18 November 2014

English is a feel-good thing na?*

The nice thing about writing a regular column is that one gets a lot of feedback.  Well, to be honest, it is not nice when people poke fun at me, but sometimes even the not-nice stuff contains valuable insights.  I received one of those nice-stinkers the other day. Here’s the gist.

Kolombians classify those around them as “English Speaking” and “Non English speaking”. Their offspring can barely manage 'enna,' giya,' or awa' but beyond that any Sinhala word would be a tongue twister. Kolombians mom spend most of their mornings in a gym toning their figures (having dropped their kids at school -- kids who are assured only of a minimum pass for Sinhala, that too with grueling effort!).  They spend the rest of the day on Facebook and at flagship stores. Watching Kolombian moms at kiddie’s birthday bashes is super entertainment.  They get stressed out trying to figure out how on earth the kids would pass Sinhala.

“Why can't they do away with this subject?  And that literature part of it! Gosh! Such a nightmare!” they would say.  Kolombian moms take great pride in the fact that their children are “awful in Sinhala.”  Even if a project is assigned to them on 'paththarayaka kotas' (sections of a paper) for Parisaraya (that’s ‘Environment’ or rather ENV), Kolombian moms would dare not cut and paste Sinhala Paththara Kotas!!! NO WAY not even LAGNA PALA PALA (‘Daily Horoscopes’)!!!!

Good points, I concede, but there’s nothing here about WHY things are this way.  I mean, Kolombian moms (and dads, but certainly not ammas or thaaththaas) have a legitimate cultural-political reason to take pride in their kids not knowing Sinhala.  We just don’t want them to learn Sinhala (by the way this holds for Tamil too) and this is why some of us tell our kids “It’s the servants’ language”.  

Look, we’ve had it good with our English-Only system.  We define ourselves when we call those others ‘riff raff’, ‘rabble’ or some other derogatory name.  That was we rise without any effort.  The problem in learning Sinhala or Tamil is the risk.  What if all of us and all Kolombians who came before us were wrong, what if those who can’t speak English were actually intelligent, or worse, far more intelligent than any of us Kolombians?  You see, knowledge of the existence of just one super intelligent person who can’t speak a word of English would smash our world to pieces. We can’t risk that.  Our world, our Colombo, our Kolombian future are all at stake here. 

I got this other comment recently.  A question, actually.  I was asked why Kolombians use ‘Sinhalisms’ when they speak.  That’s not Sinhala words, by the way, but Sinhala language-ways, shall we say?  The example was the ‘over-use’ of the word ‘no’ at the end of sentences.  ‘That’s just the English transliteration (and not translation) of the Sinhala “ne” isn’t it?’ 

It’s simple.  A dash of the ‘ethnic’ gives flavor but don’t take away the core taste of language and culture.  Now if we went the whole hog and the Sinhalisms outweighed our English, we won’t be speaking English and we won’t be Kolombians, would we?  We use Sinhalisms in our speech and in our writing but you will not catch us putting together 10 Sinhala words in a sentence and come out with any coherence.  That’s would be suicidal.  Someone might say ‘you just can’t’.  Well, not only are we unable to do so, we will not do so and we go out of our way not to be able to do so.  It’s called cultural preservation.  

And have you noticed that we don’t say “no” but prefer to say “na” when we do the transliteration thing?  That’s sexy.  That’s what we are about. We appropriate and enrich, but we will not let what we rob replace what we have or change who we are. No way!  We are far more intelligent na?

And we have ways and means of putting down any upstart non-English speaker or someone who speaks excellent Sinhala or Tamil and speaks English as fluently, especially if they happen to show any sign of possessing an intellect.  We call them ‘native intellectuals’. We define them into a corner.  ‘Native’ is less(er) than ‘international’.  It’s an adjective that implies a subset and by the very fact disqualifies the thus-defined from claiming the whole.   

So don’t chide us for not being conversant in Sinhala or Tamil.  It’s not just a matter of pride for us.  It is about being who we are and doing our best to ensure that our kids maintain our strong traditions.  We need to feel good about ourselves.  English is an important part of feeling good.  Now who would want to ruin a good thing?   

Other articles in this series:
We shall not be re-named
Get off my walkway! 
Thank you Mahinda for the Avacado Prawns!

*Everyone takes note.  Some keep notes.  Some in diaries and journals.  Some in their minds and hears.  Some of these are shared via email or on Facebook or blog; some are not.  Among these people are Kolombians, people from Colombo who know much -- so much that they are wont to think that others don't know and can't think.  This is the sixth in a series published in 'The Nation' under the title 'Notes of an Unrepentant Kolombian'.



Snoweater said...

This is the result of that swabasha nonsense of Banda. We have to get rid of the blue menace. MR must be beaten. Better to be colonized by the Norse than to be ruled by these wattaka and karawala bunch. At this rate they might require us to eat jaadi once a week. Oh praise be Jesus, give me a lumprais darling.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Malinda for this one which was conceived in what I sent you- how Kolombian mums take pride in the fact that their kids don't know Sinhala. Good reading!

Uditha Devapriya said...

Snoweater's comment makes me realise just how true to life Malinda's Kolombian series is. :-)