The Laguages of Sri Lanka:A Model for national unity


By Devanesan Nesiah

Some countries are predominantly monolingual. Perhaps England, Japan, France, Germany and Thailand could, subject to some qualifications, be placed in this category. Some other countries appear to be predominantly bilingual, again subject to some qualifications. This category could include Sri Lanka, Scotland, Belgium and Spain. Many other countries are unambiguously multilingual. India and South Africa and the former Soviet Union are classic examples of this category. These definitions are deceptive in that they depend both on how far back in history you track your classification, but also on how large a language group should be and how developed the language is to catch your attention. For example, do we count the various languages spoken by the Veddahs? Which of the numerous languages of "tribal" communities scattered over the globe get counted? Whatever our definition, our tally will vary from decade to decade. New dialects are being formed and some old ones are on the way to extinction. Perhaps a few dialects are in the process of becoming recognized as distinct languages, and a few languages now recognized may be on their way to extinction through diminishing use.

Language and the media

Whereas such developments have occurred over millennia past, modern media imposes changes in the process through facilitating communication and as well as competition. On the one hand the preservation and spread of a particular language may receive boost through the media; on the other hand the media may also promote its rivals and thus expedite the demise of certain languages. Thus English is gaining globally. In some regions, the regionally dominant language is also gaining, e.g. Mandarin in China and Singapore, endangering the survival of local languages spoken by small groups. At the same time, a few local languages are helped by the media to survive and to consolidate.

India began, soon after independence, by attempting to get Hindi adopted as the dominant language everywhere. This initiative met with stiff opposition, particularly in South India and also in some other states such as West Bengal. Eventually India adopted the three language formula now prevalent: Hindi, English and one of the other national languages, with flexibility as to which of these languages is used as a medium of instruction in schools, and as a language of administration and record in particular localities. This formula has worked well in that language riots have virtually disappeared, and multilingual proficiency is gradually gaining ground. In particular, the use of English is expanding.

Three language policy

In Sri Lanka, a three language policy would be the appropriate use of Sinhala Tamil and English with due flexibility in respect of medium of instruction in schools and the language of administration and record in particular localities. There are good educational reasons to encourage the use of the Mother Tongue (the home language) as the medium of instruction in the primary school with the option of switching to another language (preferably English) as the medium of instruction in secondary school / high school / tertiary education.

In science based streams and in certain other fields there are distinct advantages in switching to English as early as feasible in secondary school / high school, so as to ensure that tertiary education could be in English. This would be particularly so in disciplines in which many technical terms are used and in which new knowledge is flowing in through the English language. The lack of adequate translations of text books could handicap those who follow tertiary education in Sinhala or Tamil. Moreover, a good knowledge of English will facilitate interaction with scholars oversees, which is an increasingly necessary in several fields.

The major problem in the effective use of the English medium in schools is the shortage of teachers competent to teach in the English language. It may be necessary to get down some English medium teachers from oversees on contract for limited periods. For several reasons including the cost factor we may need to recruit most of such teachers from India. A small number of such teachers could also be recruited from English speaking countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. We could also do some recruitment from the Sri Lankan Diaspora. This would be easier and work better if there is progress in resolving our ethnic conflict.

Rich literary heritage

Both Sinhala and Tamil are well developed languages spoken by many millions of highly literate population with rich literary heritage going back over two millennia. Moreover, Sinhala is constitutionally entrenched as the premier official and national language of Sri Lanka, and Tamil too as an official and national language. Tamil is also a national and state language of India, an official language of Singapore and is widely used by millions of people in Malaysia and many other countries. In the circumstances the future of these two languages is assured. English too is gaining ground and now has constitutional recognition as a link language. What we need to do is to facilitate the use and development of these three languages in Sri Lanka and to extract maximum social and cultural benefit from their interaction. The rich heritage covering over two millennia of the two national languages and the unique value of English need to be tapped for the benefit of the entire population of this country.

The resistance to the use of English has greatly diminished as evidenced by the profusion of English language "tutories" and "international schools", mostly set up explicitly to facilitate the adoption of English as a medium of instruction. Some problems relating to the use of the Tamil language and some suggestions relating to the use of Sinhala and Tamil languages were outlined in part II of the earlier paper titled "Tamil Language Rights in Sri Lanka". The recommended reforms need to be adopted. What other urgent problems need to be tackled and what further reforms are needed?

