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The bowl-or-ball dilemma of rubbishing English standards

Malinda Seneviratne's article "Sri Lankan English: another Snooty English speakers project?" in the Sunday Observer (May 23, 2010) draws on a wide schema that touched on a great many theoretical aspects commenting on the matter of Sri Lankan English and speaking English "our way". This is a subject that has been of interest since my days as an undergraduate at Colombo University. As a student of English, I had to take numerous course units which touched on Sri Lankan English and its dialectical developments. We learnt, among other things, that English has developed variants throughout the world creating much dialect diversity.

On January 16, this year, I attended the symposium "Speak English Our Way" held at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) on 16 January this year. Prof. Manique Gunasekera of Kelaniya University, speaking at the symposium "Speak English Our Way" held at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) on the 16 January this year, pointed out that we have been speaking it ever since the arrival of the British. As such, she argued, the existence of such a dialect as Sri Lankan English within the larger lingual panorama of English is not really a question to clarify. And lest it be misconstrued by players of SAARC regional bigotry, it is most certainly not a variant of "Indian English."

Indeed, it was intriguing to note that four of the six (if I'm not mistaken) institutional partners of the forum (and presumably the enterprise altogether) were from India. One of them is the "English and Foreign Languages University Hyderabad India," one of the supposed "expertise providers" to the Speak English Our Way enterprise. Why do we need Indian expertise to devise methods of speaking it "OUR way"? It is not "English the Indian Way, after all. The institutional makeup of this enterprise is troubling, but that is not my focus; I want to discuss the likely outcomes if this programme is implemented in full force islandwide. Malinda's article very rightly points out how the purpose of English should be to empower the user from a point of lingual communication. And whether one likes it or not, "standards" do exist and in fact need to exist for effective communicational accuracy. Just like it takes two to tango, conventions need to be in place for communicative efficacy, be it spoken or written. Recently a friend of mine, Buddhike Perera of Pelawatte had to get in touch with the River Palace Hotel in Varnasi, India because some luggage of a group of Sri Lankan students touring India had been left behind and had to be somehow sent to another destination.

The head of the tour group being a close acquaintance has sought Buddhike's help. Buddhike who is conversant in English recounted that after getting on the phone with the Hotel he had had to face a lingual jumble of a marginally intelligible dialogue from the hotel staffer before he could finally communicate his "message" and work out a solution to the luggage problem. A lingual scenario of very much the same had ensued when he had called FedEx India (Global Couriers) regarding the same. Were those Indian citizen's speaking Guajarati, Marathi or some other of the hundred and one (or more) vernaculars of India? Not at all, they were very likely in all their Indian right, speaking "English" their way."! Pronunciation was the real issues that made the communicative inefficacy and not so much the grammar aspect. Phonology after all is the foundational building block of any spoken language. Shakespearean grammar would befuddle us today, but the words are pronounced the same. It is concerning these aspects that I wish to comment about the lingual anarchy that could very likely affect the rural youth of Sri Lanka as they learn to speak English "some way".

One of the fundamental issues affecting mono-lingual Sinhala speakers when they acquire English as a second language is the difference of the two "O" sounds. This gave rise to the derogative expression/reference "Not-Pot English" (the "O" in the two words being pronounced as the sound of the Sinhala "O" vowel). Is it fair to make such snide remarks about the inability of some to make a well "rounded" "O" vowel sound which I believe is called the "upper" "O" sound? Fairness aside, can anyone deny that it is an "inability" that prevails in such speakers, who were probably not given enough correction in terms of speech comprehension skills by their teachers? What difference does it make? One may contend, and say that it is nothing more than a snooty attitude and serves snob value as far as speech "competency" goes. But what happens when you ask for a "ball" and you're given a "bowl"? Yes the one who asked for it knew what he wanted, but then communication is not a one way street. There is a "sender", a "message" and a "receiver."

These are trivial matters one may say because the difference is a small vowel, but then the problems of communicational efficacy and solutions sought by present day establishments of commerce aren't that simple as a bowl-for-a-ball scenario. A small pronunciation mishap could mis-communicate a whole message. And in the case of my friend Buddhike he personally had to pay for several expensive IDD calls to the land across the Palk Strait, because he couldn't make out head or tail of the thickly Indian accented English he encountered. On the other hand, had their pronunciation been more instantly intelligible, it wouldn't have taken more than a couple of minutes. These are the practicalities of what happens when "our standard" and "theirs" don't meet. What would happen if these types of phonological divergences took place, in all given directions in Sri Lanka amongst future generation(s) of our country? That in my opinion is a recipe for lingual anarchy.

What communicative effectiveness would we develop? Sri Lankans are praised by many Europeans for speaking good English. On his visit for the 50th Independence celebrations Prince Charles reportedly had said that people here speak better English than even he! To tell the rural youth of Sri Lanka that they should speak English in whatever way they see as fit may be a momentarily empowering scenario. But what does it offer for their future? We as a nation have great wealth in terms of human capital that are very talented and with a wealth of ingenious skills. So why hamper the future of these skilled youth to develop effective English communicative skills in their childhood by offering this comfort zone that anything can pass? English after all is the number one international language, and the potential for the future of Sri Lanka is immense in the sphere of global commerce when equipped with effective English language skills for communication.

Why do we hold the notion that to correct a learner is unwholesome, especially if there is a presence of his fellow learners? It's seen as damaging to the learners self esteem and dignity isn't it? Isn't this at the crux of English learning schemes propounded following the hypotheses of the English "Our way" enterprise? Can it be done for mathematics as well I wonder? I for one, as a school boy, found being called to the blackboard to do sums torturous! But then mathematics doesn't come with the same imperialistic baggage that English and its use in Sri Lanka has. And a number of the speakers, master trainers of teachers at the symposium said that one of the focuses is to take English out of the hegemony "elitism.

Yes Malinda puts things in to perspective when he asked if the rural youngster is being told he is getting Shakespeare when in fact he is getting Michael Meyler! 60 years have lapsed since the Suddha left, why are we going to make English now a class based struggle and hamper the progress of non English speaking youth by telling them that whatever they speak believing that it is "English" goes, because it is "our way". Malinda makes a very good point when he says that the enemy's weapon has to be acquired accurately first to use it effectively. Making the kaduwa a domestic knife, a manne and making the user believe that they both will do the same thing with same effectiveness is simply wishful thinking.

What Malinda and I have expressed as criticism of the "English Our way" enterprise may be called reactionary by those who want quick revolution. As Malinda rightly puts it, "there are no shortcuts to revolution." In my opinion though it seems as progressiveness, this scheme of teaching "Our way" English is regressive. If you think that this critique is not fair, and "not cricket", let me just ask, with what does the bowler bowl a ball? Or bowl?

 

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