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English demands mustering our energy to master it

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By K. A. I. KALYANARATNE

Consultant, Publications
Postgraduate Institute of Management
University of Sri Jayewardenepura
Vice President
Hela Havula

Our mother tongue and our first language being either Sinhala or Tamil, depending on the particular community we belong to, English is invariably considered as our second language. Therefore, English is treated as a foreign language. It is an irony that although both Sinhala and Tamil should be our link languages, on the assumption that each major community should learn the language of the other major community, English is treated as our ‘link-language’; a language quite ‘foreign’ to us. However, the fact remains that we are expected to learn English as most of our academic and professional examinations at postgraduate levels are conducted in English.

Revelations at a Preliminary Survey

A few years ago, I conducted the Integrated English Course for four batches (two batches in each category) at the PIM, who followed the two programmes; (i) MBA – Inland Revenue and (ii) MBA Customs and International Trade, in the years 2016 and 2017. This special three-month-course was a recent introduced to the MBA programme, as the Institute observed that especially the younger students needed an extra backup if they were to be competent to meet the challenges of the post-graduate programmes. A survey conducted at the commencement of these courses revealed that a majority of the students had completed their primary and secondary education in their mother-tongue. Some of them had continued to follow their basic degree in their mother-tongue. It was, therefore, an uphill task for them to switch over to the medium of English. It would not have been an issue if they had had a sound-foundation in the English language especially in their primary and secondary levels of education.

The Challenges a Teacher of English had to Overcome

Therefore, as a teacher of English, the following basic framework was structured to launch the project. In fact, the project was aimed at bringing the language skills of the target groups to the level of providing an effective answer to their basic challenges, namely, (i) understanding what was taught, and (ii) expressing in their own words, through their writings and presentations, the knowledge they acquired.

Sticking to Basics and Fundamentals – The Surest Way to Achieve One’s Objectives

Many successful businessmen say that their winning strategy has been sticking to the basics — the simple principles that have stood the test of time. I remember how we learnt the language, sticking to this principle, in college. The methodology consisted of

(i) a lot of wide reading and coming to grips with new words and word-clusters,

(ii) a lot of writing by way of (a) essays (b) editorials, (c) reports,

(iii) comprehension, precise-writing and paraphrasing.

(iv) Detection of mistakes and correction of sentences

(v) Selecting a book of their choice aimed at cultivating the habit of reading, and, ultimately, getting each of them to make a short presentation on the book he/she read during the study-term.

(vi) In between, elements like prepositions, articles and idioms were taught in small doses, without making the study unpalatable.

To get a taste of the vast and varied storehouse of English literature, a few short and simple poems like James Leigh Hunt’s ‘The Plate of Gold’, and P. B. Shelly’s ‘Ozymandias’, were read with them highlighting the poetic expressions and how beautifully the language was used by such poets to accentuate interest in the reader.

In short, what was followed was choosing material that created an interest in the learning partners, while assigning a reasonable amount of homework. These exercises were not only marked promptly, highlighting the pluses and minuses, the shortcomings were also discussed among them in class. These discussions were a part of the knowledge-sharing process that followed.

Paraphrasing, Comprehension and Precis Writing – A Vintage Recipe that Worked Well

A basic measurement of learning is the level of one’s ability to express in his/her own words what he/she had learnt. If a person masters this craft of re-phrasing what has been learnt, cramming (studying intensively), and memorizing resorted to by many a student would sooner be realized as futile acts. These shorter methods while taxing one’s brain, is only short lived. Knowledge reproduced in this manner will vanish from them no sooner their immediate task is over. This ability to retell what one has learnt will make that knowledge one’s own. The teachers of English, or for that matter, of any language, had been resorting to these basic practices, to drive home the fact that once a person is able to repeat in his/her own words what has been said or written differently elsewhere, is the surest way to remember. These were the basics on which teachers of yesteryear taught languages to their students. However, the two prerequisites needed to perform this task depend on two abilities; (i) the ability to understand what was read or learnt, and ii) the ability to convert that knowledge into his/her own words. Of course, both these abilities depend on one prime factor, that is, to possess a rich diction/vocabulary. It is words in their clusters that convey ideas.

Gaining Comprehension Skills – A Sure Answer to Plagiarism

Comprehension skills and language fluency go hand in hand, and in fact comprehension is an inseparable part of every subject. Frequent practising of comprehension skills make students gain confidence and feel comfortable in what they read. This is a skill that would become part and parcel of every study, and at every level of their education, and also an effective answer to plagiarism.

Plagiarism, that has crept into academic and professional studies at higher levels, has reached alarmingly proportions in recent time. Therefore, all seats of higher learning are ‘fighting tooth and nail’ to arrest this deceitful trend, as it is paramount to ensure ethical practices among students to conduct their studies honestly, and in accordance with the accepted academic standards. These seats of learning have continued to deliberate on measures to arrest this unhealthy trend. In fact, these institutions have now put in place their own ‘Plagiarism Policies’, recommending deterrent action against those committing this offence.

