Sri Lankan English: Fascinating book I actually read


The Post-colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English by Dr. Manique Gunesekara is a highly readable book. Its easy to forget that the book is a product of academic research even with the tight structure of tables, glossaries, and linguistic notation that looks (and is) Greek to most humans. The most significant consequence of reading this book is a greater awareness of how I, the people around me, and voices in the Sri Lankan blogosphere express themselves. Miraculously author communicates this awareness without making the reader self conscious.

In terms of its content, the book has two broad areas. The first is an overview of the can of worms that is the history, politics, and socio-cultural perceptions of English (and its place) in Sri Lanka. The second is essentially a story of linguistic mutation told with the mechanics of linguistics and peppered with examples familiar to most Sri Lankans.

The author deals with both topics rather well without getting mired too deeply in the political. Specially when it comes to the tricky issue of teaching English as a national language. Suspicious types might want to claim that since the author (at the time of writing) is/was the head of the Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association, she has a vested interest for pushing in a certain direction. She does make a nuanced argument while acknowledging the political realities. There are no calls to action that will lead to placard waving demonstrations or a brawl of blog comments. Just a bunch of Sri Lankans quietly plugging away at some thing constructive.

As with many aspects of the current Sri Lankan condition, the status of English is a familiar brutal contradiction. Quite blatantly reflected in the survey of parliamentarians regarding their attitude to English medium education. In table 7 : “English and Governance” (p79) all but two of the 7 respondents say “No” to the question “English should be the Medium of Instruction”. Yet in table 8: “Influence of English in Governance” (p80-81) ALL the respondents say “YES” to the question (x.) “Do the majority of Sri Lankans wish to learn English?”. The situation is summed up by the author in page 83:

The only question on which all the interviewees agreed was that the majority of Sri Lankans wish to learn English. Despite this knowledge, all representatives of the political parties representing the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, refuse to make English a medium of instruction in schools.

Some how this contradiction is quite natural as the thieves who rule us are more focused on looting than on non essentials like education. After-all it is becoming quite silly to hope that our robber kings are capable of anything outside their primeval greed and petty delusions.

Granted, the people cited in the above example is a handful and the author admits that most of the surveys need further data before any theories are derived.

This book is essentially about the English of the Sri Lankan elite (economic and political). Essentially the Kaduwa welding class (to which I recklessly suppose most Sri Lankan bloggers know about and belong to).

However the book mentions neither the Sri Lankan blogosphere (where the written and spoken SLE might be expected) nor the English you might hear on YFM (92.6fm in Colombo). I did hope for some commentary on the more recent trends of bilingualism in Sinhala language media & advertising. But I realize that such topics are outside the book’s scope and would require another book. Hope one is in the works somewhere.

This book doesn’t seem easy to find. I couldn’t find link to where anyone could buy a copy of The Post-colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English on-line. As of this writing Vijitha Yapa on-line (which has two domains srilankanbooks.com and vijithayapa.com that link to the same content) doesn’t seem to carry it. I bought my copy at the Vijitha Yapa shop on 32, Thurstan Road (opposite Royal College). I tried Barefoot first but they didn’t carry it at the time. The author is on the staff of the Department of English at the University of Kelaniya which might be carrying the book in its library by now. As of this writing, they don’t have an OPAC yet. Lastly some bibliographic info:

  • ISBN 955-1115-00-7
  • Published by Katha Publishers Colombo

Though not related to the book, I found this interesting article on September 2005 issue the Oxford English Dictionary Newsletter. Its written by Richard Boyle, a Sri Lankan English Consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. Sadly the article makes no reference to the book, but has a few topic related links.

Update:

Indi has a political sounding post about another book on Sri Lankan English.

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