‘Sinhala only’ – A canard only!


Deepal Samarasiri’s (DS) letter in The Island of Oct. 24 and Sunil Dharmabandu‘s (SD) response require a comment.

‘Swabhasha’, (meaning one’s own language - mother tongue) education in the post-primary classes commenced in 1953, before the advent of the Bandaranaike era of 1956. When we entered Royal College in 1953, first form (grade six), and the four classes were 1P, 1Q, 1R and 1S; P and Q were Sinhala, R Tamil and S in the English medium. The following year they were 2P, 2Q, 2R and 2S. In 1955, the classes were mixed, and named 3A, 3B, 3C and 3D; except for the subject of English, the students were separated for the other subjects to be taught in their respective mother tongue.

The following year 1956, from the fourth form onwards, education was switched to the English medium and continued until the sixth form - the HSC (University Entrance). Mr. Manik de Silva, the Editor Sunday Island, who was my classmate will vouch for its accuracy.

The assertion of DS that most teachers of English retired and left for greener pastures may not be accurate, as almost all the teachers of English who taught us from 1953 onwards, viz. Messrs EW Rupasinha, Viji Weerasinha, Major CP de A Abeysinhe, S. Sivaraman, Harrold Perera and Mrs. Thelma Samarasekera, were all there until the late fifties and early sixties and continued to teach English.

DS also writes that the schools and Universities were devoid of English teachers; even this is not true, as EFC Ludowyke, Doric de Souza and Ashley Halpe, among others were giants in the department of English in the University.

I agree with DS that some Principals in our National Schools cannot speak or understand correct English, but we have to understand the reasons for this.

SD, in his letter (24th October 2018) too states a similar woe. He says he is a ‘Sinhala only’ victim, and settled down in the UK since the seventies. He complains of having got used to the ‘wayward pronunciation’ of the Tamil teachers of Royal College in his time, found difficulty with good pronunciation in the UK. Pronunciation in any language, other than your mother tongue, leaves telltale marks of the mother tongue in many, unless exiled in a foreign land for a considerable period. Most get accustomed to the accent of their domiciled country. We too had English language teachers who were Tamils, we respectfully accepted their innate accent which was no bar to our learning the subject.

With the ‘swabhasha’ policy, it must be stressed that no willful harm was ever done by any government, to the study of the English Language; however, there was a dearth of good English teachers throughout the country. The number of schools increased and the student population thereby increased, but there was no proportionate increase in the number of qualified English teachers. With the increase of the student population, and facilities made more accessible, more students from the backward areas began to pursue higher education. Most of them were not from English speaking homes and they naturally were disadvantaged as far as the language was concerned, compared with the students from elitist families.

At the time we were preparing for University Education in the fifties, to follow a course in Medicine, a credit pass in the English Language paper in the GCE O’level examination was compulsory. How many students from outstation schools were capable of clearing this hurdle? This gross social injustice was removed in the later years, benefiting the students in areas where there were no good teachers in English, and who came from homes where the home language was not English. As a result, the gate was open for the Sinhala and Tamil students from the most deprived and remote areas to enter Medical College. A good number of those who benefited from this ‘social revolution’ are doing very well in their respective specialties, both here and abroad.

I am in wholehearted agreement with both SD and SS, without any doubt, the poor standard of English in the country needs to be addressed and rectified. The reassuring thing is that it CAN be done. The students in our universities, being mature, should be made to realize the importance of learning the language and they must apply themselves to it. Almost all our Universities have special facilities to teach/learn English, but the students should be motivated. It should not be difficult, as many of our citizens learn foreign languages, eg. Korean, to obtain jobs abroad.

To master a language, it must be used, written and spoken. Inducements are there for the Sinhala people to learn Tamil, and the Tamils to learn Sinhala; salary increments are such inducements. This has resulted in a plethora of language classes, both state and private, but the desired result of integration has not been achieved as yet! This is because the language is only learnt for that monetary benefit or to secure a pass in an examination. Sinhala students obtain ‘A’ passes in Tamil language in the O’level examination, but they are unable to converse; vice versa may also be true. Conversation is a part of the education process and one that speeds up the learning, but do they have such opportunity?

A proverb in Tamil states: sitthareikku kaippalakkam, senthamilukku nappalakkam – to draw well, you need a trained hand; to speak well, you need a trained tongue. How true?

One crash programme I can suggest for consideration is for the whole country to transact most business in English only, on one day in the week; Sinhala areas to transact most business in Tamil only and Tamil areas in Sinhala only, on one day in the week, and we’ll soon be speaking each other’s language, and be familiar with all three of our national languages; taking a giant leap for the much cherished National Integration, and it will be fun too!


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