In the footsteps of Gurulugomi...
The question of language policy in education among the Sinhalese

Excerpts of a paper presented by C.A.Chandraprema at a Symposium on Education held last week by the Council for Liberal Democracy.

I was quite intimidated when I received the official invitation to present a paper at this symposium and found that the other two contributors were to be the Secretary to the Ministry of Education and the Deputy Chairman of the University Grants Commission. As everybody in this audience will be aware, I am no educationist, and inviting me as a contributor to a Symposium on Education has been an act of faith on the part of the Council for Liberal Democracy. I must thank them for the confidence they have reposed in me. What gave me the courage to come here today was the rationalisation that, my topic is more political than educational. And what I would like to share with you today, are some observations that I have picked up along the way on this question of language policy in education. For practical reasons, I will be dealing only with the Sinhala aspect of this problem.

The language policy of Amawathura

I would like to start off by drawing your attention to the striking peculiarity of the language policy in education of the pre-colonial Sinhalese. The late 12th Century author Gurulugomi explaining his reasons for writing the much celebrated Sinhala prose work Amawathura states in his introduction that he has written of the glories of the Buddha in the Sinhala language for the benefit of the uneducated masses. The original phrase in Gurulugomi’s own words reads as "noviyath hudeejanain sandaha, siyabasin ma visin sekewin dakwanu lebe" . It was the senior civil servant and broadcaster, Mr Amara Hewa Madduma who first drew my attention to this charmingly forthright statement.

What is implied by Gurulugomi’s statement is that those who knew Sinhalese only were not considered to be ‘educated’ in Sinhala society even at that time. In pre-colonial days, it was necessary for a Sinhalese with any pretension s of learning, to be conversant in Pali and/or Sanskrit which were then the languages used by the intellectual elite. The Sinhalese educated classes throughout history, have never been monolingual. It would appear from the existence of evidence like the Sigiriya graffiti that literacy in the Sinhala language was more widespread in ancient Sri Lanka than one might think. The graffiti on the mirror wall were apparently composed by sightseers from various walks of life during the 6th to the 9th Centuries. This literacy would have helped the cause of mass communication in that era, but it did not confer the status of being educated.

To be considered ‘educated’ in ancient Sinhala society, it was necessary to be bilingual or tri- lingual with a knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit. The Mahawamsa, the great chronicle of the Sinhalese was for instance not written in Sinhalese. It was written in Pali, in keeping with the tradition of the times. Has anybody even paused to wonder why on earth anybody would want to write the history of the Sinhalese in a foreign language not understood by the vast majority of the Sinhalese? After all, Pali is as foreign to the Sinhalese as Gujarati! The author of the Mahavamsa wrote it in Pali for the same reason that Anagarika Dharmapala maintained his diaries in English - because it was the language of all educated people at that time.

Professor K.N.O.Dharmadasa, divides Sinhala literature into a ‘great tradition’ and a ‘little tradition’. The works belonging to the great tradition were those like the Mahavamsa which was written in the foreign language Pali. Those belonging to the little tradition were those such as the Saddharmaratanavaliya (13th century) Pansiya Panas Jataka Potha (14th century) and the Guttila Kavvya (15th century) which were written in the native language Sinhala. Historically, the Sinhala language was never the language of the educated Sinhalese. This of course does not mean that the educated Sinhalese knew no Sinhala - all it means is that Sinhalese was not used as a language of educated discourse. Various ‘commentaries’ on Pali texts might however have been written in Sinhala once again, like the Amawathura for the benefit of the poor yokels who knew no Pali or Sanskrit...

The pre-colonial Sinhalese appear to have been quite snobbish about this ‘educated people’s language’ business - In the thirteenth century, when a Buddhist monk wrote a handbook of ethics for Buddhist laymen called the Upasakajanalamkaraya even that was originally written in Pali even though the vast majority of laymen did not know Pali. It was only in the 19th Century that the Upasakajanalamkaraya was translated into Sinhala.