Traditionally, in ethnically mixed areas, the schools have been institutions in which the youth of different ethnicity mixed and formed lasting relationships. This was facilitated by the fact that in those localities many schools were ethnically mixed. Ever since Sinhala became the only official language in 1956, and particularly since Sinhala and Tamil displaced English as the medium of instruction in schools, followed soon afterwards by the introduction of a third category of Muslim schools, these three ethnic categories have become increasingly isolated. Even earlier, many "Estate" schools in plantation areas serving Upcountry Tamils contributed to the isolation of the latter category. Since then, through dividing bilingual in to monolingual schools in the interest of "rationalization", the number of bilingual schools has been further reduced. Even within the residual bilingual schools, students divide in to linguistic streams. It is only a few elite Christian schools that attempt to partially counter such segregation by having the classes mixed except in those subjects in which linguistic segregation is unavoidable. The new initiative of some schools being permitted to teach four subjects in English (mixing Sinhala and Tamil stream students in those four subject classes) is also designed to promote "amity" among students of different ethnicity. But overall, segregation into separate linguistic/ ethnic streams contribute to ethnic polarization which may be carried lifelong and in to national social, economic and political intercourse.

Many meetings are conducted in one language only because it may be costly and tiresome to provide for translation. If the majority are English speaking it may be conducted in that language. Increasingly, many meetings are conducted in Sinhala except in a few predominantly Tamil speaking areas (in which they may be conducted in Tamil). Many meetings in the major cities like Colombo are conducted in Sinhala and English even if some of those present speak Tamil only. All this contributes to ethnic resentment and polarization. If we evolve in to a multilingual nation this will not be a problem, since meetings could be conducted trilingually without the need for translations.

Schools, with due state and civil society backing, can play a critical part in promoting bilingualism and trilingualism not only through teaching all three languages but also through appropriate essay, oratorical and debating competitions, and the award of prizes for multi lingual proficiency. The state can also help by providing other incentives for multilingual proficiency by appropriate prizes in public examinations and preferences in recruitment to and advancement within the public services. Schools that are predominantly mono-ethnic could be encouraged to twin with predominantly mono-ethnic schools of another ethnicity. Programmes such as visits and even exchanges of students for one or more semesters between such schools could help. Participation in such programmes should get due consideration in eventual recruitment to the public, private and NGO sectors.

Our constitutons

All this needs to be set within the framework of national policy and laws at all levels and, in particular, the national constitution. Sadly, none of our constitutions were so designed. In fact none of our constitutions enjoyed widespread public acceptance and identification, in contrast to some other constitutions, notably those of India and South Africa. Our first pre-independence (Soulbury) Constitution was framed by our colonial masters; the 1972 Constitution was formulated by a small caucus of the then SLFP led coalition; the 1978 Constitution was formulated by a small caucus of the then UNP led coalition. But all three Constitutions lacked widespread public participation in their formulation. In this respect Constitutions of several other countries were very different, leading to with different consequences.

In India the Chair of the Drafting Committee was Dr. B. Ambedkar, the leader of the "untouchable" (Dalit) community and who continued to have serious differences with the national leadership including Gandhi and Nehru. There were numerous and very diverse committees representing every conceivable category of caste, tribe, religion, language, ethnicity etc. comprising India as well as other categories such as women, trade unions, ideology and historical background (e.g. from princely states) etc. Many thousands of individuals were members of these committees and a very much larger number gave evidence. Thus no one had reason to feel excluded and almost the entire Indian nation "owned" the Indian Constitution. (Granville Austin’s book of 1966 titled "The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation", Oxford: Clarendon Press). The South African Constitution was also similarly inclusive of all sectors of the South African nation.

We had the option of formulating such an inclusive Constitution, but chose not to do so. The chief architect of the 1947 Constitution was British. The 1972 and 1978 Constitutions were designed to be exclusive rather than inclusive. It is pertinent to quote the concluding words of a few individuals representing the remnants of the Jaffna Youth Congress, writing on behalf of the ad hoc All Ceylon Tamil Congress to those drafting the 1972 Constitution and quoted in K. Nesiah’s Education and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, 1983, Chunnakam: Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Sri Lanka:

"If Sri Lanka is to be true to herself, those who are charged with the solemn duty of writing her Constitution should pay heed to our heritage both in the approach to constitution making and in what they write into it. Our children and our children’s children should be able to say, with one voice-Lanka is our great motherland, and we are one people from shore to shore; we speak two noble languages, but with one voice; and this Constitution which our fathers fashioned together in times of yore shall serve as our nation’s charter for the years to be".

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