Please - No English


Regarding SWRD's 'Sinhala Only in 24 hours', which has emerged once again in the 'Opinion' page (The Island 22 June 2019), may I briefly bring up a couple of points of which little mention has been made of late? I will not take up valuable space on topics such as 1) advertisements all over the place for 'Spoken English' classes and 2) the popularity of classes in Colombo, Kandy etc in French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc.

Before I embark on the focus of this contribution, may I note that at some stage of my life and education (in formal classes) I have studied Sinhala, English, Latin, Classical Greek, French, German and Portuguese? (Some of these have grown rusty over the years but can no doubt be brushed up again if the need arises.) I make this point to emphasize that a language can and has to be learned. (One is not born fluent in a language.) We have grown up expecting in this 'land like no other' to have things thrown at us for free (like rice ration books) without having to work for them.

I do not want to go through all the arguments in favour of learning languages. One argument is that it helps to keep one up-to-date with matters and developments in the world outside. A case in point is that of some of the tribes in the Amazon jungle in Brazil. It has been estimated that when the European explorers came to the Brazilian jungles around 1500 A.D. there were, perhaps, 11 million tribal peoples in some 2000 tribes living there. Today, there are perhaps 100 uncontacted groups living there. Some groups have perhaps four individuals. The existence of some has been established only by drones flying overhead. While many of the tribal people have died as a result of violence, others have vanished as the result of exotic diseases such as flu, measles and smallpox. The diseases are mostly introduced deliberately by people, who themselves possess immunity. Whatever the reason, once the 'natives' are no more their lands are taken over for mining, raising cattle etc.

Before closing, may I add something which may be of interest to those who are interested in learning a foreign language but do not want to be lumped together with those constituting the 'dwindling residue of that servile, short-sighted colonial mindset'? I studied the Portuguese language at the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute, BACI (Director: Dr. Haydee Magro, Teacher of my class: Joao) in Washington, D.C. The classes were a joy and the language rather easy to learn. This was in large part due to the fact that the Sinhala language has absorbed many (hundreds of?) Portuguese words, e.g. words for shirt, trouser and window. Fortunately, there was no SWRD around in that era of our history to prevent the enrichment of the Sinhala language. This is how languages evolve.

While on the question of the evolution of languages, an example is the word 'anaconda'. The 'anaconda' is a large snake like a python found in the jungles of South America. When the Portuguese visited Lanka they observed a large snake in our jungle and asked what it was called. They were told its name was 'henakandaya' (Hena - like lightning, Kandaya - like the trunk of a tree). The Portuguese next sailed off to Brazil and named a similar snake they saw there a 'Henakandaya' , which in due course transmuted to 'Anaconda'.

I am informed that there is a considerable population of Sinhalese emigrants in Brazil. Anyone in Colombo, who learns and gains proficiency in the Portuguese language, would probably be happy in Brazil, land of the baila, samba and cha-cha-cha!

Dr. Rohan H Wickramasinghe

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