Sri Lanka: Language barrier

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Mar 18 16:02:28 UTC 2007

 Vol:23 Iss:04 URL:


Language barrier

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo.

The language issue torments Sri Lankan society as parity between the two
official languages has not gone beyond signposts.


WHAT'S in a language? Everything, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. Fifty
years after Ceylon (as it was then called) opted for Sinhala as the main
official language, the course of the island-nation has been charted along
linguistic lines. South Asia's 19-million-strong paradise island has
battled the language issue ever since. Consequently, despite a statutory
reversal of the "Sinhala Only" position 17 years ago, the Tamil-speaking
minorities have to contend with a daily linguistic angst. It is not just
in the manner in which the Tamil-speaking citizens have to carry out their
dealings with the various state apparatuses; the language issue has
touched the very psyche of Sri Lanka.

On the face of it, parity between Sinhala and Tamil is prominently
displayed on official signposts, the most visible markers of any state.
Beyond this, however, there is a continued distortion, as is evident from
a recent report of the Official Languages Commission (OLC). The tardiness
in the implementation of statutes making Tamil also an official language
is so evident that the OLC has admitted that "there is an enormous gap
between the constitutional provisions and their application". The official
statistics are telling. Of the total number of public servants only 8.31
per cent are Tamil-speaking. They comprise three ethnicities that have
Tamil as their mother tongue - Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Tamils of
recent Indian origin (plantation Tamils) - and constitute 26 per cent of
the country's population.

According to the Constitution, there are two official/national languages,
Sinhala and Tamil, and a link language, English. However, as the OLC
admits, "the main achievement over the years is that Sinhala has generally
become the language of administration in the provinces other than the
northern and eastern provinces and Tamil operates generally as the
language of administration in the temporarily merged northeastern
province". "To get any routine job done at a government office, one has to
be proficient in Sinhala. Most of the officers are Sinhalese and there is
a genuine problem of communicating. All Tamil and Sinhalese officials do
not necessarily know English. So there is a gap even when it comes to
getting routine jobs such as renewing a car licence, done," Ramanan, a
Jaffna Tamil living in Colombo, said.

This difficulty is experienced at several institutions outside the
north-east - hospitals, police stations and checkpoints. In a severe
indictment of the situation, the OLC had noted: "This situation amounts to
a violation of the constitutional rights of the Tamil-speaking citizens of
the country. Apart from the indignities they are made to suffer they are
put into innumerable inconveniences in transacting business with the
government." The problem has its roots in the politics and society of
colonial and early post-colonial Ceylon. The spread of the English
language and missionary schools, particularly in northern Sri Lanka,
created an English-speaking elite, which strode the corridors of colonial
power.  Thus, after Independence an ethnic imbalance came into being in
the administration. The situation in 1956, when the Sinhala Only Act was
passed, is a case in point. According to an academic study: "In 1956,
Tamils occupied 30 per cent of the highest levels of bureaucracy, 60 per
cent in the technical and professional grade and 50 per cent in the
clerical grade." Mostly English-educated and largely Tamil-speaking, this
component had resulted in a "conceptualisation of the relationship
vis-a-vis the state". This had meant that English was the shortcut to
government employment.

Original intention

The core concept that preceded the Sinhala Only legislation is to be
understood against the backdrop of the then prevailing societal and
political structure and the rivalry between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). The original intention,
long-standing SLFP members argue, was to make both Sinhala and Tamil
official languages. Language as a primary political plank for the SLFP was
also a result of the feud between its then leadership. As in the case of
the federal form of government first suggested by the late S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike in the 1930s, the liberal views on making both Sinhala and
Tamil official languages to overcome the societal skew in favour of
English had also changed with political compulsions.

The political outbidding of one another by the leaders of the time for
short-term gains severely affected two fundamental concepts, federalism
and language, both of which have come back to torment Sri Lankan society.
The legal distortions brought in by the Sinhala Only Act was to be
corrected decades later with the Constitution 13th Amendment of 1987. The
way out of the crisis over the implementation of the official languages
policy, the OLC feels, is to launch a three-stage programme spread over 15

According to OLC figures, for 61.68 per cent of the 7.74 lakh public
servants (1998), knowledge of the second official language (Tamil for
Sinhalese officers and vice versa) "is not essential for the discharge of
their functions". Hence it was deduced that the "number of public servants
who actually require proficiency in both official languages is
approximately in the region of 3.35 lakhs". The "final objective" of the
Commission is to "build a public service which in the least is bilingual
[conversant in both Sinhala and Tamil] if not trilingual [Sinhala, Tamil
and English]". Under the needs-based approach, there are three categories
of language proficiency: a) Those requiring mainly conversational ability,
such as police and health officials who have to attend to the basic needs
of the people; b) Those requiring a degree of proficiency in the second
official language that enables them to converse and attend to
correspondence; and c) Those who need to acquire knowledge of the second
official language sufficient for them to read, analyse and draft reports
when necessary.

Based on the needs-based classification, about 87,000 public servants -
comprising police officers and health workers - would have to be trained
in conversational ability, 1.18 lakhs in correspondence skills, and 16,298
in analytical skills. The linguistic gap is expected to be bridged over a
15-year period through a three-stage approach. Financial incentives have
also been proposed. Those who gain Level-One proficiency will be given a
monthly allowance of Rs.500, which goes up to Rs.1,000 and Rs.2,000 for
the other two levels. Six Ministries have been identified for the overall
supervision of the implementation of the policy.D.C. Raja Collure, the
Chairperson of the OLC, is glad that the government has started to address
the issue. For instance, he points out, one of the OLC's proposals -
making it compulsory for new recruits to gain proficiency in the second
official language within a specific period - has gained approval.

Question of mindset

The key to the language conundrum has more to do with the mindset than
with ability. "Whatever is in the statute, there has to be a change of
heart. They do not consider it a serious thing that a person should be
spoken to in his language," a retired senior government officer, a Tamil,
told Frontline. For instance, he pointed out that even the Sinhalese faced
problems in their transactions with the government. "There is a problem
because their official letters used to be written in English until
recently. However, the Tamils face a bigger problem," he said. A Tamil
political leader was not too optimistic: "The government often comes up
with excuses, not reasons, for non-implementation - shortage of typists,
even shortage of typewriters in this age of computers. Even now letters of
recruitment to Tamils in the north-east are written in Sinhala." Collure
is optimistic and keen to see that the OLC's recommendations are
implemented. "We must recognise that Tamil is our language. It is very
much a Sri Lankan language and we should take pride in restoring it to its
right place in administrative affairs," he said.


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