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Midweek Review

On decolonising SL universities

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By Susantha Hewa

Whether we like it or not, the world is market driven, and business interests more or less impact all social institutions, education being one of the most important. This can be easily seen in most university qualified students’ primary concern about which degree programme will pave the way for getting a well-paid job as early as possible after university, as Kaushalya Herath (KH) correctly points out in her article titled “Decolonising SL universities” appearing in The Island of 8th June.

It is apparent that over the years the courses of study offered in our universities have increasingly been influenced by direct and indirect demands of the corporate sector which has resulted in the gradual sidelining of arts subjects. However, one has to agree that science has been put “in the service of humanity” just as much as arts or even more, as many would argue. Moreover, it is doubtful whether “critical learning, that produce[s] passionate thinkers, as well as contextually relevant knowledge” can be wholly credited to arts studies to the exclusion of science studies, as KH seems to suggest in the last sentence of the first paragraph of her article. One may find a whole host of critical and passionate thinkers among science scholars; Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell easily come to mind.

The problem lies, as KH herself correctly asserts, with the increasing tendency to use universities to produce “employable graduates” to cater to the global market economy. For example, it isn’t out of love for Shakespeare that university syllabuses have given the pride of place to “soft skills” (in English). The liaison between employability and English language skills is so firmly established that today hardly any undergraduate would be able to make a two-minute speech on “employable graduates” without using the term “soft skills.” Every conceivable professional is expected to be a glib salesperson who knows how to talk his way through.

In fact, the label “unemployable graduates” is being given ever more superfluous legitimacy in this context where undergraduates’ “soft skills” are becoming more marketable than their academic achievements. This becomes patently clear when, for example, today’s private sector employers show an unconcealed admiration of candidates who are glib talkers of English even if their academic records may leave much to be desired. As such, at job interviews for engineers, for example, students with relatively poor academic records stand a better chance of getting the job over those who have excelled in academic studies without sufficient English language skills to match. In short, be warned that if you want to succeed in becoming an “employable” engineer, your “soft skills” count more than your grades in engineering at the job interview! In other words, even science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects), which easily outcompete arts subjects in terms of “status” in tertiary education are eclipsed by “soft skills.”

There is no doubt that gaining a good command of any language is an asset to anyone and is the primary purpose of learning a second language. However, elevating it to such a stately position in a university curriculum simply to cater to the needs of the corporate world is a textbook example of commercial interests prevailing over academic concerns. That the private sector appreciates a candidate’s language fluency solely on its acquired utility value in the market world shows why such recognition is not given to fluency in Sinhala or Tamil in the present Sri Lankan context. If Mandarin happened to be the “international language” in our part of the world any time soon, “soft skills” would automatically mean fluency in Mandarin.

The extent to which the needs of the global market influences the mindset of students can be seen in the way science stream students choose their subjects from STEM- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How many AL mathematics stream students seeking university admission would select science and mathematics in preference to engineering and technology? Or, for that matter, how many AL biology stream students would select bio-science over medicine? The fact is even if universities were to offer only STEM subjects and eliminate arts and humanities altogether from their curricular, students wouldn’t be free from the all-pervasive influence of corporate interests. Obviously, engineering and technology would beat science and mathematics hands down in a contest designed to lure corporate giants. As such, it is little wonder that arts and humanities cut no ice with any profit-oriented system of economics.

The term “employability,” despite being the buzzword in producing graduates today, cannot help giving you the uneasy feeling that higher education is a way of ending up being hired by someone-a cog in a giant corporate machine. It would be a hopelessly inadequate ending if we were to consider education as a major contributor to civilization. Instead of originality, excitement and vitality that tend to accompany a more informed notion of education, “employability” seems to associate conformity, tedium and lethargy. Such negative feelings would be the complete antithesis of what education can and should bring about if it were to realize its full potential. Yet, such a gross incongruity is unavoidable when education is pared to be nothing more than an endless supplier of “hands” in an all-encompassing profit earning venture.

