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August 2018 - Year 20 - Issue 4

ISSN 1755-9715

English Language Education in Sri Lanka Link with the Learners’ Motivational Factors

Nilushika Prasangani Kariyawasam Sittarage, PhD, a senior lecturer in Department of English Language Teaching at Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka. She teaches English as a Second Language. Her research interests lie in L2 motivation, and using technology for ESL teaching.   E-mail:



This paper provides the background for understanding English language education in Sri Lanka and explore factors that are often seen as motivating and inhibiting the learning of English in Sri Lanka due to policies, and practices such as emergence of the Sri Lankan English (SLE) variety and globalisation.  


Historical background

Sri Lanka is an island situated at the southern tip of India, in the Indian Ocean with about 20 million of population. According to Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics in 2001 the population was made up of Sinhala (82%), Tamil (9.4%), Sri Lankan Moor (7.9%), Burgher (0.2%), and others (0.5%). Sri Lankan’s multi-religious population is made up of primarily Buddhists (76.7%), Hindus (7.8%), Islam (8.5%), Roman Catholics (6.1%) and unspecified (0.9 %) remained. The literacy rate of Sri Lanka based on national statistics placed at 91.1% and majority of the Sri Lankans speak the national languages of Sinhala and Tamil (81.8% Sinhala and 14.9% Tamil). Additionally, 15% of Sri Lankans speak the link language of English. The English speaking ability is considered higher among the urban people compared to the rural people where nearly 32.9% of the urban residents speak English and 34.1% are able read and write. A special case for Sri Lanka might be that English is being discussed happens to be different from the English being debated by the native speakers of Kachru’s (1986) first circle. In fact, most Sri Lankan scholars agree on following distinctive characteristics of the variety called Sri Lankan English (SLE): its oral character, pronunciation, lexicogrammar, and syntax (Bernaisch, 2012).

Sri Lanka’s multi-linguistic and multi-religious background was created by a series of foreign invasions. These invasions were largely due to Sri Lanka’s geographical location. Before the colonial invasions Sri Lanka was invaded mostly by Indian traders, and kings, and South Asian empires. These invasions affected the language and culture of the country (Peebles, 2006). Simply put, the colonisation starting from 1505 made immense changes to the language and education policies of the country.

In 1505, the first western influence, namely, the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka. They managed to capture the coastal areas of the country and changed the literary tradition by adding many words to the national languages (Fernando, 1977). In 1656, the Dutch invaded Sri Lanka and succeeded in mixing with the local community and contributed to the rise of a new ethnic community named the Burgher. Both the Portuguese and Dutch invasions caused Christianity as well as European communities to spread throughout the country. When the British conquered Sri Lanka in 1796 there were more than 900 Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka, located around the major coastal areas of Colombo, Galle, Matara and Jaffna. This community later embraced English and were hired by the colonial administration (Peebles, 2006). This community came to be known as the English as a Native Language (ENL) community in Sri Lanka (Mukherjee, Schilk, & Bernaisch, 2010).

Sri Lanka was under the influence of the Portuguese and the Dutch for nearly 300 years, but those countries were not able to capture the political power of the entire country. Nevertheless, they managed to successfully spread the plantations of cinnamon and paper in the coastal areas and increased trade (Schrikker, 2007).  The plantation culture helped introduced a number of words that are unique to Sri Lankan English.  However, it was the British invasion of 1796 that made the most significant changes to the Sri Lankan educational and second language policies. 


British invasion and the motivation to learn English in pre-colonial Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s English education dates back to the invasion of the British in 1796. It is closely connected to the British colonial administration and evangelical missions. In fact, the early introduction of English into Sri Lanka needs to be seen as attempts to  spread Christianity among the  islanders and to  assist with the day to day administration of the plantation workers (Coperahewa, 2011; Punchi, 2001) .  

In 1833, the Colebrooke Cameron Commission reformation established English as the official administrative language of the country. Following this implementation, a few English medium schools were established in Colombo, Galle, and Kandy to help improve the English competency of the locals. Thus, from this juncture, English was for a selected community of Sri Lankans while the masses continued to practise their own vernaculars.

