I still follow a piece of advice given to his students by T. Max Perera who ran an English institute at Horana way back in the 1950s. One day he advised us to read advertisements published in newspapers and name boards to learn good English. Since then I have been reading advertisements and name boards including marriage proposals in order to learn the language. Some habits you cannot give up easily. As a result even as a septuagenarian, I still read advertisements although I have stopped applying for jobs and responding to marriage proposals.
A few decades ago I applied for the post of English teacher at a prestigious international school in Colombo.
I attended the interview, but later I changed my mind.
I remembered the day I was interviewed by its principal who spoke flawless English. However, when I saw an advertisement inserted by the same international school for the “Post of Vice Principle,” I did not know whether to laugh or cry. How can anyone excuse such a major blunder appearing in a Sunday newspaper? For the post of “Vice Principle”, the candidate was required to possess an excellent command of English!
Not to be outdone a well-known jewellery shop recently advertised some of its vacancies in a Sunday newspaper with a catchy headline “Make a deference in your career.” It was apparently not a typographical error as the word appeared in bold type.
“Deference” accordingly to the Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English means “polite behaviour that shows that you respect someone and therefore willing to accept their opinion or judgment. For instance, some people get married in church out of deference to their parents’ wishes. Can any copywriter worth his salt use “deference” for “difference”?
‘Sinhala Only’ policy
With the introduction of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s “Sinhala Only” policy and schools giving instructions in Sinhala or Tamil, many generations of students did not learn English in the proper way. Teachers with a smattering of English were recruited to government schools. With the passage of time universities started producing young men and women who are unemployable in the private sector as they did not have a working knowledge of English.As a result, the English education suffered tremendously.
Fortunately, most international schools are trying to produce English educated people for the job market.
Today we receive funny letters from government departments and corporations written in “Singlish”. The latest is a press communiqué issued by the Presidential Media Division. It said, “President Maithripala Sirisena who is on a three day state visit to Russia held bilateral discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin today (March 23).
“During this bilateral meeting Russian President presented a significant gift to President Maithripala Sirisena, symbolising the close relationship between the two countries”.
“This special gift was a royal “sward” of Kandy era of the 19th century. This “sward”had been brought to England in 1906 and later bought by Russia at an archaeological artefact named Sotheby in England.”
Replacing “sword” with “sward” shows the dismal failure of our English education at government schools. As most of the examinations are held in Sinhala or Tamil, most students do not learn English seriously. When they are recruited to high positions in the state sector their lapses begin to show. Despite the large number of institutes and camps, English is not taught properly and there is a severe shortage of competent teachers. We cannot blame the students as they are simply victims of circumstances.
Once I overheard an English teacher telling one of her colleagues, “She is beautiful, no?” The speaker probably did not know the rules pertaining to tag questions. On another occasion an English teacher known to me offered me a “lift” while I was waiting at a bus halt during a heavy shower. As I did not see his vehicle, I asked him, “Where’s your car?” “I don’t have a car, but I have an umbrella. I’ll take you to office under my umbrella,” he blurted.
Today most students and even adults use “advice” and “advise” indiscriminately. They have to remember that “advice” is a noun and “advise” is a verb. Similarly, you can’t give someone a good advice. Instead you can give them “some good advice”. The reason is “advice” is an uncountable noun. Recently, I heard over the radio, “The government has made an agreement with the people’s Republic of China.” We don’t make agreements; instead we reach or come to an agreement with somebody.
Sri Lanka is not the only country where people use wrong English expressions. While on a tour in India I stopped at a shop which displayed a notice in bold letters. It read, “Enter from the back.” I did not know whether to laugh or run away! This is the trouble with the “sword” (not “sward”) which is synonymous with English, at least in Sri Lanka.
A reputed linguist once said while Sri Lankans are using “Singlish” Indians are using “Inglish,” a variety of Indian English. He drew my attention to some of the Indian name boards that have adorned Google. Here are some of them:
If you park here your tyre will be air out
•Indian Institute Computer Technology shitted to No 145 1st floor Chick Bazar road
•Private customer parking only
All others will be toad
•SOTP (for STOP)
Such linguistic blunders are quite amusing, but they signal the downfall of English education in Sri Lanka and India.