Commenting on the world’s fixation with boosting the speed of Internet connections and the efficacy of Big Data algorithms, historian Yuval Noah Harari says: “We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential.” Even those who would not necessarily agree with Harari’s views on the advancement of human civilisation would not have any difficulty in seeing the relevance of this contention in the context of today’s market oriented tertiary education.

If we were to agree that education could do more than spawning technically-skilled people to be employed as tools to sustain economy, it had better change gear to tap more of latent human potential. However, it would be nothing short of fantasizing if one expects an education essentially moulded to cater to the dynamics of a globalised market economy to change track in favour of initiating broader human interests that are not marketable.

It would be futile to think of separating university education from its glorified mission of providing “employable graduates” until all of life’s concerns remain subsumed by the cash nexus and consumerism. It is true that humans have been breaking away from myth-regulated small bands and forming ever expanding communities under more general “banners” throughout history. However, since money came to govern all man-made systems, we have not been able to break free from its spell. To what extent hunter gatherers depended on hunting skills for survival, to that extent do we depend today on what is now made available as education for our upkeep, however more sophisticated it may be than the life in the wild. The raw link between what you learned and how “securely” you lived in those days has proved to be resistant to date defying all historical and cultural changes. Surely, what you choose to learn today and your success in it guarantee much more than three square meals. However, “hunting” remains to be name of the game with money skulking around; a minority merrily hunts for “excess” while the majority still continues to hunt to keep the wolf from the door.

The notion that natural sciences are at war with arts is rather misleading. Both arts and sciences are equally important products of human potential and are helpful in making societies more and more refined. Some students are truly passionate about natural sciences while others are fond of arts and humanities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either inclination. Furthermore, critical thinking and philosophising are not unique to either stream. The problem is that the corporate world favours STEM subjects as they are grist to its mill and, as a result, has produced an unwelcome hierarchy between the two equally human friendly streams.

KH seems to be optimistic that “develop[ing] mechanisms to understand and theorise local knowledge systems” and “indigenis[ing] knowledge production” will be helpful in minimising the commercialization of university curricular. Such changes alone do not seem to serve the purpose because our country cannot function in a “vacuum” and our political and economic systems are not any more favourable to a chaste academically oriented education than those of other countries.

Even if we entirely replaced the existing tertiary education with “indigenous systems” it would not be possible to prevent the new system from being absorbed by the global economy since separating our politics and economics from the rest of the world is unthinkable. Knowledge systems wouldn’t be either innately “good” or “harmful” depending on whether they are produced here or elsewhere. Hence, to slip into excessive “nationalism” by being trapped in a self/other binary in knowledge production might prove more harmful than productive. KH implies this when she says, “How the universities can decolonize and indigenize knowledge production without going into the other extreme of nationalism is a bit tricky and will require dialogue and reflection.”



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Midweek Review

Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong

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By GEORGE BRAINE

Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.

Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?

 

Wong Chuk Yeung

Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.

At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.

Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.

The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.

Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.

Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.

As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.

Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.

On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.

Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.

Nasty” Developers

The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.

 

Villagers profit in secret land deals

Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums

Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011

The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.

I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:

Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.

Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.

 

Last days

I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.

Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.

I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:

I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).

I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?

As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.

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Midweek Review

The trust deficit

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Nelum Kuluna: “It’s the folly of such investments that has created the debt problem.”

 

by Usvatte-aratchi

 

‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

George Orwell

 