The British education policy discouraged the spread of vernacular languages  despite the fact that the vernacular schools had been in existence even before the intervention of the British and they continued to hold a good  reputation among the natives (Coperahewa, 2011).  This could be, because English educated natives produced by the British English education system  were able to enter the British civil service while the vernacular education  system continued to produce  vernacular teachers, Ayurvedic (traditional) physicians and notaries (Punchi, 2001).  This separation of knowledge providers helped establish a small English educated urban community and a larger rural vernacular schooled Sri Lankans.  They later often remained as monolinguals.

These demarcations between the English and non-English educated masses helped create an instrumental attachment to the English language since knowledge of English helped provide jobs. It also gave rise to an integrative attachment to become like the colonial masters or be seen as close to the colonial masters. Over time, English became seen as  a language of “rational and scientific knowledge’ and “thought and material” (Annamalai, 2004) for Sri Lankans.  It was also seen as an instrument that could help get rid of the rigid caste system of the country for the lower class and this helped create an economic factor based class system in the country.  Slowly but sure,  English  proficiency became  the mark of social mobility in Sri Lanka (Lim, 2013).

The wider use of English in the administrative and public sphere created a subtle tension amongst the rural population as concerns over the encroachment of linguistic imperialism, socioeconomic deprivation and political marginalisation which forced its way into their daily ways of life persisted even after independence. The overflow of such tension resulted in the implementation of a monolingual language policy (1956) and the “rural youth insurrection” (1971) which had far reaching consequences for Sri Lanka’s subsequent language policies. Particularly, the above rural exclusions led the social, economic and political unrest in the country (Hettige & Mayer, 2008). The linguistic nationalism rooted in the colonial language and subsequent education policies had a direct effect on the creation of the 1956 Sinhala Only Act. This policy created a tension among the Tamils of the country  who felt that their mother tongue and economic status was being infringed upon and this gave way to resentment, resistance and tensions which  ultimately gave rise to the civil war in 1980s (Herath, 2015; Rajan, 1995).

The liberalisation of English education policy was implemented via the “Free Education Policy” in 1945 to minimise the gap between the urban and rural English learners in the country. However, the implementation is best seen as a little late to address the widening gap because marked labelling gave rise to nationalistic sentiments and demands for reinstating the purity of the national language against the English language. In reality the urban English educated group had already established an acrolectal “elitist”  English  variety and  the rural English speakers’ English were view as inferior “basolectal” because of their heavy accents and mother tongue inferences (Fernando, 1977). An additional   negative effect due to this policy and labelling was that it helped create a wedge between the rural and urban population with related English and English speakers. Metaphorical concepts such as the English term “kaduwa” (Sinhala) or “sword” in English became common ground to denote the power of the English language. Kandiah explains the term as:

 … of the man who has no chance of beating the English-dominated system and of rising by means of the language to the positions that, in the kind of society he finds himself in, will help him realise and preserve his self-esteem. To him, the English language is only too evidently a sword, the symbol of power… The sword, he knows, if grasped firmly in his own hands, will endow him with the power to be truly free, to be himself and to live with dignity on terms of equality with other men; in someone else’s hands, it remains the instrument of his oppression, the means of his subjugations.

                                                                              (Kandiah, 1984, p. 139) 

Such sentiments and deep rooted metaphors help to further isolate and marginalise the rural English learners as more urban English youths found themselves able to secure places in universities and obtain suitable jobs (Punchi, 2001) while the rural youths were left to seek their own means of education and living.


Globalisation and Sri Lanka’s three national languages

In the words of Friedman (2007), the world is becoming more and more flat by empowering the individuals with the advancements of globalisation. However, there are always two sides to the coin.  Globalisation is said to have opened doors for the developing world including Sri Lanka by offering opportunities for knowledge dissemination via the advancement of science and technology. On the other side remains the  fact that developing countries have been excluded from the benefits of science and technological advancement due to the failures of policy planning in the developing world (Archibugi & Pietrobelli, 2003) and lack of  competency in  English regardless of varieties, more  often have served as  a great obstacle to the advancement of globalisation, specifically because most  developing countries in Asia are struggling with  the need to maintain their pure national identity against the overwhelming  spread of English (Graddol, 2006) in all works of their life.  