Duality of English

The biggest challenge faced by both teachers and students of English is the significant duality posed by the two ‘Englishes’, British English and American English. The issue has been created by the two streams going ‘on their own’ without reaching commonality or striking at a common approach. The very fact that these two streams of the language are termed as British and American, it makes pretty obvious that the said duality exists. Even a cursory glance through the two approaches, the following differences as shown in theFigures appearing here, would become quite evident.

It is due to this basic difference that some institutes of higher learning meekly say that what is recommended in the writings of students is ‘the use of English (United Kingdom) and spelling’. This is not an instruction or a rule that should be stuck to. This itself is evidence of the penetration of American English, and its influence over the English language. The saddest part is that students are unaware of this duality, and they are helpless in knowing these differences unless/until they are guided. Teaching of English at school-level also does not delve into these ‘tricky and controversial areas’. In fact, there’s hardly a publication that brings out these differences in the contemporary use of English.

Merriam-Webster English Dictionary (WMD) Vs. Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

The prevailing language-controversy began with the publishing of the initial Webster’s Dictionary by Noah Webster in 1806. He was an American lexicographer, textbook pioneer, English-language spelling reformer, political writer, editor, and author. The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary (MWD) which is now a popular volume in our libraries, is a revised and edited version of Noah Webster’s original publication. In fact, MWD had undergone a series of revisions to make it sufficiently comprehensive for use. Basically, MWD is considered a liberal dictionary, updating its definitions and entries with the time. Due to this quality of constant revisions and expansions MWD has now been accepted as a premier dictionary of English.

In the process of assessing the merits and demerits of the two dictionaries the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has now been considered as ‘conservative’ in its approach. It tantamount to say that the OED is oblivious to the constantly occurring changes to the language, by way of pronunciation, grammar, definitions and admission of words/terms. It thus connotes that OED is more concerned with documenting the language as it has progressed. It is very much a lexicographical history book for the English language. Thus WMD progressively gaining sway over its acceptance, would further erode the position held by both OED and British English.

Duality in the Use of Prepositions and Basic Grammar-Rules

Prepositions may be considered as mortar that is used to fix bricks in their proper places. Hence, prepositions, often called the ‘biggest small words in English’ fix solid words together by showing relationship in space or time or a logical relationship between two or more people, places or things. In a language like English where nouns cannot be declined flexibility is brought in by the use of propositions. These are thus a part of the foundation of the English language. Therefore, a misused preposition can make a big difference between a clearly stated sentence and a confusing mix of words. Sinhala differs vastly in this aspect as its nouns can be declined.

Therefore, if there is a duality / difference in the use of many a preposition in the two Englishes as seen below, it is obvious that the learner will be bemused!

Apart from spellings, vocabulary and the use of prepositions, there are some major grammar differences between the two Englishes. For instance, collective nouns are considered singular in American English, as ‘the band is playing’. In contrast they can be considered as either singular or plural in British English, the commonest being the plural form, i.e, ‘the band are playing’. The British are also more likely to use ‘shall’ with ‘I’, while the Americans are bent on using ‘will’ with ‘I’. Further, while Americans, continue to use ‘gotten’ as the past participle of ‘get’, the British have long since dropped ‘gotten’ in favour of ‘got’.

The English Teacher’s Travails and Dilemma

In fact, my precise objective of penning this short essay is to highlight the trying and challenging circumstances under which our teachers of English are performing their task of guiding the younger generations to impart knowledge and enhance their language-competencies. Unlike most eastern languages, English is a hybrid product, depending much on German and other major European languages for its growth and enrichment. It is because of this fact that Walt Whitman, American poet (1819-1892) said that

‘Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of

every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the

free and compacted composition of all.’

Its complexity has been further aggravated by its illogicalities in its grammar; and some extremists say that it’s a jumble of contradictions.

The battle between the forces of correctness and the forces of usage is still being waged. The controversy on ‘it is me’ versus ‘it is I’ is a case in point. The complexities that have been created by the independent growth of the two Englishes, has resulted in more exceptions than the rules of its grammar. Some critics have even gone to the extent of commenting on how nonsensical its word-formations are. They bring in to say that if ‘office leads to officer’ and ‘commission leads to commissioner’ ‘prison should lead to ‘prisoner who is in-charge of the prison, and not the person who is imprisoned for committing a crime.

This chaotic situation has been further aggravated by the absence of an updated / current book of grammar that provides answers to all the above complexities and controversies. English grammar books that are available are those that have been published several decades ago, and further, none of these deals with the language’s latest developments, especially American English.



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Features

Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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