Sri Lanka’s trilingual vision and the Canadian experience

By Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

(The author is attached to the National Research Council of Canada and the Universite de Montreal. E-mail:

Sri Lanka is to launch a ten-year Plan for achieving Trilingualism in 2012-2022. Most people see it as a laudable vision. Surely, what is better than learning each other’s language for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Countries like Canada with powerful minorities and separatist struggles fuelled by language have long opted for multilingualism and multiculturalism. In contrast, the United States, in spite of some 17% Hispanics in traditional homelands of California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona etc., enforces ‘English Only’. The ‘Indian model has also adopted state-based unilingualism. Thus Tamil Nadu, with some Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada minorities officially allows ‘Tamil Only’.

Lanka’s trilingualism project is led by a popular and highly-experienced minister. It is partly fuelled by the belief that the ‘Sinhala only’ bill of 1956 seeded the separatist strife. However, serious observers doubt this. The drive for separation began with the opposition of the land-owning upper-caste Tamils to the liberal policies introduced by the Donoughmore commission, and by the Colombo Government even before independence. In 1949, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi spoke of driving out the ‘invaders’ from the ‘historic homelands’. Language was an excellent casus belli and hardly the root cause. Thus, although the Muslims spoke Tamil, they were early targets of ethnic cleansing by the Tamil Eelamists.

The rise of the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front) occurred at a time when Canada was governed mainly by Francophone politicians who opposed separatism. The French: English ratio at the time may have been 2:3, while the electoral weight of Quebec was even stronger. Steps were taken by the Trudeau government to bring more francophones to the public service, while militarily suppressing the FLQ which carried out two political assassinations. Bilingual programs in the schools, in the public service, together with bonuses for competency became the norm. I believe that this money was well spent; nevertheless, at the end of some four decades of effort, Canada is still 80% monolingual English. The Francophones are 45% bilingual. Is this 45% because of Canada’s language policy, or because everyone needs English? If English Canada were governed in French, and the French in English, Canada would become bilingual very rapidly, but no Canadian party has the power to enforce such a legislated ‘need to learn’ the other’s language!

Most people learn a language only if they need it. If Canada after four decades of spending billions of dollars has remained 80% unilingual, Sri Lanka at the end of the ten-year plan for trilingualism cannot hope for much. Sri Lanka’s school system is ignored by parents who use after-school private tuition in the subjects that matter - that includes English, but not the other ethnic language. And then, how many University Professors, or Parliamentarians of Sri Lanka are trilingual?

Nevertheless, the vision of trilingualism is grand. Its future lies not in reaching impossible targets of (even moderate) trilingual knowledge, but in providing trilingual communication. We have argued elsewhere that this is a political problem with a technological solution. To begin with, all cell-phone (‘mobile’) conversations in Tamil or Sinhala can be heard by a respondent in his own language, since a micro-processor can instantly translate into the desired language. More details of this are given in our article now available at the website maintained by Prof. Roberts

(’trilingual-competence’-without-learning-languages/) or at our website (, entitled "Switching on trilingual competence without learning new languages. This aims at every-day business and social communication; it costs very little and achievable in a short time. The author has also presented this scheme at a technical seminar at ICTA (Information and Communication technology Agency) sometime ago, in Colombo.

That then is the way to go, if the trilingual vision is to be something more than a very laudable ten-year political good-will project.

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