When this government was elected to office, there was wild jubilation, almost countrywide. People danced in the streets. But totally unexpectedly that ecstasy lasted a short time. This was no more strongly revealed than when the Cardinal, the leader of the Roman Catholic community in the country, publicly prayed to God that as he and his community could not get justice from secular authority. May God mete out justice to those who destroyed the lives of many members of his community! It was a pitiful cry of desperation (crie de coeur) that touched many people, no matter their religious faith or lack thereof. There were several well-known members of the Bhikkhu Sangha, who spoke most unhappily about the government for betraying the undertakings that had been given to them, when the now government sought election to office. The betrayal was bitter to a large sections of the population when the saubhagyaya (plentifulness), so prominently promised by the winning political party in 2019, turned out to be simply its opposite in 2021. The impending economic austerity, after the yahapalanaya government, glared in the face of all thoughtful people in 2019 but the winning party impressed upon the electorate that the party had worked out strategies and policies that would bring in prosperity which the opponents failed to achieve. The public were not shown the strategies and policies. When something is too good to believe, it is either not genuine or not true. It was sheer stupidity on the part of the electorate to believe that the key to El Dorado was in the hands of one individual or even the few who were on the path of wisdom (viyath maga); perhaps, inevitable given the alternative. It took three serious unexpected disasters to persuade two ministers of the government to explain in Parliament the dire economic situation in the country and their lack of policies to meet those perilous challenges. The first was the invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 infection that came along with tourists. After a promising start, the government floundered helplessly in 2021, failing to use effectively a fine public health structure that had many victories to its credit, including control of malaria, elimination of polio, typhoid and DPT. In mid-2021, the death rate among those infected rose above 1 percent, double that which prevailed in May 2021 and yet better than in most parts of the world. The government could not make use of the work of government servants who had information on the location and the age of people who lived there (Electoral lists in the offices of grama niladhari). The disaster that the Ministry of Shipping cluelessly invited into our seas destroyed not merely the eco system but with it the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not necessarily only along the coast. The claim by a government minister that deaths on a large scale of sea creatures, both large and small, soon after the shipping disaster, was a regular feature in the stormy season (varakan) was shockingly disingenuous. The government handled both these disasters so incompetently that the electorate lost whatever trust they had about the government’s capacity to govern the country. The ill-timed policy to eliminate the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture (which itself is not a bad idea in an ideal world) raised the ire of the mass of peasants and farmers and threatened the supply of food in the country and the continued production of tea and rubber. The persistent assertion by the Minister of Agriculture that there was plentiful fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides flew in the face of demonstrations by thousands of cultivators all around the country. Are these protestors true hirelings of fertiliser importers? The threat to import organic fertiliser is fraught with untold dangers, because that fertilizer carries organisms that could be dangerous to human, animal and plant health, here. More directly, that policy openly contradicted the pledges given in the manifesto of the party that fertiliser would be given to peasants free and freely.

In liberal democracies, governance is a matter of trust between the government and the governed. Governments are elected by the people periodically on the basis of manifestoes issued by political parties in which the parties lay out the policies that they would implement, if elected to office. Some unexpected emergencies inevitably arise and the policies they adopt to meet those emergencies must be governed by approaches to policy announced in their manifesto. The governed expect that government has spoken honestly in their manifestoes and would implement them in the people’s interest and not for the pecuniary gains of those that govern. When parties seeking office (not power, as we commonly say) systematically lie to seek election and the voters are either not sharp enough to see through the falsehoods or are swayed by other propaganda, (e.g. finding a small ethnic or religious group in the country whose electoral strength is petty, against whom a political party can whip up a frenzy) governments have a problem retaining the trust of the governed. ‘These leaders might invoke a lost imperial grandeur …. (Rajarata, in our case). They adopt sophisticated propaganda techniques (which may include events of spectacular destruction) in which to demolish adversaries and bolster their own egos… This charisma is leveraged to project an aura of virility that is supposed to protect a helpless citizenry against lawlessness and an endangered nation against the invasive impurities of alien and internal enemies.’ (Ariel Dorfman, 2021.) When lying came to light, the governed lost trust in government.

A fortnight ago, two Ministers who spoke in Parliament to defend the decision of the government to raise the prices of petroleum products (which itself is reasonable) laid out clearly, for the first time, the economic plight of the nation and the impecuniosity of the government. One was the redoubtable Bandula Gunawardana; the other, the lawyer Gammanpila. Later the new Minister of finance, whilst taking office, spoke about the ‘grave situation (bararum thatvaya)’ of the economy and the finances. We wish him well, in a difficult job. Why did it take 21 months for the government to take the people into confidence and explain the dire situation of the economy and the finances when they took over from the yahapalanaya government? There was, then, the added advantage of an escape goat ready for slaughter, a second time.

