in schools needs a complete overhaul and the subject made more enjoyable to the student. The same applies to the current textbooks too which do not do much to enlighten a novice. Through this new programme, the Government should lay emphasis on improving the skills of English teachers both in the private and the public sectors.

Mushrooming private tuition classes advertising crash courses in English have only aggravated the problem with students left in the lurch after spending a fortune. The authorities should probe the dubious qualifications claimed by these 'English sirs' to prevent youngsters from getting a half-baked knowledge of English. The English As a Life Skill programme has the potential to be the standard bearer in the teaching of English, thus obviating the need for such tuition classes.

As we seek national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the ultimate goal is to make both Sinhala and Tamil communities proficient in each other's language.

In the meantime, a sound knowledge of English will link them and bring them closer together. The media, especially the electronic media, have a major role to play in this regard by publishing and airing programmes that teach all three languages. This will pave the way for a truly trilingual nation with English having a strong presence.

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