Saturday, May 2, 2020

Let the English medium come: Revisiting the demand for English medium education today

It may seem a little strange to be writing about a topic like English Medium Instruction when schools and universities have been closed to contain the spread of COVID-19 in our country. However, during a time like this it can also be helpful to pause and reflect on some of the ideas that seem to have become widely accepted as ideal and practical. One such idea relates to the belief among many, including those who have the power to influence policy, that a high-quality education and relevant education is an education in the English medium.
In a now largely forgotten incident relegated to infamy a student of a leading school in Colombo who was studying in the then newly implemented "English medium", called her school mate in the parallel mother tongue medium class, (during a fight) "You Sinhala medium bitch". This was in 2002, almost two decades ago, but it is still relevant in terms of how it mirrors the enormous linguistic discrimination that characterizes the Sri Lankan polity, and how it invokes the politics of language in the country.
Indeed the medium of instruction debate is beleaguered by a number of tensions both at conceptual and policy level as well as at ground level, in its implementation. One of these policy level tensions is the one between an Education for All (EFA) goal and the need to be proficient in a global high-currency language such as English. Another is the tension between the necessity of preserving local languages/identities and the need to accommodate to the pressures of learning an internationally valued lingua franca. Many countries struggle with this tension and a brief look at their language policies would confirm this. The other tension is the one between policy and its implementation in the classroom due to various structural challenges.

Even as I write this I am aware that the expressing of my opinion may be viewed as being fraudulent and hypocritical, since I already have, and had, throughout my childhood, access to the linguistic capital that is the English language. There is a common (and sometimes justified) suspicion and a perception among many, that certain academics advocate local languages, or "sub-standard" English for the "masses" while they, themselves have access to both "standard" as well as "sub-standard" varieties which they can use interchangeably, manipulating language politics in a way that only those who possess this capital can. However, I take the risk of being labeled thus, because I have been keenly observing the developments and debate surrounding this subject since the time of my postgraduate research, and feel the need to comment on the widespread belief that English medium instruction will solve all problems related to language competence