Most post-colonial Asian countries are presently facing difficulties in adjusting their language policies to keep up with the needs of globalisation, specifically because linguistic nationalism was created after, and as an effect of the colonial rule and in retaliation to the widespread use of English as their way of life. In addition, as with many these countries  trying to  maintain their  national identity via  national language policy (Das, 2015)  having to re-include English into their language policy agenda leads to be difficult in a number of ways.  A primary factor for this hesitance is due to the increasing  perception that the global spread of English  is merely  another form of imperialism or rather  linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1997) within the post-colonial world.  As such, globalisation has created a conflicting condition in the post-colonial world where nations are sensing that they are being trapped between decolonisation that prioritises the autonomous nation state and globalisation which prioritises porous nation state boarders via an agenda that emphasises the importance and importation of English (Canagarajah, 2005).

According to the Sri Lankan context the language policy formed during the post- independence period is based on nationalistic perspectives. Particularly, the Sinhala-Only policy in 1956 denied not only the importance of English in the country, but also the linguistic rights of the Tamil community who happen to be a significant number and speak an indigenous language of the country.  The Speak Sinhala only movement indirectly helped create an opposite reaction which is the “pure Tamil” movement or the “speak Tamil only” movement in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. This situation eventually gave way to a civil war (1983-2009) in the northern and eastern parts of the country. This bitter civil unrest and bloodshed forced subsequent Sri Lankan leaders to enact new reforms to bring together the native communities. As such,  the national languages (namely Sinhala and Tamil) were further strengthened via the constitutional reforms of the Sri Lanka Constitution 1978 (Democratic Socialist Republic Of Sri Lanka, 1978)  and the 13th Amendments to the Constitution of 1978 (Socialist Republic Of Sri Lanka, 2008) contributing to some temporary compromise.

Nevertheless,  delays and practical validity of the national languages policies failed to maintain the peace and harmony of the country ( Herath, 2015; Rajan, 1995) and over time, the  national language policies were seen as  inadequate to address the emerging global appetite for learning  English for both the urban and rural youths of  Sri Lanka. 

Presently, bureaucratic and social changes have helped Sri Lankans accept the instrumental role of English in Sri Lanka besides the national languages of Sinhala and Tamil. English has continued to move up to establish itself in the social life of some regions. In fact in some place the language has become an indigenised  variety and is increasing gaining  recognition as  regional variety equipped with their own identities (Mesthrie & Bhatt, 2008; Mukherjee, Schilk, & Bernaisch, 2010). However, this accepted variety of Sri Lankan English is not a neutral code by any means, but one that is vested with meanings and symbolism that operates at many conscious and subconscious levels within Sri Lankans society (Mendis & Rambukwella, 2010) and is seen as capable of playing a bigger role in the spread of Sri Lankan English in the near future. 


Sri Lankan English (SLE): Emergence of a distinct variety of South Asian English

Sri Lankan English (SLE) is a distinct variety of English which belongs to the South Asian Englishes family, which the well-known Indian English (IE) belongs to. Although Sri Lanka and India happen to be neighbouring countries and share a similar colonial past, SLE cannot be categorised as sub variety of IE, due to little cross fertilisation between the two and its own independent identity (Meyler, 2009). SLE has gained its unique identity due to its specific phonetic and phonology, morphology, lexicogrammar and syntax characteristics (Bernaisch, 2012).

Apart from that, Sri Lanka is different from India due its trilingual population where most speakers speak either one, two or three languages. Within this context, Sri Lanka is best seen as sharing more similarities with South East Asian nations like Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, where three or four major languages are used. Like Singapore and Malaysia, Sri Lanka is trilingual and the SLE context is similar to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong with reference to the lack of recognition for the local varieties of English.   Nevertheless, the local varieties enjoy covert prestige and are capitalised in innovative ways by the media, in advertising and in marketing and this have also given some form of recognition for its sub varieties.  The next section discusses the status of SLE in Kachru’s Three Concentric Circles (Kachru, 1991).