 

The government was so keen on standing by their propaganda that the president, soon after taking office, abolished the PAYE scheme, drastically reduced both direct and indirect taxes and renewed his promise to give new employment to hundreds of thousands of university graduates, which promise he fulfilled later under pressure. (The public were told, very late, that tax revenue had fallen sharply in 2020.) Independent observers were taken aback by these decisions which may have been so enthusiastically adopted only by a government, with an economy with strong sinews and a Treasury with bottomless reserves. The public awaited a miracle. They should not have, because the horn of plenty is only a fairy tale for toddlers not economics for adults. In government, one should have ‘soft hearts and hard heads’ and not the other way around, which seems to be partly the problem with the new government.

Now that some members of the government have given expression to the true nature of the economic situation and the financial imbroglio of the government, what about the way out of these predicaments? There was widespread antipathy to the idea of seeking assistance from IMF on account of the eventual necessity to agree to conditions they would lay down to come to the assistance of the economy. The IMF lays down those conditions because it wants to ensure that the objectives it sets out to achieve, require countries to follow those policies. The IMF conditions that the government disapproved of included austerity measures to ensure that the economy has a surplus with which to service debt. (It is the obverse of more resources than we produced when we borrowed from abroad.) There is no escape from seeking such drop in the domestic use of domestical output to pay back debts incurred. In addition, there was an equally widespread objection to seeking assistance from abroad and much enthusiasm for working out our own solutions. These strategies and policies now on display feature the following. There is widespread austerity in the country, fulfilling the first condition that could have been demanded by the IMF. The supply of goods of all kinds has fallen. That scarcity has resulted from many measures that government implemented. The direct reduction of imports is the most visible. Any shopper in a supermarket can observe empty shelves. Fertiliser and agrochemicals are scarce. The Covid epidemic, the shipping disaster and the scarcity of fertiliser and agrochemicals will reduce incomes cutting down total demand and demand for imports. The other means of enforcing austerity is to raise prices to make goods and services beyond the budget of most people. Fortuitously, the fall in employment has reduced levels of income and cut down living conditions. Printing money large scale brought about the rise in prices. Whether the government wished it or not, austerity which IMF would have recommended is here with us. No matter which party formed the government, this austerity was inevitable, not because we borrowed but because we invested foolishly. The public are in austerity. What is absent is a programme to reschedule debt repayment.

Individuals, corporations and governments all borrow and prosper out of debt. The secret is in the uses made of the loan proceedings. Large scale borrowing was resorted to in the years 2010-2015. We had been impoverished by a long drawn out civil war. Borrowing was welcomed by society because there were large scale projects, employment in construction ran high and the rate of economic growth was elevated. By 2015, the rate of growth had come down and the government was voted out of office. Among other reasons, the poor performance of the economy was of major importance. With large investments in the early years which helped raise the growth of the economy, the failure of the investments to raise output (summarily, high incremental capital/output ratios – ICOR) dampened the rate of growth. The failure of investments to earn a return on it was all too clear to see: Hambantota Port still does not make an adequate return; the International Conference Hall lies idle; Mattala airport receives an occasional flight; Nelum Pokuna has a more attractive garden than audiences shouting acclaim for plays on its fine stage; and the Nelum Kuluna stands solitary guard over the Colombo Port City. It is the folly of these investments that created the debt problem, not borrowing itself. Yahapalanaya government failed to realise that unless they explained to the public the dire situation in the country and imposed austerity to pay back the loans, that they would hand over to the successor government a debt burden impossible to bear. That is exactly what has happened. Saubhagya government that succeeded the Yahapalanaya government completely failed to read the economy correctly or imagined that they could hoodwink the public to believe that they had strategies and policies to meet these exigencies. The public evidently took in the latter, hook, line and sinker. That the same strategist who promoted the infrastructure programmes in 2010-2015 was appointed today to manage the economy and that his first project was an infrastructure project is cause for deep concern.