Many policy makers, teachers, parents, and academics often think of English Medium as a magic wand, the panacea for everything wrong in our education system and the one-fits all solution for unemployment. In addition, English is often popularly perceived and Constitutionally affirmed as a "link" language in the hope that it would "link" the communities which were/are embroiled in the ethnic conflict. In this sense, there is a rather naive assumption that English can be a "tool" which can be objectively used for material success, removed from all ideological underpinnings or complications. But as I hope to show, these views often ignore a number of significant considerations that have a direct impact on the successful implementation of a language-based education policy.
Some years ago, when researching the English medium policy (it was later labeled "bilingual education") and its implementation for my doctoral thesis I asked some of the pioneers of the most recent English medium initiative what the rationale was, and I was told that it was because the English teaching project of the past half century was "a total and utter failure". The implications of this are that the English medium initiative was meant to replace the inefficient English language teaching one.
However, its replacement, the model of bilingual education on which the rationale of the current English medium/bilingual education programme is based on, originated in Canada in what was termed "Immersion" education. This form of education emerged out of demands by Anglophone parents who wanted their children to be fluent in French and thus have access to the linguistic capital of being bilingual in Canada. The immersion model is where parents of linguistic majority children with a high-status mother tongue (i.e English speakers in Ontario, Canada) choose voluntarily to enroll their children in a programme in which instruction is conducted through the medium of a foreign/minority language (i.e. French).
A number of significant differences between the linguistic and educational context in Ontario and the educational context of Sri Lanka must be highlighted. Firstly, most of the children who were learning in a bilingual educational stream in Ontario were children with the same mother tongue (e.g. English). In addition, English was also the language of the majority in the country. In Sri Lanka however, while we may find students who have the same mother (i.e. Sinhala or Tamil), it is significant that English is not the language of the majority in the country. Further, from an educational perspective, the teachers in the immersion programmes offered by schools in Ontario are bilingual which means that children can initially at least, use their own language and still be understood. In contrast, the situation for teachers working in the English medium in Sri Lanka are very different. In studies that I have done, both as a doctoral student as well as later, for the National Education Commission, it has been found that there is a shortage of adequately qualified teachers to teach in English and this is a significant barrier to the success of an English medium instruction policy. Even in some leading schools in Colombo where I conducted my research, I found that there was a tendency towards rote learning and choral responses in classrooms I observed, because of the teacher's lack of confidence in using English. Given the differences between the linguistic and educational contexts in Canada and Sri Lanka, it is not surprising that the implementation of an English medium instruction has proven to be a significant challenge for both students and teachers.
In countries such as Canada, English medium instruction policies are implemented in additive language learning contexts in which childrens mother tongue is not in danger of being replaced by the language of instruction. However, the uncritical implementation of the same policies in Sri Lanka, with its unique linguistic and social context, is likely to result in a situation of subtractive bilingualism and language learning. In these learning environments, students are likely to gain proficiency in one language but lose competence in their mother tongue. Students are likely to be submerged” in an English medium education, also known as "the sink or swim" model, forced to accept instruction through a foreign majority/official/dominant language, in classes in which the teacher does not understand the minoritised mother tongue. They are also likely to be aware that the language of instruction constitutes a threat to their dominant language, which runs the risk of being replaced. What this means in practice is that since Sinhala and Tamil are both diglossic languages (which mean there are "high" and "low" varieties of the same language, depending on the function, and also differences in written and spoken varieties), competence in the more formal versions of Sinhala and Tamil will vanish and students will only be able to mainly utilize the language for colloquial communication with family and friends for activities such as gossiping or shopping. Thus the value of the two national languages in the field of academic and intellectual inquiry will decrease, and often this is the first step towards long term language loss. These tensions are also further exacerbated in Sri Lanka because of the historical association of the English language with class privilege and exclusion of most of the country. Sri Lanka is not alone in this situation as many countries around the world have been grappling with the tension between the necessity of preserving local languages/identities and the need to accommodate to the pressures of learning an internationally valued lingua franca such as English.
How then are we to move forward in implementing a medium of instruction that is both sensitive to these tensions while at the same time cognizant of the demands of an increasingly globalized economic system? We can start by realizing the need to critically examine the cliché that equates a quality education with English medium education. The UNESCO advocates Mother tongue-based bilingual programs which use the learners first language, to teach beginning reading and writing skills along with academic content. It points out that the second or foreign language, should be taught systematically so that learners can gradually transfer skills from the familiar language to the unfamiliar one. Bilingual models and practices vary as do their results, but what they have in common is their use of the mother tongue at least in the early years so that students can acquire and develop literacy skills in addition to understanding and participating in the classroom. Additionally, we also need to find a way to improve students' spoken as well as written English, both the skills of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Generally, cognitive academic language proficiency is transferable from one language to another. Furthermore, careful planning and implementation of teaching a few selected subjects in the English medium in addition to strengthening the teaching of English language using either a Content Based Instruction or CLIL (Content and language integrated learning) model, where, at both university and school level, subject/content teachers and language teachers work collaboratively to optimize language learning among students must also be explored, instead of a wholesale overhaul of the medium of instruction and changing it to English medium.
Resolving the tensions over the medium of instruction in state schools lies in creating less hierarchical learning environments and student centred learning cultures where students are encouraged to think critically and engage in questioning so that they can actually use the language in an active and productive way. Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that a one-size-fits-all solution of teaching every subject at every level in English medium will not effectively help our young people to become fluent in English. Instead we must begin by recognizing the ground realities of the bilingual classroom and second language acquisition issues that are rampant in countries with complex linguistic and educational contexts like Sri Lanka. The implementation of a medium of instruction policy without taking into account these realities will only serve to further complicate an already tense linguistic and educational landscape and make it even more difficult to effectively improve the teaching and learning of English in Sri Lanka today.

This article was published in the Daily Financial Times and The Island.

(Dr Vivimarie Medawattegedera is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Language Studies Department of the Open University of Sri Lanka.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Poem's Plea

Image may contain: text 
In that invisible place between time and space, allow me to rest.
In that infinitesimal difference between the flower and its fragrance, let me linger.
In the delicate point between poetry and prose, may I pause
Between air and water in that vapour-like vicinity, allow me to live.
In that ephemeral hour between night time and daytime, may I tarry.
In that grey area between home-land and other-land, let me stay.
In that minute space between Us and Them; there, allow me to be.
At that moment of day-break which lies between a poet and his poem, let me linger.
This is not mine, but my poem’s plea.

My Translation of Liyanage Amarakeerthi's "Kaviyakata Ida" From his book of poems "Ekamath Eka Pitarataka"

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

I Will Meet You There

"Beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there's a field. I will meet you there" - Rumi

You were a warm breeze
after a freak snowfall in Spring;
you were shade from a scorching sun;
not the sharp angles of high noon
but a gentle shadow of evening
walking over the grass towards the sunset.

A tranquil sea I could wade into
and lie on my back in the water,
unafraid of drowning.

