[lg policy] Sri Lanka: Welcome emphasis on bilingualism

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Dec 16 15:22:07 UTC 2011

Welcome emphasis on bilingualism

The elevation of the national language policy to a foremost position
in Sri Lanka's list of priorities is a most welcome development and we
hope that sooner rather than later all systems will be in place to
fully implement it all over the country. Progressive opinion in Sri
Lanka could take heart from the fact that no less a person than
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is strongly insistent that the
implementation of the national language policy should no longer be

It is a matter for immense satisfaction that language is no longer an
issue in this country. Today, both Sinhala and Tamil are official
languages and by virtue of that fact are languages of the
administration. Thus, in terms of according parity of status to
Sinhala and Tamil, Sri Lanka could be said to have come a very long
way, but the challenge now is to fully implement this
constitutionally-enshrined policy.

Yesterday a front page news report of ours highlighted the work being
carried out by the National Languages and Social Integration Ministry
in this regard and the point that should not have been missed out on
is that a lot is remaining to be done by way of fully implementing the
national language policy. One could be glad that the state is going
all out to create a bilingual polity or a citizenry which is fluent in
at least Sinhala and Tamil, although, ideally, the local citizenry
should be knowledgeable in all three languages; Sinhala, Tamil and

However, even on this score, the state is putting its best foot
forward because the project of creating a trilingual citizenry is
already taking shape under the initiative of President Rajapaksa, with
Presidential Advisor Sunimal Fernando coordinating and spearheading
the laying of the foundation to this ground-breaking venture.

This action on several fronts is welcome because these efforts at
creating a fully integrated and united polity cannot wait for another
day. The challenge needs to accepted and overcome. However, there is
no denying that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done with
regard to the bilingual enterprise and the state would need to ensure
that all relevant systems are being activated to make this concept a

One of the ultimate tests of language parity is whether a
Tamil-speaking citizen of the north-East could transact business with
a state institution anywhere in the country in Tamil and have his
needs attended to and whether a Sinhala-speaking citizen of the same
region could have his business attended to in Sinhala at state
organizations in the North-East. In other words, our public service
would need to be at least bilingual for the successful implementation
of the national language policy in its essentials.

Language may no longer be a highly contentious political issue in this
country but without a bilingual citizenry and public service the
policy will be a dead letter confined to paper. Accordingly, we
welcome moves by the state to have in every state institution at least
one official with a bilingual capability. Likewise, we welcome efforts
to re-introduce the learning of Tamil to the country's school system.

All of this boils down to sufficiently motivating the Sinhala-speaking
public to learn Tamil and Tamil-speakers to learn Sinhala language
skills. Strong incentives, such as, better promotional prospects and
substantial salary increments, should be used in the case of Sinhala
public servants to induce in them a zest to learn Tamil.

Similar incentives should be used to enable Tamil public servants to
study and inculcate a Sinhala language capability. Over and above all,
a love for each others languages and cultures should be fostered by
the state among our communities. This should be an ongoing, priority

Equally important would be incentives that would facilitate the
learning of Tamil among Sinhala-speaking primary and secondary
students and a corresponding capability to learn Sinhala among Tamil
language students. Thus far these projects have been tried out
half-heartedly and inconsistently and a determined effort should be
made by the authorities to ensure that programmes of this kind are
re-launched and turned into successful projects.

There could be no let-up in persisting with the national language
policy. It is a key factor in solidifying harmony and peaceful
co-existence among our communities and should be implemented with
exceptional interest by the state and other stakeholders in a peaceful
Sri Lanka. Post-conflict harmony and our national language policy are,
thus, closely intertwined.


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