I asked my 12-year-old granddaughter, “What’s the past tense of seek?”
“Seeked” she said without batting an eyelid.
“Who taught you that?”
“My English teacher” she said.
While reading an English newspaper I came across a funny headline: “Six men caught in a cigarette case”. For a moment I wondered whether we are polluting the English language like the environment. Perhaps the only good thing the British had given us is their wonderful language. Some people, however, call it murder, echoing the ghost’s words in Hamlet: “Murder most foul, strange and unnatural.” Prof. Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady said it more precisely: “The cold-blooded murder of the English language.”
Knowingly or unknowingly this cold-blooded murder is being committed day in and day out and every one of us is at least an accomplice. The language we learned with so much enthusiasm five decades ago has been mauled in schools, butchered in universities and mangled in thousand and one diploma mills. You cannot blame the present generation for their poor knowledge of English. They appear to be victims of a carefully planned plot.
How many people read William Shakespeare, P.B. Shelley, John Keats or R.K Narayan today? Charles Dickens, Thackeray and Rudyard Kipling are complete strangers to the new generation. According to some authorities, English appears to be on its way to the limbo of forgotten things at least in this part of the globe. In schools students skip the English lesson and at universities undergraduates have many other pursuits than learning English. They are not willing to learn English, however much teachers try to teach them the rudiments of the language. The teaching of English and its standard have undergone drastic changes over the past 30 years. The standard of question papers has been brought down as many students fail in English. The change has been entirely for the worse. When you lower the standard, most students pass the examination without any knowledge of the language. The debasement of English should concern everybody because the English language is part and parcel of our national heritage. We have already faced the consequences of not teaching English properly to students.
The assault on the language began in schools when Sinhala was made the official language. The idea that you can do anything without learning English was driven home and students lost interest in learning the language. We should learn a lesson from Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. In his log cabin Lincoln tried to understand the words in the Old Testament. He did not have the advantage of learning English from a competent teacher. However, when Lincoln read the Bible lying down on the floor, he discovered the strength and beauty of English. Lincoln learned the language in the most difficult way and finally produced his masterpiece the Gettysburg Address.
With smart phones and laptops reading is no longer popular among the new generation. They think reading a book is a waste of time. They want to learn the language quickly without reading. In fact some tutors brazenly advertise that they can teach English to students who are not required to read or write anything. They have only to listen to the teacher to learn the language. Most students fall prey to such tutors and waste their time and money.
Reading skills should be taught to students from the beginning of their school career. A student who does not read will never acquire a comprehensive knowledge of the language. Instead of asking them to memorise words and phrases they should be encouraged to read books, magazines and newspapers. “Learner-centered curriculum” and “empirically validated learning packages” will be of little use to someone who has not been trained to read.
Some writers today prefer to use bombastic words and phrase to impress the reader. They will write, “The President will exercise his options” instead of saying “The President will make a choice.” A head of a state can send a message to another head of a state instead of “initiating a dialogue.” The danger is that learners will also try to use such stilted writing. Most official letters contain gobbledygook and nifty little touches of the writers. As a result we are forced to read “meaningful decisions” and “meaningful dialogues” which make no sense. No sensible person will use such expressions.
During the Great Depression in the United States’ farmers were driven from their farms, workers were fired from their factories, fathers tried to find a morsel of food in garbage cans and mothers starved themselves to feed their children. One day they listened to the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio. He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” His words kindled hopes of the people. Roosevelt did not use high-flown language, but simple words. Everybody understood what he said.
A similar event happened in Britain. Hitler’s armies were about to invade Britain. The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill simply said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” The British people suddenly realised that they had a wonderful leader who would save the country. Churchill turned to the United States and said, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” Eventually Britain was saved and America gained time to arm for the war.
Roosevelt and Churchill taught us how to use simple words for greater effect. Churchill’s memorable words still reverberate: “We shall fight them in the school rooms, we shall fight them on the campuses, we shall fight them in the clammy corridors of the bureaucracy, we shall fight them at their mikes, we shall fight them at their typewriters. And when we win – as win we shall – we shall bury them in the rubble of their own jargon, because Lord knows they deserve nothing better.”