[lg policy] Sri Lanka: India is a world leader, thanks to ‘English-speaking pariahs’

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Feb 14 21:58:56 UTC 2010

India is a world leader, thanks to ‘English-speaking pariahs’

Diverse views have been expressed in connection with writer Gunadasa
Amarasekera’s recent and controversial reference to “English-speaking
pariahs”. The late Martin Wickramasinghe, in his 1952 book “Aspects of
Sinhalese Culture” (the book is written in English), said you can
benefit from reading and writing English without becoming a slave to
the English culture. “English is our gateway to world culture and
world literature,” Mr. Wickramasinghe wrote. “English is necessary for
international communication and is the medium by which we can acquire
scientific knowledge. But all these undeniable facts do not constitute
an argument to discard and disregard the national languages or give
them a subordinate place.”

Mr. Wickramasinghe’s emphasis is on the national languages Sinhala and
Tamil. Political haste and expediency in 1956 led to Sinhala being
made the official language. If they had had the opportunity, many
Sinhala and Tamil-speaking parents would have opted to have their
children educated in the English medium. The Latin word “verna” refers
to “a slave born in his master’s house”, or “a home-born slave”.
Vernaculus has the same meaning in Latin. It could therefore be argued
that the British imperialists, in order to degrade those learning in
Sinhala and Tamil, intentionally called such schools “vernacular

Even now, if the opportunity was provided, most parents would have
their children taught in English. A three-wheeler driver we know
speaks no English, but sends his child to a private tutor living miles
away to learn English. This same driver saved money over a couple of
months to buy his child a computer. The great Indian leader Jawaharlal
Nehru was not tempted to change India’s language policy for political
gain, although there was pressure on him to do so. As a result of
holding onto English, India has made giant strides in science and
technology. Today, India is a world leader in industrial growth and

In his autobiography, Nehru expresses his views on languages: “English
is bound to remain our chief link with the outside world,” Nehru
wrote. “That is as it should be. For generations past we have been
trying to learn English, and we have achieved a fair measure of
success in the endeavour. It would be a folly to wipe the slate clean
now and not to take full advantage of this long training. English also
is today undoubtedly the most widespread and important world language,
and it is gaining fast on other languages.”

In the same book, Nehru wrote “that English will become increasingly a
language used for technical, scientific and business communications,
and specially for international contacts.”  He added that “it would be
desirable for us to undertake the teaching of Basic English on an
extensive scale, rather than Standard English, which can be left to
specialist and particular students”. Mr. Amarasekera referred to
“English-speaking pariahs” at a book launch on the morning of February
4, 2010, Independence Day. He was speaking in English in an interview
for TV, and he was launching a book written in English.

Kasi Silva


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