A Realistic Approach to the Three Language Enterprise


Languages are most easily and efficiently learned when a vital need is established for learning them. So, in a context where apparently a genuine attempt is being made as a matter of serious official policy to promote a trilingual system, I consider it relevant to offer those entrusted with the task, for what it’s worth, a modest proposal to be considered at their discretion in drawing up a suitable curriculum for teaching the three languages successfully.

Although, initially, we may take a look at India’s example of language planning in adopting a trilingual system, we need to evolve our own strategies for achieving the expected outcome. This is in view of the essential differences between the two neighbours in terms of the existing ground realities likely to affect the multilingual experience, and the divergence between them with regard to the very nature of the final goal of the envisaged project. The vast geographical size and the extreme diversity of its communal mix can make comparing India to tiny Sri Lanka meaningless. India is about 50 times the size of Sri Lanka, with the same multiple of the latter’s population (India’s population is over 1 billion whereas Sri Lanka’s is about 20 million). India consists of 28 states and seven union territories. It has 23 official languages including the two federal official languages of English and Hindi. While being the language for wider communication (LWC) Hindi is officially recognized as the national language. The country’s law decrees that the Union Government (UG) progressively increase the use of Hindi in its official work. This the UG has "sought to do through persuasion, incentive and goodwill". Our aim is not to progressively move towards the establishment of a single national language for the whole country, but to promote universal proficiency in the three languages of Sinhala, Tamil, and English, the first two as the common mediums of inter-communal interaction, and the third as the key to the storehouse of global knowledge and culture.

In spite of the extreme dissimilarities between the two countries in respect of area, and population size and communal composition, there is a realistic basis for comparison after all. The Indian three language model is repeated in each of the 28 states with its own regional language, Hindi, and English; in six of the states English shares official status with the regional languages, and, in fact, in one of these, Nagaland, the only official language is English. We too can duplicate the general Indian model here with Sinhala, Tamil, and English; but in our case, English, usually called a link language, is considered to be the LWC, though it is spoken by less than 10% of the population at present as against Sinhalese over 75%, and Tamil about 20%, both of which are official and national languages, a situation that represents a challenge to the implementers of the plan. But, on the basis of the findings of the sociolinguistic survey sponsored by the Presidential Secretariat last August (provided these are valid), we can be sure that the three language programme is going to enjoy a high degree of popular acceptance and support in our country.

Divisions based on language issues have an adverse effect on the development of a country. The main purpose of the three language scheme is to bring the different communities closer together for national unity, thereby making an attempt to resolve this problem. However, this is no excuse for ignoring the likely impact of the programme on the indigenous languages themselves (in view of the apparently re-emerging ‘power’ of English). The trend towards minimizing the use of native languages while maximizing that of English, especially in education, can threaten the very existence of the former. We cannot jeopardize our own linguistic heritage for a foreign language, the continuance of whose global usefulness itself is already in doubt. David Graddol (reputed British applied linguist and language researcher), author of "English Next" (2006), says that "… there are signs (that) the global predominance of the language (i.e. English) may fade within the foreseeable future". Therefore, a pluralistic language policy should be oriented towards language-survival as well as language development.

Apparently, the Indian trilingual project was introduced as early as the 1960’s, but it is alleged to have failed. According to David Graddol the three language formula, though implemented in various ways, has not been designed to develop bilingual or trilingual proficiency in the students. He queries whether only students reaching higher education who account for a mere 12% of the total number of students need English, and whether the mother tongue is only useful for basic concepts and informal use. He describes the (Indian) trilingual formula as "serial monolingualism". No room should be left for such criticisms to be made of the Sri Lankan variety of trilingualism that is being envisaged.

In India there appears to be a revival of interest in the three language system today. Indian Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal had this to say in 2009: "We need our children to learn mother tongue, Hindi and English – mother tongue for better understanding of the subjects at elementary stage, Hindi at secondary stage for integrating to national level and English at university level for connecting to the world". Graddol doesn’t think that this version of the trilingual system will be acceptable to everyone or lead to actual trilingualism.

The Sri Lankan interpretation of the three language project (once it is better defined in the months to come, although its main outline is already clear as a presidential brainchild) is likely to be pretty different from the Indian HRD Minister’s: as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, at least a foundation for simultaneous proficiency in all three languages should perhaps be laid before the end of the primary so that English will not be reserved only for those who reach higher education.

