Celebrating multilingualism

By Prof. K N. O. Dharmadasa

Keynote Address at the Bandaranaike Centre for international Studies Language Awards Ceremony 2011 on July 30, 2011

Going through today’s programme I noticed that there are items in Chinese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German, Tamil in addition to Sinhala, which I think is the mother tongue of the majority here and we work here in the English language for practical purposes. This truly is a beautiful multilingual situation. Here we are celebrating multilingualism. So, let me now come to the thoughts I wish to share with you on this occasion.

At the outset, I should say that although I am professionally a professor of Sinhala, I would never have been able to achieve that position if not for my competence in several languages other than Sinhala. If I had been a monolingual, I would never have been able to obtain the degrees I earned and engage myself in research studies and to write and publish my work, which enabled me to be a professor of Sinhala. I was able to do all that because I was a multilingual. There is a crucial factor as far as my career and those of many others of my generation are concerned. It is that the educational policies during the period we were in school were such that multilingualism was fostered. In the schools system the education was in the mother tongue i.e. Sinhala in my case, and English was introduced in the second or third year as a subject. Apart from that the classical languages Pali and Sanskrit could be studied in higher grades especially when preparing for university entrance. There were teachers competent to teach these languages and thus the schools system provided for a culture of multilingualism. We who came from the Sinhala speaking homes were able to master the English language without much effort. I mention English in particular because it engaged most of our attention among the other languages which we could study. That was because, of the languages other than our mother tongue, it was English that engaged most of our attention as a window to modern knowledge and as an avenue to higher education, better employment and social advancement.

With your permission, I would like to mention here the fact that after primary education in Sinhala my parents sent me for my secondary education to an English medium school. In that school except the subject of Sinhala all subjects such as history, geography, civics and government etc. and even Buddhism, were taught in the English medium. Here, I should emphasise the fact that Sinhala was never neglected. Actually, we grew up as competent bilinguals. We could wield the English language as well as the Sinhala language with equal felicity. come to that episode later in this talk.

Multilingual Sri Lanka

When we look at the history of Sri Lanka what we notice is that a culture of multilingualism has been there since the earliest times. If we take the Mahavamsa story about the beginnings of Sri Lankan history we note that a group of settlers led by Prince Vijaya, who would have been speaking a dialect which linguists call Prakrit, came and settled down in the northern plains. Gradually, their numbers grew and a civilisation was slowly emerging until in the 3rd century BCE a momentous event took place. That was the introduction of Buddhism. It was with the introduction of Buddhism that many advanced features of civilisation such as the art of writing, architecture, the arts etc. were introduced and became the basis of the thriving civilisation that emerged during the ensuing centuries. As recorded in the Mahavamsa, along with Buddhism came the Pali language, which was the language of the Buddhist scriptures. The Mahavamsa says that Arahant Mahinda, who was the leader of that missionary group, was able to preach the Dhamma in the language of the land (diipabhasa) i.e. the early Sinhala language. Obviously, Arahant Mahinda, as a good missionary, knew the importance of studying beforehand the language of the people whom he was going to convert. The Mahavamsa also says that having introduced the Sutras in Pali Arahant Mahinda translated into the island language the commentaries (Atthakatha) for the benefit of the island people. So, those Sinhala people who were keen to study the Dhamma, especially the Buddhist monks, became bilingual

Later in Buddhist history, Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to Lanka by some monks from India and that was along with the Sanskrit language, which was the medium of the Mahayana doctrine. As we learn from history some of the great monasteries of Anuradhapura such as Abhayagiriya and Jetavanaya became centres of Mahayanism and the Sanskrit language was the main medium used in the affairs of those institutions. We have remnants of inscriptions in Sanskrit whereby the work of those monasteries were regulated. So by the end of the Anuradhapura Period there were three main languages that were studied by scholars in Sri Lanka. That is Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit. We should remember at the same time that Sri Lanka has been a centre of international trade from early times. Fa-Hsien Thero, the Chinese monk who visited Sri Lanka in the 5th century has mentioned how traders from many countries were operating in the city of Anuradhapura. Thus, foreign languages would have been known in our society. Later, especially after the Polonnaruva Period, Tamil came to be introduced and we find that Tamil was studied in our seats of monastic learning (pirivenas) in medieval times.

Monolingualism Disparaged

What we have as classical Sinhala literature i.e. works such as Amavatura, Butsarana, Muvadev Da Vata, Sasa Da Vata and Saddharmaratnavaliya are all products of this culture of multilingualism that was there in ancient Sri Lanka.When we listen to the mellifluous prose of Butsarana for example, we note how effortlessly could the writer blend Pali and Sanskrit words with Sinhala, thus displaying a complete mastery of all three languages. Again, the highly evocative imagery found in the 13th century Mahakavya the Kav Silumina displays not only the poet’s familiarity with the works of great Sanskrit poets such as Kalidasa but also his creative genius to surpass them in some instances. I can go on describing the fruits of our multilingual heritage. But I think that is sufficient for the moment.

(To be Continued)

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