You were the one who never tried
to own me,
the desert's flame red surprise
of Ocotillo,
the rescue boat no one could see
on the horizon.

You, who wrote poems for me
spilling your soul
into my cupped hands
warmer than water
and blue like the ocean
I love.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Letter to a Disappeared One.

I have a house here.
It is made of tin
but  shelters me
from the sun.
But I only need to know if
you are dead or alive and may return.
The children ask me
when.  To the eldest I say

I do not know.
To the younger son
I do not reply.
His arms are too small
to carry broken things.
Sometimes your sons

forget and laugh.
The eldest has your smile.
The barbed wire is
shiny and new here
the sky is as blue as
the day before you went missing
and my world has shrunk
to the one thought
of finding you.

The daughter you've never
seen is gentle like you
but also has your sharp temper.
She has learnt to sing lullabies
to the neighbor's baby.

Your mother has stopped talking!
Can you remember
how I used to complain
that she never stopped her chatter?
Her silence
is heavy like the stones I carry
at the construction site
where since the war is over,
a tourist hotel
is coming up.

Now I pray
to a god I never believed in
to just send me a sign
that you are somewhere alive:
a gust of wind that
topples the pot I am drying
on the fence post;
two crows flying over our roof;
anything, really

Friday, December 1, 2017


On the day the truckload      
of explosives
drove into the central bank,
for a long second
time staggered
All sounds of a workday morning
in the city
even the cawing of the crows
merged into a solitary
Prism of fire and fury

Lives ended
eyes were blinded
retired wage earners
collecting provident funds
were crushed
under brick and glass
the nearby vegetable seller’s
hands were severed
like cucumbers,
Women in sari
held their eyeballs in their palms
and blood spattered
the streets,
erasing memory.

Out of the broken window
of a damaged car -
dead driver -
the radio blared, unscathed
on a commercial break
a man’s pleasant voice
that big or small, insurance
protects them all

 (From 'nothing prepares you' - 2007) Posting this on the request of many teachers and students who need poems from the new syllabus of the GCE Advanced Level English examination

Saturday, September 23, 2017


Today you are all day
On my mind.
I hear your sighs
In the wind
I see your lips
In the leaves of
The Na tree.
The silver finger nail moon
In the sky
Is your smile.

Both now are beyond my touch.

I miss you.
Not the cursing, swearing
you, now filled with the rage of a hurricane
not the you with the stone heart
But the you who dried my tears
And said you will never forget me
The you whose hands
sculpted for me a penguin
out of yellow soap.
This is not a poem.
It is not a plea.

It is just a note
my tears wrote.

Friday, August 25, 2017


when love releases you
from its warm embrace
your first impulse is to hug yourself
to keep away the chill
Odd, that need for self preservation
even in the moment
you’re  tottering at the edge

of the world.
The body goes on
even when the soul has
been torn out
the limbs move, the eyes blink, the nails grow
stubborn in their slow routine
and the heart keeps running
its steady and futile race
like the tail
that wriggles
long after the gecko has gone

Stitch your Eyelids Shut 2010  (Akna: Colombo)

Crossings: a memory map

(For my sister, 2007)

In a few weeks
you will
cross several oceans
and two continents
in search of new beginnings
and fulfillment of old needs

my mind hovers around
the days we sailed paper boats
on rivers made by
monsoon rain on a coconut estate
streams afloat
with pol mal and tamarind shells
and halts near the talk
of leaving
the concept of home
and crossing oceans.

With you I have confronted
the intricate twists of
growing up
negotiated the algorithms
of loving and losing
divided grief
into manageable chunks
With you I have constructed a history.

So geography shall remain
only a syllable
as you leave,
a small twig in the river
that flows inexorably
to the sea


They say that holding on to the past
is like tying a corpse
to your back and taking it along
with you
wherever you go,
the stench horrible,
people around you hold their noses
and avoid you like

the proverbial plague.
(A radio DJ spouts such
words of wisdom
between Beyonce’s song
about replacing her lover
and a commercial for detergents)

Driving in rush hour traffic
with a knot of grief
in my throat
I believe he’s speaking
just to me.
So I’m thinking
I should let memory die
let loving you go
imagine the maggots surface
white and thick and sticky
from the depths of  your eyes
I drowned in once
and try to hold in my hands
the crumbling flesh
of your once-loved body
as it falls
the skeleton of
your devotion
I should untie you
from the back of my heart
dig a hole in the dark deep
night of my past
and bury you,
kisses and all.