The place of Sri Lankan English among World Englishes: Kachru’s Three Circles Revisited

The Sri Lankan English context represents all three concentric levels of English as a native language (ENL), English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) respectively (Mukherjee, Schilk, & Bernaisch, 2010) and therefore serves as a suitable classification for the rest of the population. 

Within such a background it is complicated for the social science and behavioural science researchers to use a specific model to examine factors affecting the English learning motivation of all Sri Lankan learners, because the model does not fit all learners in the country despite their belonging to the three respective groups.

Sri Lanka’s SLE situation is unique among other South Asian communities due to the existence of a native speaking community within the SLE context. This native community called the Burghers have a Eurasian descent. They represent 0.2 per cent of the Sri Lanka’s population and speak English fluently and consider English to be  their mother tongue (Mendis & Rambukwella, 2010). This community can be seen to be in possession of the finite state of English in the interlanguage continuum. This finite state would be almost impossible level to be acquired by the average Sri Lanka population. Within this context, Kachru’s concentric model would be inadequate in Sri Lanka, because the Burgher community cannot be grouped as second language speakers and probably belong in the first circle.  In fact, they cannot be compartmentalised into the outer circle of the other L2 speakers in Sri Lanka as Kachru (1986) would have categorised. In fact, SLE is best characterised by its features as of nativisation and endonormative stabilisation (Mukherjee, 2012) making them unique in some rights. Further, as in other South Asian contexts there are distinct users of English in Sri Lanka, such as those who display low proficiency of English (Basolectal) and cannot be regarded as representing the institutionalised variety of English.

The Sri Lankan English context represents all three concentric levels of English as a native language (ENL), English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) respectively (Mukherjee, Schilk, & Bernaisch, 2010) and therefore serves as a suitable classification for the rest of the population. 

Within such a background it is complicated for the social science and behavioural science researchers to use a specific model to examine factors affecting the English learning motivation of all Sri Lankan learners, because the model does not fit all learners in the country despite their belonging to the three respective groups.


Corpus-based Sri Lankan English 

Corpus based studies on SLE seem to be complicated in Sri Lanka due to the diversity of the fluency related to English language mastery.  While making a decision about what is and is not part of the representative corpus remains critical, it can still be ultimately problematic. In Sri Lanka, it is often difficult to make clear cut lines between the educated or standard English speakers and the non-standard due to the on-going process of nativisation and standardisation of SLE. Another issue being the length of the formal English medium education and completion of the secondary education creates differences between the competency among ESL and EFL learners.

Currently, the existing corpus studies on SLE represent the acrolectal variety of SLE which is used by the competent English speakers rather than the mesolectal and basilectal varieties used by the general masses (Mendis & Rambukwella, 2010). In fact, it is important to locate the motivational factors of the Sri Lankan learners in learning English. Firstly, as representatives of the general majority population and ESL community of Sri Lanka, and second as contextualised within the globalisation background which allows for access of information via the mother tongue beyond the traditional classroom.


Socio-cultural factors that affect English learning motivation of Sri Lankan learners 

The motivation to learn English in Sri Lanka takes root from the period the British invasion in 1796. In 1833, the Colebrooke Cameron British reform introduced a new language and education policy to Sri Lanka by discouraging the vernaculars (Sinhala and Tamil) and vernacular education of the country. The policy replaced the local languages with English as the official administrative language of the country making it necessary for Sri Lankans to learn English and use it in business communication.

From a social cultural perspective, motivation to master English and to master it according to a particular level may have more to do with the symbolic value  attached to English and its value as a  Cultural Capital (Bourdieu, 1986) of the country.  Prior to the invasion of the British, Sri Lankans were already speaking in a number of languages. Within this the local languages both Sinhala and Tamil have strong cultural and religious inclinations where the purity of the language is revered (Schiffman, 2005). There is a belief that the purity of the language as it was first envisioned should be retained for spiritual purposes and thus the concept of speaking the elitist form is not new.  As such languages (both Sinhala and Tamil) are revered in the embodied state but the influence of English and its prolonged usage as a language of education, scientific knowledge and administrations has helped create a long lasting disposition of English as the undisputed language of power, money, and authority over other vernaculars over time (Saunders, 2007).  As such the desire to master English well in order to be able to acquire cultural goods (e.g. pictures, clothes, dictionaries, religious beliefs) helped set the English speakers apart from the common people or monolingual speakers in the new institutionalised state. Mastery of English, educational qualifications and knowledge where an English education is seen as the highest form of guarantee of cultural capital and have helped create a demarcation between the English educated versus non-English educated in Sri Lanka. Over time, this phenomenon has motivated large groups of  Sri Lankans to integratively to learn English by following the British and getting close with them (Pieris, 2012) and finally wanting to maintain the culture in order to continue  remaining as a privileged class.

