A NOTE ON TEACHING/LEARNING ENGLISH(ES)
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was a clever politician in that he was good at picking the slogan most capable of turning idea into ideology, a population into a movement. He plugged a thermometer into a polity afflicted with numerous anxieties and at the receiving end of all kinds of plagues, obtained temperature and recommended what was calculated to be embraced as panacea. That doesn’t make him worse than any politician from any party or community of course. There are things praiseworthy and things that demand censure.
He’s been vilified, unfairly, for his language policy, mostly by Eelamists and by those who have an axe to grind with Sinhalese and Buddhists, adept at selective reference and mischievous extrapolation. There is however a fair criticism as well. He threw a baby with the bathwater. I am thinking about ‘English’. There was nothing wrong in celebrating Sinhala and Tamil and elevating these to their rightful place in national social discourse. Language after all is the vehicle of culture and the colonial project was as much about plunder as it was about cultural genocide. The latter required a colonial language policy as well as a policy about Buddhism and to a lesser extent Hinduism. There was nothing innocent in the kind of ‘civilizing’ that was injected to our people.
Recovering culture and injecting political agency to the marginalized required intervention in the field of language politics. SWRD knew this, felt the need, and, being good with words it was child’s play for him to come up with the rhetoric. There was euphoria. Naturally. The sons and daughters of those who did not belong to the English-speaking, Anglicized sections of the population felt that the citizenship anomalies pertaining to such issues would be resolved. A lot of good came out of it. The problem was that by omission or commission the language-related hierarchies and relevant tyrannies remained intact.
The problem was that Sinhala and Tamil were promoted at the cost of English when all that had to be done was to ensure that elevating these to their rightful place would not compromise English. What happened was that the numerical strength saw the ‘yakkhos’ slowly but surely securing the high seats of power, but still being downed in the discourse pertaining to the cultured. There was no reason to insist (in a roundabout way) that the Sinhala and/or Tamil sword(s) should be picked but to English given a wide berth. That’s how it happened, though. So we have with us today a class of English speakers who genuinely believe that their superior knowledge of English confers upon them some kind of special elite status which requires, for purposes of affirmation and exclusivity, that they vilify the yakkhos. The yakkhos, for their part, took one of two available paths: to adopt a high-minded and outwardly anti-colonial and even progressive stand of refusing to learn English (to their own detriment) and acquiring membership in Club Snooty English so that they could then vilify the yakkos.
Today, when people talk about the ‘language issue’, sadly, the status of English and related politics is footnoted in favour of ‘parity of status’ matters pertaining to Sinhala and Tamil and of course the politics of identity-assertion which flow from/to language. Some interest on the ideological issues, in particular the relevant cultural politics, has been ignited by the effort to promote Sri Lanka English through the ‘English our way’ programme. The contention is that learning English is important but it is ‘Our English’ and/or ‘English Our Way’ that need to be focused on.
On the face of it, i.e. in terms of de-hegemonizing language standards, this seems quite progressive. After all, why, one can ask, should be give special status to the not-practiced-anywhere thing called BBC English? Given that there are many Englishes and there’s no way to determine which is ‘authentic’ and/or which is ‘most pure’, a strong case can be made to elevate Sri Lankan English to a status-parity with any other kind of English, British-English included.
There is of course the technical problem of how to determine what is ‘standard’ Sinhala English, who gets to make such determination, and how to construct a hierarchy of Sinhala-English (since there can be many of these). My suspicion is that the ‘standard’ that the constructors/high priests will come up with will only entrench existing hierarchies, in effect re-hegemonizing language-standards. What is more disturbing, to me, is the location of this kind of language politics in the larger political project of achieving emancipation from all the violence, subjugation and anxieties embedded in the post-colonial condition.
We know for a fact that the current language divide related to English has on one side the self-styled elite, a minority of course, that looks down on the aforementioned ‘yakkhos’. I have labeled the English(es) they speak as ‘Snooty’ both in the determined effort to keep it exclusive to that particular class of users and in the derision with which other English(es) are viewed by the exponents of these forms. Interestingly, the argument for the establishment of Sri Lankan English as ‘Standard’ has come from this Snooty class and not the relevant subaltern, i.e. the Yakkhos speaking what I call ‘Yak English’. The Snooty, then, want the Yakkhos to think that it is ok to speak Yak English. They want the Yakkhos to believe that by speaking Yak English, some kind of glass ceiling is being transcended and that the tyranny of Snooty English, Snooty-English speakers and snooty English-speakers is getting dismantled.
Sorry, it doesn’t happen that way. It will not happen until such time the yakkhos decide what kind of English they want to speak, what works for them and what does not, and design the politics of dismantling language tyrannies. I offer that such a project requires that the yakkhos learn as many Englishes as possible, especially Snooty English, whether it is Snooty Sri Lankan English or Snooty English- English (the variety that some Sri Lankan English speakers use, the ‘elocuted’ form if you will).
The yak-Englishing that the snooty English-speakers and Snooty-English speakers propose appears to be some kind of emancipatory project but it smack of arrogance until such time they recognize the whole project can have meaning only if it is seen as a part of a larger yak project to dismantle snooty tyrannies. The oppressor or the beneficiary of hierarchy prescribing for the oppressed or the victims of hierarchy is funny if it was not pernicious and indeed a proposal for perpetuating the distinction.