Wednesday, January 03, 2007

English

The signs are everywhere. They are tacked onto power poles, stuck into the ground on stakes, strung on banners across streets, and emblazoned on windows and store fronts. Some signs carry just the one word ENGLISH and a telephone number. Others are more elaborate.

TUITION: ENGLISH

Learn English Here

SPEAK ENGLISH!

CONVERSATIONAL ENGLISH

And dozens of variations. Trade schools teach English. Regular schools teach English. Everyone with a passing acquaintance with the language teaches English. No wonder little boys come up to the white-skinned tourist on beaches and at historical and religious sites: “Hello. I can talk to you?”

An English-speaking tourist is a target, an opportunity to practice, a chance to improve a necessary skill.

Everywhere in South Asia this is true to some degree, but in Sri Lanka it seems to be a fixation. Of course, like most of India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon, then) was an English colony and English was the language of both the conqueror and the government. Once, statistics say, the island had the highest rate of English-language literacy in the region and one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Well, statistics can be extrapolated from very little. In any event, time and chaos have put paid to all of that.

Now, though, on an island split between Sinhalese and Tamilese speakers, an island at war with itself, English has become lingua franca of sorts … not as much as it should be, no doubt, but, if the signs speak true, the number is growing.

At any rate, it may be a ticket to any job. At our Galle hotel, even the cleaning staff and pool attendants speak working English.

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