During the British period, English education was limited to the urban population, the landless or classless, who in turn benefitted from the various social, educational, economic and political benefits of the colonialists. The landowners and higher caste chose to remain in the rural areas since they were able to continue with their existing lifestyles. This helped create and sustain a privileged community of English speakers in cities who saw great value and potential in learning and retaining the English ideology. They also realised the importance of maintaining it in its “pure” form so that only a few were seen a worthy. This resulted in restriction being placed for others to rise to the same level (e.g. English literature, knowledge, songs and mechanisms) and a rift between the English educated and non-English educated in the country that got wider with every year. Further, this resulted in the creation of English as a “prestigious language” and language of “urban elite” group in the country. These distinct demarcations between the urban and rural communities clearly marginalised and separated the rural from the urban population in terms of economic, social and political advancements.

The prestigious qualities accorded to the English language, the motivation for learning English soon was linked to that of the privileged class. During the colonial period (1796-1948) urban learners were  therefore motivated to master English for the purpose of good career, higher education, social recognition and economic success (Canagarajah, 2005; Senaratne, 2009) and mastery of English was a necessary goal in life. In other words, it was purely instrumental. In addition, a selected number was given the option of furthering their education in British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. According Pieris (1964) upon returning Sri Lankan speakers generally adopted Western ways of living and communication which was more often seen as British rather than Western by the general public and this was more reflective of performance goals.

Pre-colonial Sri Lanka followed a caste system very much like the rest of South Asia. For the lower caste, an English education enabled them to move from their rigid caste based traditional society into the British education based class system which gave them more flexibility. Over time, this created an English educated urban middle class in Sri Lanka who did not want to return to the traditional ways of living. English became instrumental to elevating the social status and it was therefore necessary to maintain it in order to survive and prosper. This scenario changed the learning of English to a means of acquiring cultural capital or non-financial social properties which help provide upward social mobility. It also presupposed a personal cost as more time had to be spent in acquiring this knowledge, and according to the type of instruction. This also meant learning and reciting the classics, English literature, and using standard English. These embodied capitals of Pierre Bourdieu  subsequently became an integral part of the person, the habitus (character and way of thinking) which cannot be transmitted like money, because it is acquired overtime and linked to the character and way of thinking of the person (Bourdieu, 1986). This helps reinstate the integrative motivation of the Sri Lankan urban English learners, parents and family members to play a role in playing up the social capital of English. Urban parents tried to send their children to the English schools and also British universities, because they were deemed to have understood the cultural capital behind English language in Sri Lanka (Pieris, 1964).

The rural learners remained as monolinguals due to the vernacular education which was still important due to its association with religious, ayurvedic medicine and local knowledge.  However, its usefulness remains restricted and does not play a role in urban education and policies. As a result, English became an  objectified state or physical objects linked to the economic benefit (Bourdieu, 1986; Lim, 2013) where English writings, literature and art were valued differently than the vernacular literature and arts. A similar phenomenon was emphasised in a motivation study conducted in Indonesia where rural learners were found to have lost the motivation for learning English due to the lack of access to facilities (Lamb, 2012). 

