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Doing the Needful in Sri Lanka

by Tom Kral and Shannon Smith

There has been a lot of talk about Global English in recent years.  The British Council has been leading the discussion, funding research and commissioning reports on the topic.  In the Business English classroom, however, the British Council has given far less thought to the issue in the material it produces.

In Sri Lanka, the British Council’s Professional Training Centre offers popular training courses in writing emails, letters and reports.  But the material is dogmatically prescriptive about the rules of writing, giving no consideration to local cultural expectations.  For example, the Effective Writing Skills course gives learners the following rule:  “When the greeting is Dear Sir or Madam the closing must be Yours faithfully.  These are only used if the writer does not know the reader.”  The problem is that in Sri Lanka, the hierarchical system demands that bosses and anyone more senior than the writer be called Sir (or on rare occasion, Madam).  This means a lot of letters and emails, even between people who have known each other for years, start with Dear Sir.

In addition to formal designations, Sri Lankan English is full of archaic phrases.  Letters and reports are peppered with gems like for your kind perusal, please furnish me with the information, kindly revert soonest, your goodself and my personal favourite, I will do the needful.  The British Council’s material trains participants to do away with these phrases and use more standard ones.

The question is what is our role as Business English teachers when learners use this kind of language?  I believe we have three choices.

The first is to teach standard writing phrases and encourage the learners to de-formalise their writing.   This is the approach the British Council’s courses in Sri Lanka take and it could help propel a trend which rids the region of its archaic writing.  Furthermore, using plain English would make writing clearer and easier for everyone to understand.  The problem is that learners feel uncomfortable being so informal and, worse, could offend their readers who are accustomed to a highly formal register.

The second choice is to encourage the diversity of Sri Lankan learners’ writing style. This is the culturally sensitive thing to do and it promotes a language similar to Indian English.  After all isn’t Indian English a more useful model than any other, as it is Sri Lanka’s neighbour and home to more English speakers than the UK.  Also India will surely play a far greater role in shaping the style of English in the future.  However, choosing this approach does not expose learners to the style of English used elsewhere and leaves them vulnerable to sounding foolish when exchanging correspondence with people outside of South Asia.

The third and perhaps most enlightened option is to raise our learners’ awareness of their “out-dated” phrases and offer them more modern alternatives when they write internationally.  Writing workshops could also focus on register, connotation and English as a lingua franca, thereby exposing learners to different varieties of native and non-native speaker English.  Business English teachers would then give learners the tools to make informed decisions when they write.