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

Continued from yesterday

Next, I would like to draw your attention to the manner in which knowledge of other languages was valued in ancient Sri Lanka. I am sure some of you would have heard of the 15th century poem Gira Sandesaya This message poem (Sandesa) is sent to one of the most distinguished and erudite monks of the Kotte period, Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thero. The carrier of the message is the parrot and the author of the poem, a young monk living in Kotte introduces Sri Rahula Thero in a long description running to 16 verses. In one of those verses he says ( I translate)

"He who is verily an embodiment of virtue expounds the Dhamma expanding the mental horizons of the listeners His verbal skills were so adroit that it was like a masterly dancer displaying her skills on the floor boards of six languages."

Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thero was famous as "Shat Bhasha Parameshvara" that is, "Supreme master of six languages". The six languages as we learn from the texts were Sanskrit, Prakrit, Magadhi, Paisachi, Sauraseni and Apabramsa. These were languages in use in contemporary north India.And we learn that in Sanskrit theatre for example, different characters coming from different social strata were made to speak in the different dialects. As for Sri Rahula Thero we do not have any information on what use he made of the different languages. But his dexterity with language is displayed in no small measure in the works he has written . We must also remember that while celebrating multilingualism, monolingualism was viewed as a drawback. I can quote from Alagiyawanna Mukaveti who lived in the 16th century these two lines in which he explains why he was writing the Subhashitaya in Sinhala:

Demala saku magada nosahala satata dada Sihala basin sekevin kiyami pada benda

"I am compiling this poem in Sinhala verse for the benefit of the ignorant folk who do not know Tamil, Sanskrit or Pali"

English Introduced

Even after Sri Lanka became a British colony the culture of multilingualism continued. Our scholars, particularly the most erudite sections of the Buddhist monkhood, continued with their Pali and Sanskrit studies in addition to Sinhala. Furthermore some of them adjusted to the prevailing circumstanced and mastered the English language as well. Scholars from Europe came here to consult our scholarly monks such as Vaskaduve Subhuti Thero, Hikkaduve Sumangala Thero and Weligama Sri Sumangala Thero. English was introduced to the schools system and English medium schools known as "colleges" were established in the main urban centres. The larger number of schools were of course in the Sinhala and Tamil media. But in them also English was taught as a subject.

The English medium schools provided the man-power needs of the British administrators. At the same time however, English education created a native intelligentsia. We cannot forget the fact that the great intellectuals of modern Sri Lanka were the products of the educational system that prevailed at the time. We mentioned the names of some erudite Buddhist monks who were the products of the multilingual education given in the Pirivenas. Among the lay scholars Munidasa Cumaratunga, Martin Wickramasinghe, Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, to name a few, were also multilinguals. It was their competence in many languages that enabled them to be highly successful writers and intellectual leaders of the 20th century. I should mention in particular that it was their high competence in English that facilitated their efforts to modernise Sinhala literature. In mid 20th century Sri Lanka in which I grew up the teaching of English was of a very high standard. There are references to the fact that our country was called "the pearl of the English speaking world in Asia." The oratorical skills of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, G.G.Ponnambalam, Colvin R De Silva and others of that era are well known. And writers such as Regie Siriwardene, H.A.I. Goonetilleke and K.M De Silva could wield the English language with admirable mastery.

When institutions of higher learning in the Western model were set up in the island, firstly, the Ceylon University College in 1921 and subsequently, the University of Ceylon in 1942, we find the study of languages given proper recognition. The study of Pali and Sanskrit were included in the curriculum along with Sinhala and Tamil and even Arabic. In fact in the University of Ceylon there was a Faculty of Oriental Studies housing the departments teaching these language subjects. The Department of English was in the Faculty of Arts along with the Department of Classics teaching Latin and Greek. Later, a Department of Modern Languages teaching French and German was also set up in the Faculty of Arts.

I think I should highlight here some aspects of the culture of multilingualism that was there in the university of Ceylon where I was a student. All teachers in the Department of Sinhala were competent in at least three languages Pali, Sanskrit and English in addition to Sinhala. My Guru Professor D.E.Hettiarachchi was competent in 13 languages which included Portuguese and Dutch. It is said that Swami Vipulananda, the first Professor of Tamil , too was a similar polyglot being competent in Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, and Arabic in addition to Tamil and English.

Language Policies

We became free from colonial rule and achieved political independence in 1948. So did India. But while India continued to retain English and function as a multilingual country we in Sri Lanka not only lost much of our literacy in English but also did away with the multilingual heritage we have been cherishing for over two thousand years. How did this happen? It was due to the short-sighted language policies adopted by successive governments. Let me trace briefly how we lost our culture of multilingualism. As I have seen in my study on the subject there were three stages of this tragedy. The first stage which was in fact not very disruptive was initiated in 1945 with the State Council deciding (in 1944) that Sinhala and Tamil should be the official languages of Lanka, replacing English by stages. With regard to the medium of instruction in schools it was decided (with due consideration to an educational principle that children learn best by being educated in their mother tongue) that Sinhala and Tamil should be the media of teaching from grade one onwards. This change-over continued class by class until 1955 when the school leaving certificate class was being taught in Swabhasha. It needs special mention however, that the teaching of English was not abandoned. English was taught from standard 3 onwards and it was a compulsory subject. That is because educationalists emphasised the importance of learning English . Also, Pali and Sanskrit too were available as subjects in many schools and in the university. Thus the culture of multilingualism was not severely affected. The real disruption came in second stage, in the aftermath of the days of "language nationalism" in the mid 1950’s. The Act passed by parliament in 1956 "to prescribe Sinhala Only as the Official Language of Ceylon" led to a period of severe disruption. There was no sober consideration of educational principles. People were led to believe that "Sinhala Only" meant that we could do everything learning only Sinhala and that the study of other languages, especially English was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the prescription "Sinhala Only" led to the relentless pursuit of a policy of monolingualism.

The third disastrous step was taken with the so called "University Reorganization" of the period 1972 - 77. A committee appointed by the Minister of Education in the aftermath of the youth insurrection of 1971 to make recommendation s to remedy the problem of youth unrest came out with the conclusion that the primary cause of youth unrest was the production of unemployable graduates who had studied "soft options" such as languages and cultural studies for their degrees. Sinhala, Tamil, Pali , Sanskrit and even English were identified as subjects "whose study brings no fruitful benefits." As a policy the study of these subjects was to be discouraged and steps were taken to remove the study of these subjects from all universities except one. The effects of this ill-conceived policy which was put into effect for five years was far-reaching. Language studies in our universities as well as other institutions were severely affected. The end result was that we lost whatever was left of our culture of multilingualism.

I gave that brief outline of the history of our language education in order to show things in the correct perspective. We should be happy that we have put behind us that dark era and that we are slowly proceeding on the path of recovery. The younger generation today has realised the need to learn other languages and many are now becoming good bilinguals. It is indeed a pleasure to see an institution like the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies promoting the study of several international languages. We can look forward to a happier future with the National Ten Year Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka inaugurated by the government in 2011. It is a great step forward Here we all can join hands to work for a truly multilingual Sri Lanka. I think in that scheme the mother tongues, the national languages of Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil, are given proper recognition. Learning other languages does not mean one has to forget or ignore ones own cultural heritage, which is one’s own mother tongue. Following Mahatma Gandhi let us say "We will allow winds from all quarters to enter our house but let us not allow them to blow us off our feet." Our own languages, Sinhala and Tamil form the base of our identity. While celebrating multilingualism let us keep our feet firmly on our own linguistic heritage.


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...