Teaching English in Sri Lanka

6. Juni 2018

Students of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have the opportunity to teach for a period of six months in Sri Lanka. This unusual project was initiated about two years ago. Anke Lensch of the Department of English and Linguistics launched the project, supervised by Professor Britta Mondorf and in cooperation with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

At first, Pascal Peifer had been playing with the idea of organizing his stay abroad through the European Union’s ERASMUS program. “But I wanted something different, and further away. I was seeking a far more intense and comprehensive experience.”

In 2015, the idea for a most unusual project came to Anke Lensch of the Department of English and Linguistics at JGU. On the train as she made her way to a specialist conference she met an employee from the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). "She told me that the GIZ was urgently seeking English teachers for schools in the north of Sri Lanka.” The women began to consider whether a form of collaboration might be possible which would, based on the model of conventional educational stays abroad by JGU students, permit them to go to the island at the southern tip of India. "One year later, we were all set up,” says Lensch, "and the first two students departed for Sir Lanka.” The ‘Teaching English in Sri Lanka’ project was born.

On the way to Jaffna

Peifer is a trainee teacher whose subject is English. The new program appeared to be just what he was looking for. So the 24-year-old decided to send in his application. "Sadly, we’re not able to accept every applicant into the program,” explains Lensch. "We take a look at the respective student’s motivation and at what stage they are in their studies." "For me it was clear that this project would give me the opportunity to help people and to make something happen," says Peifer.

In April 2017, he and three of his fellow students boarded the plane to Sri Lanka where they would be able to provide teaching staff there with support with English lessons. The little group landed in the capital city of Colombo, located in the south of the island. At the College of Technology there, they first received a little preparation for the tasks awaiting them. After that, Peifer and one other student travelled on to a location in the immediate vicinity of Jaffna, the capital city of the northern province of Sri Lanka which bears the same name.

English as a bridge-builder

"We had quite an adjustment to deal with," explains Peifer. "In the south, it was oppressively hot and humid. When we arrived in the north, however, we found the climate to be very dry." The two students were accommodated at a school for deaf-mute and blind children. "We lived directly adjacent to a lagoon; everything was very rural. We taught at two schools. One was located within walking distance, and the other lay further away, on a small island in the north. It took us one and a half hours to get there using public transport. The bus was always packed full of people. Sometimes we thought - well that’s it - there’s no more room - and then yet even more people squeezed their way into the bus at the next stop. That bus was the hottest place ever.”

For decades, a bitter civil war raged in Sri Lanka. After the island achieved independence in1948, conflict between the Sinhalese-speaking majority and the Tamil-speaking minority blew up in the north and east. Sinhalese was declared the official language; the Tamils felt marginalized and demanded their own national territory. Terrorist attacks and armed conflicts took the lives of around 100,000 victims.

The civil war finally came to an end in 2009. As a result, both Tamil and Sinhalese were declared the official languages. In addition to this, however, the language of Sri Lanka’s former colonial rulers, English, was assigned a special role. Even today, it serves as the mediating bridge or “Linking language” - and this not only between the ethnic groups, but also between the religions: Sri Lanka is inhabited by Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. English is the language used at the universities and by the Supreme Court. All of this means that English lessons in Sri Lanka are of major importance.

Own projects, lots of freedom

Peifer taught at two schools in which young people are prepared for working life. "Amongst other things, there was a class for tailors. But there were in fact only girls in it; not one boy.” Another class was for training car mechanics. "In contrast to our country, vocational training in Sri Lanka is not linked to a specific prospective employer,” explains Lensch. “The students attend a course for one year, after which they seek on-the-job training. This is frequently a difficult process, which is why the GIZ assists with mediation.”

"Most of the students were between 18 and 24 years of age,” says Peifer, “but there were also some who were markedly older, and in amongst these we even had 14-year-old students. There were people with whom we could speak English easily; others were unable to even introduce themselves in English. We had this enormous range of linguistic abilities and people to deal with." The student enjoyed animated contact with two teachers in particular. “The younger one would have fitted perfectly into any school in Germany; the older one employed very traditional methods - and loved Shakespeare.” It is not mandatory in Sri Lanka for a member of the teaching profession to have undergone teacher training. Neither of the two schools had a curriculum in the conventional sense.

"We had a lot of teaching freedom from the start. We were able to influence how the lessons were structured. We were allowed to take over complete classes and to develop our own projects.” In addition, the two students collaborated with the teachers. "We suggested where it might be possible, so to speak, to tailor things a bit so that the lessons could be structured more effectively. We also considered jointly how a suitable curriculum could be set up.”

For Peifer, practical relevance was extremely important. On the so-called ‘English days’ which were completely dedicated to English lessons, he had his trainee tailors and car mechanics roleplay situations from their future working life. The older teacher would have preferred to stage a Shakespeare drama. “Instead, we created scenarios which were related to the future everyday working lives of these young people.”

All-round positive feedback

Outside of lessons, Peifer set about exploring the country. “The living standards are low, but there are no slums in the cities. Few people really go hungry.” But Sri Lanka does have a problem with waste. “A huge amount of plastic is used; absolutely everything is packed into plastic bags.” In contrast, Peifer experienced the fascinating natural world of Sri Lanka in his free time. Here he saw flying foxes, white-bellied sea eagles, elephants and leopards. "The land is so beautiful, you simply have to travel around it.”

In September 2017, Peifer returned to Germany. "That was such a big adaptation for me," he points out. "I worked a lot in Sri Lanka, but there I could concentrate on one thing and had more time for it than in this country. Now I have to deal with my homework again, and with several seminars at once. This hectic pace doesn’t exist in Sri Lanka.”

Peifer has maintained contact with several people living in Sri Lanka. And also with all those students who have up to now participated in the ‘Teaching English in Sri Lanka’ project. "We meet up regularly,” adds Lensch. She also maintains contact with the students currently in Sri Lanka through the internet. "Up until now, the feedback was consistently positive,” she says: “everything is going really well - for all those involved.” Soon, the first contract with the GIZ will come to a close, but Lensch remains optimistic. "I think this is just the beginning."