We need to put in place a programme to restructure debt service payments so that the government can manage to avoid a catastrophic further fall in living standards of the people. To agree to reschedule debt repayment, creditors need an organization, in which they have faith, that it will enforce an agreed upon reschedule. Most of the time that organization has been the IMF. Interest rates in international capital markets have begun to rise with widespread fears of incipient inflation in developed countries. The prices of materials like aluminum, copper and rare minerals have been rising for several months. The tendency for interest rates to rise is further strengthened by the initiative of central banks to disgorge their bursting portfolios of financial assets. The cheap credit regime may have come to an end. A reschedule itself may be now more expensive than earlier.

If the government does not wish to use the IMF, they will have to find a substitute. There are no other solutions.

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Midweek Review

From ‘multi-ethnicity’ to multiculturalism

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by Susantha Hewa

Being able to speak only one language (monolingualism) is becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more Sri Lankans whose home language is either Sinhala or Tamil are learning English as their second language (L2). Not many Sinhala speakers or Tamil speakers select each other’s language, namely, Tamil or Sinhala as their L2 for a few obvious reasons.

With due respect to both Sinhala and Tamil, neither of them has the social recognition that English commands in this country. Secondly, being perhaps the widest read and spoken global language, English has a utility value far exceeding that of Sinhala or Tamil, for all those who engage in higher studies, research, preparing for private sector employment, administrative work, translation, journalism and diplomatic service, among others. Many graduates realise at job interviews that a good command of English can often eclipse academic excellence, which has resulted in English becoming a major ingredient in all recipes for gainful ‘employability.’ In short, proficiency in English can be a big bonus for anybody aspiring to move ahead in any chosen path. That monolingualism among Sinhala or Tamil speakers is now appearing to be an anomaly and a deprivation needs little persuasion. However, opinions differ on how early a child should start learning English as his L2 to reap all its benefits. Is early exposure to an L2 harmful? Will it make him culturally rootless?

Let’s take an example from the Sri Lankan context. It’s not news that if a child’s parents spoke two languages, say, Sinhala and Tamil, the child would learn to speak both almost equally fluently provided that they were spoken often enough at home. So quite reasonably, she will have two mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil, and thus be a bilingual if she were to continue speaking both languages into her adulthood. Alternatively, if only one language was spoken to the exclusion of the other at home she would be monolingual, which could be described as an instance of a lost opportunity given the time and difficulty involved in learning the other language at a later stage. What’s more, the former who acquires both languages simultaneously will have an edge over the latter in more ways than being fluent in two languages.

For instance, she would develop a better empathy with the speakers of either language and an increased awareness of their respective cultures, language being the most pervasive and fluid transmitter of the shared values of a community. Surely, it would be a better option than being excluded from one ethos depending on which of the two languages is to be her home language. Further, the exposure to two cultures would be an excellent opportunity for her to take a balanced view of both and grow up to be more unbiased about each. Such a child is unlikely to be overemotional about one culture and will find herself at home with either community as a grownup. Thirdly, as linguists point out, a bilingual is better adapted than a monolingual to learn a new language. Thus, early bilinguals in general will be more versatile than monolinguals in socialising, language learning and more open-minded about and less susceptible to synthetic divisions based on imagined/self-imposed identities. In other words, multilingualism may significantly bring down the volatility inherent in the so-called “multi-ethnic” societies.

Our longstanding tradition of being moulded by a single culture with only one home language may urge us to cast doubts about the soundness of being multilingual/multicultural from childhood, prompting us to consider it a denial of the right to have firm roots in a single culture. However, those who entertain this view may perhaps be ardent believers of “uniqueness” and “sanctity” of each culture- those who rely on “purity of stock” to be the mainstay of best human behaviour. Just take the above example of the bilingual child. If her Tamil speaking father or Sinhala speaking mother was adamant that only his or her language would be spoken at home wouldn’t it lead to a serious crisis? Can anyone determine with any justification whether mother or father’s decision should carry the day? On what grounds can anyone say that one linguistic/cultural environment is better than or superior to the other? If the parents had saner heads they would let the language mix be a blessing in disguise instead of making it a recipe for disaster. Surely, it would apply with equal validity on the broad canvas of society.

