Status of Hindi and Chinese teaching and learning in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Status of Hindi and Chinese teaching and learning in Sri Lanka

3 September, 2023

Speaking at the prize distribution ceremony at Anula Vidyalaya in Nugegoda on August 16, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that in the future, Sri Lankan children will have to learn Hindi and Chinese to fit into the changing world.

The underlying theory is that the world is poised to enter the “Asian Century” which will be dominated by the new economic powers, India and China and Sri Lanka’s economy will have to integrate itself with the Indian and Chinese economies to partake of the benefits of the latter’s growth. And to do so, Sri Lankans will have to obtain proficiency in Hindi and Chinese.

Hindi and Chinese are already taught in Sri Lanka both as part of the formal school system and outside it. But the facilities and the quality of teaching vary widely. The facilities at the Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre (SVCC) in Colombo, run by the Indian High Commission, and the Confucius Institutes at Colombo and Kelaniya Universities run with financial and educational help from the Chinese Government and Chinese Universities are excellent with qualified teachers and good teaching aids.

But State schools and private institutions that teach these languages lack knowledgeable and committed teachers and teaching aids. The investments made here do not yield the required dividends. If there is to be mass production of Hindi and Chinese students, this sector will have to get a lot more attention.

Indian Cultural Centre

At the Indian Cultural Centre (ICC), classes are conducted by Sri Lankan teachers with formal Indian qualifications in the Hindi language. There are different categories of courses, such as a Beginner’s course; an Intermediate course; an Advanced course, a Post- Graduate Diploma course; GCE (O) Level and GCE (A) Level courses; a special course for children between the ages of 7-15 years and a special Spoken Hindi course. The range is indeed wide.

The duration for each level is one year. The syllabi are set by the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan (KHS) at Agra in North India. At the end of each academic year, examinations are conducted by the KHS by their examiners. Scholarships for pursuing advanced courses in India including PhD are an additional incentive and Sri Lankans avail of the opportunities.

In August, 22 Sri Lankan students, including a bhikkhu, left for India for higher studies at KHS. In the past 12 years, 160 students from Sri Lanka have been awarded this scholarship.

The students at the Centre belong to all age groups from children to retired persons. Previously, 400 enrolled but there has been a decline to about 200, perhaps due to the economic slowdown. Results are good with around 80 percent passing.

Students are attracted to Hindi because of their fondness for Bollywood films and songs. Others see Hindi’s usefulness when they travel in India. The Sinhalese, who are the most interested in Hindi among the various ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, find Hindi a familiar language because of the shared Sanskrit base of the Sinhala and Hindi. Native Tamil speakers, on the other hand, being less acquainted with Sanskrit, have to work harder to understand and pronounce the words properly.  

Last December, the ICC inaugurated a course for Sri Lankan police officers, which was well attended. The Deputy Indian High Commissioner, Vinod K. Jacob, said that Hindi is taught in about ten universities and 80 Government schools in Sri Lanka. Besides, there are almost 50 privately-run Hindi classes in and around Colombo.

Hindi teachers from the ICC have won laurels in India, like the late Prof. Indra Dassanayake who was posthumously given the Indian national “Padma Shri” award by the President of India in recognition of her contribution to the dissemination of Hindi language and literature in Sri Lanka.

But Hindi teaching and learning face issues in institutions other than the ICC. In her 2016 paper entitled Problems of Learning and Teaching Hindi as a Foreign Language, Hansika W.A. Maduni of the University of Kelaniya said that the students lacked practice and the teachers failed to make the course interesting. The teaching was textbook-oriented and not innovative enough to spur student interest. Sri Lankan schools are yet to develop the art and technique of teaching a foreign language, she said.

A foreign language is best learned at a young age if not childhood. But the school system has failed to take advantage of the age factor. At the ICC, youngsters tend to drop out while the older students persist. Older people stay put probably because they have a passion for the language. Those who stay the course, come out as polished products.     

Chinese teaching

The quality of Chinese language teaching also varies in Sri Lanka. Chinese is taught in the Confucius Institutes (CI) in the Universities of Colombo and Kelaniya and in several Government-run schools.

Staffed with qualified lecturers, both Sri Lankan and Chinese, and endowed with modern teaching aids, the CIs teach Chinese culture and Chinese language in an integrated way. The teaching is geared to academic needs as well as to the job market.

Chinese companies, which are part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), now renamed the Global Development Initiative (GDI), might take some of those passing out. In fact, the prospect of getting a job in a Chinese project in any part of the globe motivates many students.

For the academically inclined, there are scholarships for higher studies in Chinese Universities because each CI is linked to a university in China. Competitions are held to choose outstanding students who are then awarded scholarships. 

The CIs have certificate, diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate diploma courses in Chinese language and culture. The integration of culture and language is a must in the case of Chinese teaching because (unlike in the case of Hindi language students) Sri Lankans are not very familiar with Chinese culture and history. The CIs have also developed libraries and IT-based facilities for teaching. Volunteer teachers from China (mainly young university graduates some of whom speak Sinhala or Tamil) join the CIs, mix with Sri Lankan students and help them converse in Chinese.  

Kelaniya University’s CI also teaches Chinese on-line through the “Google Classroom” albeit only at the elementary level. This is a great help to those who cannot travel to Kelaniya.

According to L.G. Jing, author of Review of Chinese Language Teaching in Sri Lanka, between 2012 and 2016, the CI at Kelaniya University had turned out 1,576 diploma students and 30,000 non-diploma students, which included 12,500 weekend certificate students and 16,900 teacher-trainees. This is a massive output and Chinese experts vouch for the high quality of those passing out.

“Learning Chinese as a foreign language has become a fashion among the young generation in Sri Lanka. In recent years, the requirement for Chinese teachers has increased. The number of local Chinese teachers is also increasing rapidly,” Jing said. But he added that the courses needed to be “adjusted” in view of some flaws. Some observers said that Chinese and Sri Lankan directors clashed over the control mechanism.

Sammanie Kandambi of the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said in her 2018 paper that there was a lack of qualified Chinese teachers in schools. Both teaching and learning were inadequate in the schools. Textbooks were limited and so were teaching manuals.

Communication skills

She recommended that teachers be given opportunities for professional development in Chinese language communication skills, Chinese culture and in the use of modern teaching tools. Children cannot learn Chinese without a knowledge of Chinese culture.   

It appeared that teacher-student verbal interaction was lacking. Speaking skills were not imparted. Classroom teaching lacked vitality. She recommended “student-centred” teaching. While grammar is important, the ability to speak the language would give the course practical utility, a sense of satisfaction and an appetite to learn more. Unlike Hindi, a single line or stroke can give a different meaning in Chinese calligraphy.

All this means that Sri Lanka has to spend more on Chinese and Hindi language teaching in schools. Teachers will have to be trained appropriately.

But there are two great blessings enjoyed by Hindi and Chinese in Sri Lanka. There is popular enthusiasm for the two languages and Governments have been very encouraging. Many bhikkhus show an exceptional interest in learning these languages. Many bhikkhus travel to India on pilgrimages. Some scholarly bhikkhus also want to read the accounts of Chinese Buddhist travellers Hiuen Tsang and Fa-Hien written in ancient Chinese.