Sinhala as a ‘minor’ tradition

It must be noted that Pali is not a ‘sacred’ language for the Sinhalese Buddhists. Its uses are very secular. It is for example not used to address incantations to the gods or for something like that. Gatha’s and pirith are chanted in Pali, but this is due more to tradition than to any notion in the special efficacy of ‘Pali’ as a magical sacred language. Pali was the language in which the knowledge and ideology of the Sinhalese was stored even though the vast majority of the Sinhalese did not understand a word of it - much the same way that English is used now.

If one sees the Ven Gangodawila Soma thero preaching on TV, one notices that he breaks off frequently into Pali while speaking. This is such a commonplace occurrence, that we hardly notice it. Why does a Sinhala intellectual have to break frequently into a foreign language when preaching to a Sinhalese audience? But that is the way, preaching in this country has been going on for centuries. What we see here is a case of an erudite Sinhalese drawing from the (Sinhalese) store of knowledge in Pali and dishing it out to the hoi polloi just as Gurulugomi in the late twelfth century translated stories about the Buddha from Pali into Sinhala for the benefit of the ignorant yokels or the "noviyath hudeejanaya’s"... When a Christian priest preaches in Sinhala one never hears him breaking off frequently into Latin or Greek - that would be considered very odd by a Christian audience. The Christians preach only in good Sinhala. Why this difference? This is because historically, the Sinhalese Buddhists especially, have always stored their knowledge and ideology in a foreign language, and used Sinhala only for purposes of everyday communication.

Even the language of commerce in pre-colonial Sri Lanaka was anything but Sinhalese. As I have said elsewhere, there was nothing called a Sinhalese trading tradition ever in our history until the Dutch era. Thus, all internal and external trade in this country was monopolised by foreigners and at various times in Sri Lanka, the language of commerce would have been Persian, Chinese, Tamil or anything, but certainly not Sinhalese. It was the language of the consumers and producers and not that of traders or intellectuals.

Today, one often hears the complaint that when one educated Sinhalese meets another, they speak only in English, and that Sinhalese is the ‘kitchen language’ in educated Sinhalese homes. (Many foreigners in fact do find this to be a very curious phenomenon.) In contrast to the English educated Sinhalese, it is said, when an educated Tamil meets another educated Tamil, they always converse in Tamil. People who harp on this theme seem to consider the Tamil example to be worthy of emulation.

If the educated Tamils want to address one another in Tamil, they are free to do so. But the Sinhala tradition has been different. The language of the educated among the Sinhalese has always been anything but Sinhalese. After English came into the scene, educated Sinhalese adopted English instead of Pali and Sanskrit and therefore, the use of English as the language of the educated Sinhalese is fully legitimate in terms of the time honoured Sinhala Tradition.

The bilingual or trilingual tradition which prevailed among the educated Sinhalese in my view is one of the most positive aspects of the Sinhalese culture of pre-colonial days. I have said often that the pre-colonial Sinhalese were in certain respects, way ahead of the modern day Sinhalese in their attitudes. This language policy in education is one such instance. The attitude of the ancient Sinhala educated class should be our ideal in making an assessment of the modern day policy with regard to language policy in education. The proclivity of educated Sinhalese today to use English is a part of our cultural heritage which has to be preserved at all costs.

The 19th Century ‘English rush’

Some Sinhalese nationalists think English was ‘imposed’ upon us by the invader. But it would be more correct to say that the Sinhalese actually grabbed English from the invader! Some people believe that modern education began to find its way into Ceylon through the evil machinations of certain colonial administrators who wanted to create a minuscule English educated class who would become a ‘comprador’ capitalist class and a ‘thuppahi’ society of emulators and lackeys of the colonial master. Some over-enthusiastic colonial administrators may even have shot their mouths off to that effect. But the actual sequence in which English came to be introduced to the Sinhalese was very different.

L.A.Wickremaratne’s chapter on Education in the History of Ceylon Volume 3, has a wealth of information on this matter. Modern education found its way into Ceylon through the activities of Christian missionaries in the early years of the Nineteenth Century. At that early stage, education had no utilitarian purpose and was meant merely to ‘house train’ the Sinhalese to the ways of ‘Christian civilisation’. Hence all instruction in the missionary schools was in the native languages, Sinhala and Tamil. But by the 1830’s with British plans to develop the colony taking shape, the need for English education was being stressed.