The absence of the benefits and opportunities caused  a major  uprising of the rural people due to strong negative sentiments  towards  English and L2 community  (Kandiah, 1984) during the post-independence era. These uprisings happened twice in Sri Lankan due to the animosity toward English. The Sinhala Only Act was the   first uprising against English dominance but it was also an important watershed moment for the native or nationalist to regain socioeconomic and political power of the country. The second uprising happened among the Tamil rural community in 1980s. Failure to arrest the dissatisfaction contributed to a twenty-nine years of civil war that ended in bitterness, disillusionment and national level economic sanctions.  The Tamils had tried to reinstate their cultural capital via a “Pure Tamil” movement in Northern and Eastern parts of the Sri Lanka in retaliation to the continuous domination and marginalisation due to uneven policies and privileges. The community had wanted privileges just as the Sinhala only movement without realising that the rural community was working against a common enemy which was the hegemonic status of English.  These uprisings clearly indicate rural Sri Lankans’ innate desire to maintain or promote their mother tongues. This should be also seen as a resurgence of nationalist pride in Sri Lanka to the point of exclusion of other languages including other vernaculars and English. The “Free education policy” in 1945 aimed to liberalise English education in the country and motivate rural learners to learn English by establishing central colleges all over the country. This was to provide a supportive English learning environment for the rural learners. Unfortunately, the divide between the urban and rural communities gave rise to stronger anti-English sentiment among rural dominant communities (Fernando, 1977).

Incidentally, the “Sinhala Only Act” or “Swabasha Panatha” in 1956 and Tamil monolingual polity were mere disguises for the rural community who were angry with the government policies since the lucrative positions were continuously held by the urban English educated Sinhala and Tamil bilinguals in the country who had become a community to separate from the others (Canagarajah, 2005; Senaratne, 2009).

Presently, the Sri Lankan government has come to terms with the need to maintain national languages but also aware that affirmative actions will not pacify the civil unrest of the country. As such they have  identified English as the bridging language of the Sinhala and Tamil communities of the country (Socialist Republic Of Sri Lanka, 2008). This situation should be seen as a turning point given the various capitals (economic, cultural and social) associated with Globalisation and Information Communication Technology (ICT). Presently, it is perceived that continued systematic emphasis in English would bring forth new opportunities for both rural and urban Sri Lankans to succeed and through success the other languages can be maintained. Also, given that  Sri Lanka is in the process of beginning a  new political arena  by bring together all the  communities in the country with the hope of instilling ethnic harmony and economic development (Athukorala & Jayasuriya, 2015),  the push to motivate all Sri Lankans to learn and master English learning  is seen as a significant ground breaking moment in  Sri Lankan history considering the rough road that Sri Lankan history has travelled and the challenges before it (for an overview of its colourful colonial past and present refer to Table 1.1).



This paper examines the English education of Sri Lanka from the Colonial period to the present with relation to the motivational factors of the learners. It is evident that English learning motivation of the Sri Lankan learners has changed due to the colonisation, independence, globalisation and ethnic harmony of the country.


Key events for English learning motivation of Sri Lankans


Key Event


Before 1505


Indian and South Asian invasions.

Contributed to change Sri Lankan culture and national languages


Portuguese Invasion

The first European invasion. Contributed to changes in the culture and national languages in the coastal areas.


Dutch Invasion

Created the   Burgher community in Sri Lanka.


British Invasion

English is established as the official language of Sri Lanka


Colebrooke -Cameron  Reforms

English becomes the official language of Sri Lanka


Free Education Policy

Liberalised English education for all via establishing Central Colleges around the country


Independence from British

Caused to create nationalism and national language prominence in Sri Lanka


Sinhala Only Act

Sinhala becomes the official language of Sri Lanka


Tamil language special provision

Permitted to use Tamil in northern and eastern provinces in Sri Lanka


Youth Insurrection

Overflow of rural youth tension


Sinhala & Tamil as official languages

Strengthen the hegemonic power of national languages

English has given the ‘link language’ position. This caused to publish public sector documents in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Media started to use all three languages


13th Amendment to the Constitution


Beginning of the civil war in northern and eastern parts

Regional Tamil monolingual polity


Re-introduction of English medium to the government schools

Caused to spread the need of English


English as a life skill programme

Motivate the use of SLE, especially among the rural learners


End of civil war

Generate the issues of inter-ethnic communication for reconciliation


Trilingual policy

Expect to bridge the communication gap between the inter-ethnic groups of the country


Beginning of a new political regime

Both majority and minority communities of the country felt themselves as influential force of the political scene of the country.



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