Learning foreign languages | Sunday Observer

Learning foreign languages

11 November, 2018

Due to the ever-growing global competition, acquiring a knowledge of global languages is becoming more and more important. The concept of learning foreign languages has always been productive as it enables learners not only to speak and write in different languages but also to explore their cultures and lifestyles.

For example, French, which is also an official language at the United Nations, is known as the international language of fashion and architecture. A distinct quality of this language is that about 50 per cent of the English vocabulary is derived from French. Also, Russian is recently ranked as the fifth most prevalent language in the world.

It is home to the world’s finest arts, such as, ballet, theatre, cinema, literature, music, and more.

English is the most commonly spoken language in the world. One out of five people can speak or at least understand English.

It is the language of science, aviation, IT, diplomacy, and tourism. English is the official language of 53 countries.

English is spoken as a first language by around 400 million people around the world and is the second language of 550 million.

Learning English

So, we can make a start by teaching and learning English before venturing into other languages. Unfortunately, teaching of English in Sri Lanka is done under conditions which are far from satisfactory.

There are a number of problems which mar the process of teaching and of learning English as a second language in Sri Lanka. Appropriate remedial measures for the rectification of these problems are urgently needed.

Most Sri Lankan students are inclined towards their mother tongue, and find themselves not as comfortable when using English.

They are taught all other subjects, in their native language. Most of them have poor social and economic backgrounds depriving them of opportunities to speak English in or outside the classroom, which has been a hindrance to their gaining competency in English.

China and Singapore

It is time we look at what other Asian countries have done. Hong Kong and Singapore are former British colonies, but by the1990s both grew concerned that declining English language standards were affecting their international competitiveness. They took steps to improve English teaching in their schools, which Sri Lanka could adopt as a model. They sent 8,000 English teachers back to school, not just to learn new teaching techniques, but also to improve their own teaching skills.

Let us ask ourselves a few questions.

What can Sri Lanka learn from these two countries? They were relative newcomers to the teaching of English. But by 2010, their students were outperforming Sri Lankan students.

What are the lessons we could learn from the hundreds of US school systems that have been teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to tens of thousands of immigrants? What new interactive technologies are available to aid in language learning?

There is so much to learn from the world, if we put our minds to it. And then we could take a look at the state of English teaching within our borders.

lDoes our English language curriculum emphasize the communication skills that we need for our future?

lHow many Sri Lankan schools have language labs that students can use to get the virtual equivalent of one-on-one instruction?

lWhat kind of in-service training do our English language teachers need to strengthen their skills?

lHow many schools still follow the age-old pattern of group teaching, with the teacher standing in front of the classroom, over-analysing grammar and talking about English rather than speaking it?

lHow can we benefit from the presence of the thousands of retired personnel who are good English speakers in the country?

lFinally, how effective is the English language instruction on State Television? Who are the audience, and do the programs focus on their needs?

Corporate sector

Strengthening Sri Lanka’s English-language capabilities is not the responsibility of the educational system alone. Sri Lanka’s corporate sector also has a key role to play. It needs to recognize the importance of international communications skills.

This means, encouraging employees to strengthen their English language skills through a variety of incentives. For example, companies could pay for English classes and also offer in-house classes in professional English. They can change their reward system and expectations.

We see that Sri Lankan business entrepreneurs don’t send enough signals to their employees that foreign language and cross-cultural skills are important. As a result, most Sri Lankan executives and workers hide behind their mother language.

It is heartening to note that British examinations are becoming more and more ingrained in the minds of Sri Lankan youth, but there is one problem – these examinations measure only reading and writing, not speaking. These are passive examinations, that test your ability to understand what others write and say, but not how well you can communicate.

Just a month before our Independence, Arthur Knowles, a British businessman writing to a local English newspaper predicted that Sri Lankans “can never be of any use outside their island and is doomed to yield to the domination of the English tongue.”

That sounds harsh. If he is still alive, he would have seen that Sri Lanka has produced some of the world’s greatest literature laureates in the last half-century.

But the dominance of the English language outside Sri Lanka that he predicted has now become a reality. Sri Lanka’s economic future requires an across-the-board effort to strengthen its English language capabilities. This is the stark reality.