Evolution and current status of Sri Lankan English and Teaching English as a Second Language

Sri Lankan English (SLE) by definition is the byproduct of a contact linguistic situation between the donor language; British English and the vernaculars which prevailed in Ceylon then. Sri Lankan English started its evolution with the arrival of the British. The British Imperial rulers brought an alien language and culture to our ancestors’ life, which diversified and heavily influenced our language.

Sri Lankan English originated as a result of the contact linguistic situation which ensued from the arrival of the second Diaspora.

A contact linguistic situation happens when two languages meet together and form a unique language as a result. In Sri Lankan context, British English is the donor language that came into contact with the two prominent vernaculars (Sinhala and Tamil) which prevailed in our country at that time. It should be noted that these vernaculars were far from tribal languages and were much sophisticated with established written and spoken components in place. 

The resulting Sri Lankan English Language possesses influences of both the donor language and the vernaculars in its phonology and vocabulary. 

However, Sri Lankan English deviated from British English since the local influences shaped it too. Sri Lankan English is also divided into two based on proficiency, namely Standard Sri Lankan English (SSLE) and other varieties of Sri Lankan English. 

History of Sri Lankan English and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL)

Prior to the British, Sri Lanka had already dealt with three European nations, where their languages too have influenced the colloquial usage of some Sinhala terms (E.g. Almirah, Ispirithale etc.) 

During the British colonial rule spanning from 1815 to 1948, they expanded their trade presence through the British East India Company to complete colonization following the Kandyan Convention. 

The British established missionary schools under their rule where teaching was carried out in English. English was mainly taught to elite class members and this led to a class bias that became closely knit with the knowledge of English from the very beginning.  

Meanwhile, following independence from the British, Sri Lankan education system pivoted around English being the main language used until the Sinhala Only Act which was passed by the government in 1956. This act replaced English as the official language of the country with Sinhalese. In 1958 the act was revised in order to include Tamil, owing to appeals by Tamil leaders to promote equity throughout the multi-racial background of our country.

At this time the country’s education underwent strong nationalistic movements where English was forcefully downplayed in a bid to promote “Swabasha” or Sinhala and Tamil among the younger generations. 

Owing to criticisms that the predominantly English education favored some and excluded and disempowered others led to this movement of localizing the curricula which were then taught in all urban, recognized, state schools.

Still, the missionary schools which conducted teaching in English only carried on despite all state schools and tertiary education institutes resorted to Sinhala. A massive cultural and patriotic shift among the urban populations occurred, possibly fueled by nationalistic mindsets soon after independence.

Teaching English as a Second Language originated with the need to empower students with a lingua franca where it will provide a support system to them once they go into the professional society. Schools started teaching English as a Second Language and the subject was made compulsory for both the Ordinary Level and Advanced Level exams.

Status of SLE in sociological, educational, and cultural aspects

Sri Lankan English within the context of education was still a privilege only aristocratic and well-to-do individuals could afford. Having said that the knowledge of English was actually a gateway for an individual to break free from the traditional caste mindset and position themselves in places and occupations which would have been unreachable if not for the knowledge of English. 

The knowledge of English hence became a weapon of power that could be used for the oppression and subjugation of other individuals who did not possess it. The power and prestige of knowing the language widened a person’s possibilities while it served as a constraint to someone who did not possess it in comparison.

Privatization of education is still considered a controversial topic to discuss among a history of free education, gifted by Hon. C.W.W. Kannangara. However, Sri Lankan English is now considered by most as a doorway to the international world. Every year, a sizable amount of professionals, as well as civilians, migrate and a solid English background is crucial for this.

Current situation of SLE and TESL

Today, almost every state school teaches in more than just one medium, and English is not purposefully restricted but rather given as an option for the students. International schools and private schools are now far and widespread in the country.

English as a subject is not limited to the confines of urban areas and their suburbs but also to rural areas.  University education and other forms of tertiary and professional education too are mainly carried out in Sri Lankan English.

Despite all the above conditions, still, the active use of English diminishes within the rural communities. Some areas do not possess the necessary tools to facilitate TESL in schools. Urban areas, mainly centered on Colombo, Kandy has high English usage while rural areas lack on this front.

The latest statistics show that Sri Lankan adult literacy rate is 91.71 percent, however; English proficiency is quite low comparably with less people having the ability to read and write English.

In conclusion, the status of both SLE A and TESL remains a pivotal instrument all around. Yet, both still have a wide berth of growth.


Written By:

Tania Madies
(1st Place – WORDSVILLE’20)

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