There are two stories that I tell young people about learning English. The first is about Ananda Thilak Bandara, a batchmate of mine at Peradeniya University.
Thilak was from Madadombe, Galgamuwa. When he entered the university all he knew of English was its alphabet. Half way through our first year, I moved into a ‘chummery’ in Gunnepana, about one and a half miles from Dumbara Campus, Polgolla. There were 12 boys sharing three rooms and six beds. Thilak was one of them. Thilak and I had a pact. We would speak in English on the way to campus and on the way back, he would sing. He picked up his English and I learnt a lot of songs.
I still remember an incident in 1993 just after we graduated. Thilak and I were ‘causal investigators’ (CA) working for the Agrarian Research and Training Institute (ARTI). We were both idling, unemployed and opted for the under-employment opportunity that came our way. We were stationed in Kelegama, a village located a couple of kilometers off Buduruwakanda, three kilometers on the Galgamuwa-Anuradhapura road. It was a village tank rehabilitation project.
The ‘Chief Engineer’ was M.S.M. Silva, a brilliant man who was also given to heavy drinking and when drunk was wont to make the most atrocious decisions regarding his staff, in particular the villagers who had been hired to do the earth-work. One night, ‘MSM’ fired Somasiri, one of the villagers who were totally committed to getting the work done. Somasiri had made the cardinal error of reporting to us the man who was supplying kasippu to MSM.
MSM fired Somasiri and Thilak objected vehemently. MSM switched to English and began arguing with Thilak. Thilak gave back as good as he got in English. MSM went quiet. The following morning he told me, ‘that boy gave me tight last night’. He was sober and smiling.
Thilak joined the teaching service soon after and now teaches in a school close to his home in Galgamuwa. He is a singer with some repute, performing now and then on television. He speaks excellent English and writes good poetry. Not because of me, but since he was determined to learn the language, did not have any inhibitions and worked hard at it.
He learnt it all by himself, struggling with it with the help of a Malalasekera Dictionary. He frequently consulted my mother, who taught English literature. He borrowed books, read them and asked her to explain things he did not understand.
The second story is about a three-wheel driver, Susantha. Susantha parked his vehicle near the Eros Theatre, close to our place in Pamankada. I still remember the first time I got into his veel-eka. He said, ‘Sir, please speak to me in English and if I make a mistake please correct me’.
Susantha told me that he was one of only two students who spoke English in school, Aratheusa College, Wellawatte. Someone had told him that he should speak English and advised him to ignore if anyone teased him over it. He had also been told to learn at least one word everyday. He was asked to read newspapers or even an advertisement. Susantha speaks excellent English. He doesn’t need to write but he can certainly read.
Children and parents are acutely aware of the importance of learning English, but they tend to believe that all it takes is to attend a tuition class. The standard of teaching and the abilities of the tuition ‘sirs’ and ‘madam’s are clearly suspect, but even if they were the best at the job, students and parents both fail to recognize the most important fact about learning: the teacher’s contribution is one percent, the child has to give the rest. Students and parents believe it is the other way about.
The point is, it is eminently learnable.
Another related obstacle is the attitude to the language and this is more prevalent in the universities. ‘English’ is referred to as a para bhashawa or a foreign language. It is, but only because it was not ‘born and bred’ in this island. There is nothing to say that we can’t make it our own, not least of all because it is an instrument of coercion, a tool of learning and exploration and constitutes a necessary weapon required in our armoury as we fight all manner of oppression.
I have heard senior lecturers in English Departments complaining about the syllabuses they have to teach. Having just returned after their doctoral studies with heavy doses of the post-colonial literature, feminism and post-modernism, they complained about having to teach the works of ‘dead white men’.
Gamini Haththotuwegama never complained about ‘dead white men’. Haththa was not scared of the ghosts of dead white men. He made friends with them and employed them against the real, live, ‘white’ (as in colonialist) men and women, of whatever colour. Effectively. Not with anger, but the potent mildness of being confident about language and literature and the nuances therein. To him ‘English’ was an ‘our thing’.
It is important to read what dead white men wrote because a lot of the conversations in the field of English literature surrounds their work and a lot of theory has grown out of such discussion. ‘Learning’ the dead white men does not forbid embracing the larger non-dead-white-men archive after all.
The point here is, to think of English as an ‘enemy’ is to reject an important and even crucial weapon in our liberation struggle(s). If it is a weapon of mass destruction (and that it certainly is), then the masses must acquire it as a critical element of its overall defence system.
One thing is certain. The powerful will necessarily be reluctant to give the technology that puts the ‘weak’ on an equal footing. To the English alphabet, they will say ‘yes’. To the idiomatic usage of the language? They will pass that question.
Susantha is a three wheel driver. Thilak’s father was a farmer. They looked the ‘enemy’ in the eye. They turned enemy into friend. Haththa showed what one can do with such ‘friends’. There’s a lesson here, I believe.
P.S. The above article was published in the 'Daily News' on November 11, 2009. Today, March 29, 2016, more than 6 years later and 16 years after I met Susantha, his eldest son, attending St John's College, Nugegoda and studying the the English Medium has passed his O/L and is preparing for his A/L. Yes, English medium.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column for the Daily Mirror titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'. Email: email@example.com, Twitter: Malindasene