Come to think of it, it is usually our cultural seclusion that makes us feel rootless when we are placed in an unfamiliar social milieu as a grown up, which is more likely than not in the modern world where many cannot afford to stick to one job or place for long. Young children who migrate find it easier to adapt to the new setting than their parents do. As we have seen, children living in multicultural settings don’t seem to suffer any “rootlessness” whatsoever; on the contrary, they are often more confident and skilled in socializing. A bicultural is unlikely to be feeling any more estranged than an amphibian in water. It is often the insularity resulting from our cultural segregation in childhood that seems to prompt us to demonize cultural intermixing as a dangerous dilution, or worse, an out and out contamination of “inherited” values.

As such, linguistic “isolation” in childhood may contribute in no small measure to the emergence and hardening of divisive feelings continually attributed to “ethnicity” – a label which has always proved to be more harmful than useful. If bilingualism or, better still, multilingualism can dilute this unserviceable sense of segregation, why thwart it? Can we think of any instance where humans have run in to a crisis for not knowing who belonged to what “ethnicity?”

However, being a bilingual from the cradle is too good to be true. In most families, children have to be content with one home language, often, Tamil or Sinhala. Thus, to compensate for this customary language seclusion in early childhood, the L2 has to be made available to children as early as possible. As linguists claim, changes in brain plasticity make delayed L2 learning more taxing- the older you get the more laborious it becomes. In the L2 learning continuum, the earlier you start, the closer you are to the natural L1 acquisition process, which gradually shifts from its “acquisition mode” to a more artificial “learning mode” as you age, and the latter is far less effective than the former notwithstanding the extra time and effort it requires. Furthermore, while early acquisition of an L2 tends to be more comprehensive and enriching, late learning is often narrowly focused and inhibited. Many adult learners, for example, a good number of undergraduates grudgingly learn it to fulfill a necessary condition to get their degree certificate and “be employable.”

A child’s growing inhibition towards learning a second language with the passing of years is nowhere more manifest than in universities where students wanting in English language skills are conspicuous in their absence in kaduwa classes. Thus, undoubtedly, the most prudent, scientific and result-oriented approach to teaching English, or any L2 for that matter, is to focus on primary and secondary level students without delaying it until their language learning mechanisms have risen to their, so to speak, “level of incompetence.”

Surely, university entrants aren’t at their best age to contend with English because they are in an age category in which their L2 assimilation mechanism is shifting gear from acquisition to learning. The most affected by this change are those whose medium of instruction happens to be English. Their lack of proficiency in English, which is the result of inadequate exposure to it during their primary and secondary education, makes them pay a heavy price now, at least in three ways. Firstly, it makes them cut kaduwa classes to avoid looking “foolish” in the presence of their more privileged colleagues. It also drastically reduces their grasp of academic lectures, which directly affects their performance at exams, especially, in the first semester. What is most unfair is that in a system in which the first semester grades of the academic subjects determine their eligibility for field selection, those who get lower grades due to their lack of English language skills but with no deficiency in cognitive skills, are often denied of getting into their desired field. This is just one undesirable outcome of prolonged monolingualism, which can be easily avoided by placing more emphasis on early bilingualism.

Therefore, the most prudent, profitable and scientific approach to teaching English as an L2 is to focus on the young students in primary and secondary grades which will ease the pressure exerted on undergraduates who are compelled to mug up English for passing exams and be “employable.” A good command of the English language can help create a level playing for all new entrants. Only a few of them enter university to study English as a subject and all those who learn other subjects – particularly, those who study in the English medium must not be penalized for being deficient in it. After all they belong to the brightest bulbs of our youth. That English is given an excessive importance in higher studies amounts to making those who lack kaduwa pay for the “sins” of a flawed L2 teaching system, which is made absurdly top-heavy to compensate for the lack of sufficient attention given to English in early years.

With so much evidence in support of early bilingualism, ‘better late than never’ policy would only be a good joke when it comes to teaching English as an L2 in our country. In a broader sense, making English accessible to all young students may help reduce the ills of an unproductive and costly “multi-ethnic” system, which should have long been upgraded to a truly multilingual and multicultural system sans “ethnic” fault lines. Bilinguals will outdo monolinguals even if we are forced to learn another language- let it be any language from China to Peru.

 

 

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