After the 1832 Colebrooke-Cameron reforms, the colonial government began to concentrate more and more on English education. By 1848, there were 60 English schools in the country with an enrolment of 2700 pupils. True to their ancient tradition with regard to multi-lingual learning, the Sinhalese took to English education in a major way. They literally scrambled over one another to learn English. The headman class led the charge by offering free accommodation to schools where English was taught. By 1865, Reverend S.Coles a CMS missionary could report that in Beddegama which he described as a jungle district remote from any town, there was not a single school where English was not taught. Sir William Gregory recalled that in Anuradhapura, at that time an outlandish administrative outpost in the centre of a backward population, the people had begged him to establish an English school as they wanted their children to get government jobs...

It might be argued here that the Sinhalese were interested in English education only because it provided access to jobs in the government. But the Sinhalese partiality towards the new language was also due to the fact that due to a centuries old tradition, the Sinhalese had no aversion to foreign languages. In fact, during the Nineteenth Century, the demand for English education became so acute that the missionaries had to give up their policy of imparting education exclusively in the native languages. They then decided to include English in their curriculum and began to use it as ‘bait’ to lure pupils away from the temple schools and into their missionary schools....

The hoi polloi excluded

With the spread of English education, another problem arose - the excess of English educated people in relation to the jobs available to them. This problem has echoes in the present too. And it raises that whole question of what education is for. Is education an end in itself? A way to creating a more self-aware, human being, or is it just ‘training’ for a job? There are elements of both in the process of education and modern societies do not place restrictions on education despite the fact that job availability may not match the output of the educational institutions... But in 19th Century Ceylon, policy was not so enlightened and the moment an excess of English educated started appearing, the government took steps to limit English education despite the unabated demand for it.

This was a very practical consideration and Sinhalese leaders like James Alwis recommended that the "lower classes should be trained to despise place and office and acquire a taste for agricultural pursuits." A sub-committee of the Legislative Council appointed in 1865 and dominated by educated Ceylonese, urged the government to devote its resources to the spread of elementary vernacular education to suit the rural child whose horizon was the village. The committee pointed out that it was both expensive and impractical to attempt mass education in English.

Coming to think of it, even in the present, many professional bodies like those of Accountants, Medical Practitioners and so on, artificially restrict the number of people qualifying in those professions in order to keep supply related to demand. However, the demand for English was so great that even after the resolution was made to limit education in English, the number of English schools increased form 106 in 1890 to 242 in 1911 and to 260 in 1930.

The various colonies of the British Empire, reacted in different ways to the introduction of English. The Sinhalese scrambled to learn English. But the Chinese tradition was different. Even as late as 1988, when Hong Kong was still a British colony, it was impossible to do anything in English. Even if you were to ask a Policeman in ‘pidgin’ English "Kowloon! You know Kowloon? How to go to Kowloon?" you would be met only with a blank stare - they apparently could not even distinguish spoken English from Hindi or French! For the Chinese, there was only one language in the universe and that was Chinese. (That attitude may now be changing.) But for the Sinhalese with their centuries old tradition of multi-lingual learning, accommodating the English language was no departure from tradition.

The 19th century craze for English also went in tandem with the emancipation of the Sinhalese from the shackles of the Sinhalese social system. With the advent of colonialism and the breakdown of the traditional Sinhalese social system, the concept of social mobility took hold. Earlier, even upto the time of the last king of Kandy, employment and occupation had been determined by one’s place in the caste hierarchy. With the breakdown of cast hierarchies and the availability of education, a scramble to get to the top began. Caste groups earlier excluded from joining the Buddhist clergy were able to do so under the new dispensation.

For the first time in Sinhala history, people were actually free. People were at last free to choose their own occupation, their mode of dress, their place of residence and so on. In the new atmosphere of freedom, everybody wanted to obtain an English education for their children. There was talk of the sons of peons, shopkeepers, dhobies and cart-drivers wanting to learn English. Those who failed in this attempt to obtain an English education due to those restrictions imposed for practical reasons, harboured resentment against those who did. Much the same way that a half-qualified (and therefore half starved) accountant today would harbour a deep hatred against "The Institute" for not giving him what he feels is his due... This became the breeding ground for the so called language nationalism which was to wreak such havoc in our country in later decades.
(To be continued tomorrow)