Ever heard of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade? Or Ian Serrailier’s horror-inspiring Grendel? Or even modern poet Gwen Strauss’s take on Cinderella- a deep lyric with death, sadness, sarcasm & even undertones of sex in it.
Well if you are a serious student of literature, like myself, you probably would have.
Now think of an 8 –10 year old trying to perform this to an examiner at a Speech and Drama examination.
I was at the unfortunate receiving end of little children trying to perform poems & works too advanced conceptually & in every other conceivable way in Kurunegala recently, which brings me to express my absolute horror at what extents some people will go to, to earn money.
Sri Lanka is possessed by the Elocution craze. Forget Spoken English, kids must learn to perform ridiculously advanced poems & drama in front of their adoring parents (who themselves do not understand whether their kids are speaking English or gibberish!).
I have seen a 2-year-old put through the utter trauma of public performance of a poem, when he barely has mastered the basics of language. His mother, no more able to speak English, was asking me to convince the bawling & terribly afraid child to get up on stage and say a poem he did not understand, & much was her disappointment that the child could not. I mean, COME ON! Grown adults cannot master stage fright with full command of language, imagine a child so young trying to say words he does not understand to an audience where everyone else is at least four times his size!
Teaching English is a double-edged sword. Yes, children must learn the language, and the younger they are when they start, the better. In a country as small as ours where the two mother tongues would be practically useless anywhere else in the world, the language of the seas is quintessential for survival.
Few dedicated teachers who have mastered the language & the aspects of speech & drama with all its technicalities, will judge each child on his or her merits, & teach them poems/prose/drama/speech that suits their individual ability. Although not a teacher myself, as a trained performer & examiner, I can tell when a teacher knows his/her stuff & has more importantly COMPREHENDED the student-its all obvious from the student’s manner.
But then there are those who have abused the qualification those such as myself have put years of practice, dedication & passion into achieving. Say they have a minimum grade 8 qualification from the Trinity College of Speech and Drama. Most teachers, being women who would rather stay at home and teach than go out to work (again, their prerogative) and have absolutely NO experience on stage or in performance of any sort except at an examination will advertise & poor parents will send their children in droves to learn to imitate (usually very wrong) phonetic sounds of an alien language. The result? Frustrated examiners & students, & the English language being transformed into nothing but NOISE.
Not even the basics of diction like pronouncing the consonants at the end of a word. No thought for interpretation of choices & discussing them… nothing! And 8-year-old girls telling me poems about a first brush with sex when I don’t think they have even heard of the word sex! Ridiculous!
All I can do is write very strong comments to teachers, & hope that in their greed for money, the poor children in rural areas out of Colombo will not be hoodwinked into thinking they are learning English when they are learning to make strange noises!
-Nipuni is a part time examiner for speech & drama and spoken English.. and hates languages being mutilated! She is also Core Group Member of Beyond Borders. Views expressed are her own.