In any case, we have lessons to learn from India’s initial failure with the trilingual policy, and also a chance to look at what technical innovations they are introducing this time. Yet, there’s also a warning for us in the Indian experience. Trilingual or at least bilingual ability (proficiency in the regional language plus Hindi and/or English) should be considered a decisive factor that facilitates labour mobility within India. Advanced industrial development would be a situation that could encourage labour mobility, which in turn would stimulate the learning of an LWC (that is, either Hindi or English, or both). (However, this should not be interpreted to mean that the alleged past failure of India’s three language enterprise shows that India is industrially backward, for there must be other variables too to explain it.) The warning for us here is that while pushing for trilingualism, offering labour mobility as an incentive, we must see that there actually is a demand for labour mobility within our country. This means that economic and industrial development is a concurrent requirement. But labour mobility is just one of the factors that will create a need for trilingual proficiency.

At the same time, we are justifiably hopeful that the three language proposition might be easier for us to realize on account of our small size, and our less complicated linguistic diversity. I feel that the trilingual formula will succeed to the extent that we make it our own by identifying our unique problems and trying out viable solutions, by setting achievable goals and devising well thought out strategies, by compiling our own textbooks, and tests, and working out monitoring and evaluation devices, supplementing these with whatever we can profitably borrow from our neighbour India with which we share longstanding historical and cultural links.

In a sense, talking about promoting linguistic proficiency, be it monolingual or multilingual, without reference to the context that renders such proficiency indispensable, is to put the cart before the horse. Since a language is a tool of communication, the need for communication must come before the (language) tool is sought. The learning of a language or languages should be seen as a natural reaction to the emergence of a need for communication. It is not only economic activities that bring people of different ethnic or linguistic backgrounds together, generating a need for multilingual communication. Languages do not exist to be used as a communication tool exclusively in the workplace. A language should be meaningful to the learner in other ways too, as when it is used as a medium of artistic expression, or as a vehicle of cultural exchange.

Applied to the educational context we are focusing on, the idea that the demand for a knowledge of one or more languages is incidental to what people are motivated to achieve through such knowledge in some context means that the curriculum for the envisaged three language system should reflect the vital activities that the students hope to engage in, later in their life.

Learning one’s mother tongue is easy because it is an almost totally unconscious natural process, but acquiring a second language presents problems. Learning two second languages will naturally prove even more problematic. However, when there is an intensely felt need for acquiring proficiency in two additional languages, such a task will not be too daunting. In our country, fortunately, there appears to be some universal agreement about the importance for every citizen to be able to communicate in Sinhala, Tamil, and English.

It is reasonable to assume that, in the three language situation, not all the three languages will be of the same significance or relevance to every learner. Each of them is a mother tongue to some, and a second language to others. Sinhala and Tamil serve as mother tongues for the vast majority of Sri Lankans. A small minority use English as their mother tongue. In the educational context, the mother tongue occupies a special place. It is the most natural linguistic medium through which we express our most profound thoughts, and our deepest emotions; we are cognitively most creative in our mother tongue.

For most of the last century in the English language teaching arena, developing in the learners the ‘ability to think in English’ was pursued as an ultimate objective (for example, in what was known as the Direct Method among the earliest models of English teaching to speakers of other languages). But today we learn from modern scientific research that this is a scientifically impossible goal; the most competent non-native speaker of English (a person whose mother tongue is a language other than English) will still depend on a sort of internal translation from their mother tongue in whatever they say. So, there is a great need to emphasize the teaching of their respective mother tongues to the children. This holds true even where they receive their education in a language other than their mother tongue. As mother tongues, therefore, all the three languages are of the highest importance to their respective users.

Cast in the second language role they may be expected to serve rather more utilitarian purposes. In this respect the role of English will be special. But, to take the indigenous languages first: Tamils and Sinhalese will need to learn each other’s language primarily for day to day communication, and for use in the workplace meaning a government office, business, and social work, etc; a knowledge of both languages could also be a definite advantage for those interested in active politics; but, in addition to this, a language is a key to the understanding and appreciation of a particular community’s cultural experience as expressed in its arts, literature, drama, etc. The more the purposes a person sets out to fulfil through a second language, the more intensively will they be required to learn it. However, the second language syllabus for Sinhala and Tamil need not be too extensive. What we should aim at is basic literacy in the language, which will prepare the learners for future inter-communal interaction while allowing individuals to study the languages more intensively on their own if they so wish. Since English has special relevance in education the syllabus for English as a second language should be more extensive than that for the indigenous languages in the same position. And the study of English should be integrated into the teaching of other subjects where the medium of instruction is Sinhala or Tamil.

My proposal, therefore, is that under the three language initiative children should be made proficient in all three languages at the individually appropriate levels suggested above irrespective of the medium of instruction that they may adopt at parental discretion or choice (be it Sinhala, Tamil, or English). If it is to succeed trilingual proficiency should be made a compulsory part of general education for all our students: in other words, formal education must ensure that each child has a firm grounding in the mother tongue, an almost comparable knowledge of English, and sufficient communicative mastery of Sinhala or Tamil as a second language as the case may be. And this must be reflected in the three language curriculum.

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