English is hated as a foreign tongue imposed by colonialists but is loved as a means to status and power in Sri Lanka and abroad. This love/hate relation to English exists all over the world (I saw it clearly while teaching in Costa Rica), but the situation in Sri Lanka is far more complex than in Latin America.

Sri Lankans speak one of two languages as a native tongue, Tamil or Sinhala, and nearly all Sri Lankans learn some English in school. Since Tamil, a Dravidian language, and Sinhala, an Indo-European language, are not mutually intelligible, citizens depend upon English as the lingua franca for communication between the two groups. In Latin America, Portuguese speakers and Spanish speakers can achieve some degree of communication through the similarities of the two languages, but that’s not possible for the two languages of Sri Lanka. Tamil is the minority language, and the Sinhala majority has defeated a Tamil faction in a protracted civil war. Two Tamil speakers at lunch the other day affirmed that there are more Tamils who speak some Sinhala than Sinhalese who speak some Tamil. I have no idea if that is true or not, but my lunch companions’ assertion reveals something of the tensions between the two language groups.

Sinhala is not spoken outside of Sri Lanka, and Tamil is spoken only in southern sections of India. In contrast, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Since neither Sinhala nor Tamil is a global language, Sri Lankans are also dependent upon English for participation in a worldwide discourse community.

During the last weeks, I’ve been doing two distinct kinds of teaching here. I’ve been teaching my normal subject area, Ancient Greek Literature, in English, and I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language to a group of undergraduate Law students. All my teaching has taken place at the same large, public university, mostly in the same building, but the English language ability of students in the two groups is quite different. With the Classics students I’m working on academic writing and literary analysis. It’s not that different from what I do back in the States, though I need to avoid American slang and very rapid speech, and I need to make slightly shorter reading assignments. For the Law students, however, I’m working on basics of pronunciation and grammar. The strongest English speakers among the Law students are not as strong as the Classics students, and the weakest are very weak indeed.

English, Tamil and Sinhala are the three languages of subject-area instruction for Sri Lankan universities, with some programs, including Law, offering instruction only in English. My Law students need to bring their English up considerably, if they are to follow the lectures in their subject-area. A separate unit of the university is responsible for English language instruction. All students are required to take courses from this unit, or to place out of the requirement by testing, but academic credit is not awarded for English language study. The English language teaching unit is huge and is staffed largely by recent graduates on short-term contracts. Working with very limited resources these young instructors are also tasked with teaching some basic academic skills, such as note taking. A heavy instructional burden falls upon an inexperienced and largely temporary cadre of instructors. They report that student absenteeism and plagiarism are both high.

My understanding of the issues is surely distorted by the limited information I’ve gotten, by my own cultural misunderstandings, and by the interests of my informants. I know how complex academic institutional politics can be, so I am confident that there are more factors at play than I can possibly imagine. But I can report what I’ve heard, and that reveals something of the tensions and struggles surrounding English.

I have heard tales of regular faculty members looking down upon the English language instructors, even when those regular faculty members have a weak English language speaking ability. I have noticed that many regular members of the faculty speak graceful English, though I have had serious difficulty understanding some. That may be my problem rather than theirs; the language of importance here is Sri Lankan English, not a North American or British dialect I would find easy to understand. Still, I have little doubt that there is some significant variation in the comprehensibility of professors’ spoken English. I have no doubt that language instructors are looked down upon; they hold a lower academic rank and have short-term contracts. Academic status comes from subject-area expertise, so mere language teachers everywhere are often given scant resources and respect. The English language teaching unit here has been given a massive task, so it may then be blamed, justly or unjustly, when that remains unaccomplished.

On several occasions I’ve been told that English is sometimes called the “sword,” and that it is a tool for humiliation. English language ability in Sri Lanka seems to map fairly closely to socio-economic status. The stronger speakers of English use that superiority as a “sword” against their lower-class neighbors. In my class of Law students I have noticed more anxiety about speaking from the weaker students than I would have expected. The stronger students in any language class often lord it over the weaker, but there is more going on here than simply a pride in language ability. Here the weaker students are far more embarrassed, and the stronger students far more proud, than in Costa Rica. The “sword” appears to remain in play.

Hazing is a vile practice at any educational institution. Here it has a special connection to English. The university wisely sets aside the first two weeks of the students’ first academic year for intensive instruction in English. The language instructors get an opportunity to bring the new students into a university-level English discourse community. Unfortunately, those same two weeks also include a vigorous dose of hazing, including sleep-deprivation and various forms of abuse. The English language instructors report that part of this hazing includes inculcating a contempt for English language instruction. I don’t know how much of this is true, but, again, the fact that it is being reported shows that there are serious issues involving the status of English at the university and in the culture.

These stories show some of the problems for English language instruction in Sri Lanka, but there is also much goodwill and serious intellectual effort. During teaching workshops for instructors, I’ve seen sophisticated familiarity with contemporary issues in language pedagogy; I’ve met young instructors who are interested in pursuing doctoral study in Applied Linguistics; I’ve talked with more advanced instructors who have shared subtle analyses of the social and political forces affecting English language teaching at the university. The language instructors know that they are in a difficult situation, to be sure, but they work hard and recognize how much is at stake for their students, who need this “medium” for success in their own country. In Latin America students need English for success in fields related to North America or to a global economy. In Sri Lanka students need English simply to follow the lectures in their chosen area of study. I admire the instructors and students who are working well under these challenging circumstances.