Case for a mother-tongue; comparative method of teaching English
The number of candidates who passed in English at the last (2009)
G.C.E. O/L exam is, as revealed by the Department of Examinations, only
28%. As many as 72% have failed. Since nearly 250,000 sat for it, close
to 2,00,000 have not made the grade.
If we assume the passes would be mostly from the international
schools and the well-staffed urban schools then, from rural schools and
Buddhist Pirivenas hardly anybody would have passed. If what has
happened is just an accident peculiar to this year we could have ignored
it. But the trend has gone on for a number of years. 63% failed in 2006.
What could be the reason for the inability of our schools to teach
As an easy way out, many tend to put the blame for the inability on
the teachers. But is it wise to do so? Teachers teach in the way they
are asked to teach by the educational authorities.
Our teachers have to teach English exclusively through English. They
should use only text-books which explain the intricacies of the English
language exclusively through English. Wouldn’t that peculiar system of
teaching be much more responsible for the barrenness of our English
Sri Lanka could well be the only country in the world where textbooks
prescribed for the teaching of English are exclusively in English.
English is taught in countries like Japan, China, France and Germany.
But in those countries books used for teaching English to beginners
explain the intricacies of the language in the mother-tongue of the
It is true that books which teach English through English are used in
countries like America, Australia, and England. That is natural. The
mother tongue of people in those adopted it as their mother-tongue and
spoke English in their families.
But today Sri Lanka is different. Since, for over five decades,
education has been exclusively in the national languages, English is
hardly heard in the country now. Those who speak English well now are
few and mostly over 50 years of age.
I do not imply thereby that the English medium is bad or that its use
should be abandoned. There is not least doubt that the imposition of
English, sooner or later, as the medium of instruction in atleast the
majority of the schools is the most advisable thing to do.
For technologically and financially weak countries like Sri Lanka,
the use of English as the medium of instruction is the safest way to
maintain right educational standards.
But the question here, namely the one provoked by the disastrous
results of the G.C.E. O/L exam is different. The results indicate that
our country is currently not at a level in which anything could be
taught in English successfully.
To learn anything in the English medium, one should have at least a
basic knowledge of English. But do the Sinhala and Tamil students of the
majority of our schools which are mostly in the rural areas, have that
knowledge? Most of them are unable not only to speak English, but even
to compose a one-verb sentence correctly. A good number cannot even
spell correctly a 5-6 letter word.
The challenge of
teaching English to beginners
To use any language with confidence one must have a good knowledge of
its Grammar. “Grammar” is what indicates the rules one has to follow for
constructing a sentence correctly. But the rules for constructing
sentences are different from language to language. This is where the
problem begins for the students of a second language. In sentence
structure, English is very different from Sinhala.
We see that if we take just the place of the verb in a sentence. In
Sinhala, the verb is the last word in the sentence, “She ate a mango
just now.” According to the Sinhala word-order, it should have been “(1)
She (2) just now (3) a mango (4) ate”. The translational problems this
creates to a beginner may not be small.
Another difference can be seen in the complexity involved when
translating a Sinhala verb to English. In Sinhala, the verb of a
sentence can be used in various sentences and diverse instances in the
same identical form. But in English this cannot be done. In English the
shape of the verb has to change according to the context in which it is
That is how English has six alternatives for a simple present tense
verb like ‘kanava’ They are: (1) eat, (2) eats, (3) do eat (4) does eat,
(5) is eating (6) are eating. If, in place of a sentence like ‘ohu
kanava’ we take “Eka Kanava’ then the Passive has to be used and there,
‘kanava will have four more alternatives to it: (1) is eaten (2) are
eaten (3) is being eaten and (4) are being eaten. This means that the
ordinary verb ‘kanava’ in Sinhala has ten versions to it in English.
Finding the right term for the context, as anyone would concede, is
no easy task for Sinhala speaking beginners. They have to be trained to
make the right choice. The normal way to train them is to make them see
the sentence-structures of the new language in comparison with those of
their own. This is what we refer to as the Translational Method or, more
specifically, the Mother-tongue Comparative Method of teaching a second
The target of that method is to make students translate sentences of
various levels from Sinhala (or Tamil) to English. Since like bricks in
a wall, sentences are what go to build up essays, literary articles and
books,anyone adept at translating sentences can be said to have achieved
mastery in the language.
This in my view is the method that should have been selected for use
in our rural schools in preference to the English-through-English method
now in vogue. If that method had been used, students would have shown a
higher proficiency of English at the G.C.E. level than they do now.
If that same method had been given a place in the setting of G.C.E.
O/L examination-papers too, and if at least 50% of the question-papers
would have consisted of Sinhala and Tamil sentences for translation into
English, the students would have got a better chance to show their
The question-papers set today do not fit the actual candidates. They
seem more suited for students who have studied in the English medium
from their nursery days.
But of course we have also to admit sadly that for the Mother-tongue
comparative method to be adoptable, the tools needed have not been made
available yet. For the method to be effectively applicable, students and
teachers should have within easy reach, or at least in their libraries,
a good book of comparative English Grammar, — one which contains the
guidelines necessary to construct correctly all the diverse varieties of
This I think is a key matter that the planners of English education
both in the Education Ministry and in the Educational Department would
do well to give thought to. If G.C.E. students are to have a better
knowledge of English, and are to get better results at the G.C.E. exam,
the planners should look beyond the well-established urban schools.
They should pay more attention to the needs of students in the
schools of the rural areas. Rural students form the majority and are
nearly 90% of the student population. They need to be helped to get
their basics correctly.
If an ultimate solution cannot be worked out fast, the authorities
should at least arrange a way to speedily supply to students and
teachers of rural schools one good book on English sentences-structure.
The contents of such a book should be presented in comparison with
Sinhala for the benefit of Sinhala students and in comparison with Tamil
for those of the Tamil areas. It is not impossible that such books of
comparative English Grammar already exist in the market. Otherwise it is
not difficult to find qualified linguist who would undertake to produce
them in a reasonably short time.
Whatever it be, it is important to realise that the problem is grave.
Allowing so many students to fail in English year after year is not good
either for the morale of the younger generation or for the academic
future of the country.
The writer is the author of a Teaching English - the effective way”