[lg policy] Ten Year National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka: Redefining language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 23 15:18:50 UTC 2011

Ten Year National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka: Redefining language


Nearly 90 percent of Sinhala speaking people cannot communicate in
Tamil and cannot communicate effectively in English. Whereas 70
percent of Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka cannot communicate in
Sinhala. But the new Presidential initiative on a trilingual Sri Lanka
plans to change this.

A salient feature of the Presidential initiative for a trilingual Sri
Lanka is the redefinition of language. “The initiative will not
promote Sinhala and Tamil as mere instruments of communication, but as
a holistic cultural package,” said Presidential Advisor and
Coordinator of the programme ‘English as a life skill’ and the
initiative for a trilingual Sri Lanka, Sunimal Fernando. “Language is
an expression of culture. Knowledge of Tamil culture will facilitate
empathy and affection for its culture in the Sinhala people and
thereby encourage people to learn the Tamil language. The same goes
for Sinhala.”

Under the trilingual initiative Sinhala and Tamil will be promoted as
vehicles through which modern ideas, views, technologies and modern
sciences among a host of other subjects could be discussed, discoursed
and debated. English will be promoted as a life skill for occupation,
employment, accessing knowledge and technology and for communicating
with the rest of the world. English is basically a tool for

Closely directed and guided by Presidential Secretary Lalith
Weeratunga, the advisory committee of professors of Sinhala, Tamil and
English appointed to assist the Presidential Secretariat in the
Trilingual Initiative has turned up with the ninth draft. The Sinhala
Tamil and English versions of the draft will be simultaneously
uploaded on to the Presidential Secretariat website for public comment
over a month.

The tenth draft, which will incorporate appropriate suggestions by the
public, will be presented to the Presidential Secretary Lalith
Weeratunga, who will discuss the tenth draft with the President. This
will then be presented to the Cabinet. The views of the Cabinet will
be incorporated to the final document and launched by the President as
the 10 Year National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka.

Funds will be allocated from the national budget to maintain the
initiative, which will consist of three phases 1 - Pilot Phase (from
2011 - 2012), 2 - Expansion Phase (2013 - 2016) and 3 - Consolidation
Phase (2017 - 2020). Special attention is given to ensure that the
momentum of the project is not compromised by changes in government

Sunimal Fernando is currently in Mysore India liaising with Central
Institute of Indian Languages, dedicated to teaching second languages,
regarding the trilingual initiative. He expressed the following views
in an interview with the Daily News.

Q: Although the initiative for a trilingual Sri Lanka was announced as
early as 2009, with the launch of the Year of English and IT, it is
still in the draft stage, why?

A: When ‘English as a life skill’ was launched, the President had
already decided on the next phase, the trilingual initiative. But he
wanted to watch how the initiative on English would turn out, before
giving the green light for the trilingual initiative.

Language planning is a whole new discipline. But Sri Lanka has never
had a well articulated language policy since independence. In the
absence of experience ‘English as a life skill’ programme was a sort
of lesson on language planning. Now with extensive experience on the
subject we are confident about moving on to the next phase - the 10
Year National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka.

Q: On several occasions you have said that the programmes being
implemented by the Ministries of National Languages and Social
Integration, Public Administration and Education have been lagging
behind, what is being done to bring them up to speed?

A: The legislation for a trilingual Sri Lanka has been in existence
since 1989. The lagging behind was not between 2009 and now but
between 1989 and today. The programmes implemented by the National
Languages and Social Integration Ministry on the one side and the
Education Ministry to train public servants in the second national
language are largely uncoordinated.

Annually 1.5 percent of the public service follow courses in Sinhala,
Tamil and English conducted by the Official Languages Department. At
this rate it will take over 100 years to develop a public service
cardre competent in the second national language.

As for the Education Ministry, the policy to educate all Sinhala
students in Tamil and all Tamil students in Sinhala, has been in
existence for years. But this is not the reality. There are roughly
26,000 English language teachers in the country. But there are less
than 4,000 teachers capable of teaching either of the national
languages as second languages. In fact Tamil and Sinhala are not
taught as second languages in over 7,000 schools.

The Ministries have not made any serious attempt to fully enact the
policies. This is where the 10 Year National Action Plan comes in.
This will be the first attempt to systematically transform the
constitutional position of Sinhala and Tamil as the two official
national languages through a series of programmes and activities.

Under the 10 Year National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka, two
apex organizations will be established directly under the Presidential
Secretariat. The Language Agency of Sri Lanka (LASL) will be
responsible for policy interpretation and strategies for converting
policy into various programmes. It will be responsible for
coordinating all language related activities in various ministries.

There are already 16 institutions that are involved in language
programmes, all uncoordinated. LASL will coordinate these institutions
and ensure that they follow uniform teaching methods and that their
syllabi and curricula are not in conflict with each other. LASL along
with the second apex agency, National Authority for Language Research
and Training (NALRT), will monitor the progress. All teaching tools,
methods and language research will be the responsibilities of NALRT.

Q: Was the Sinhala only Act the cause of communal issues?

A: Far from it. In fact the replacement of English as the language of
administration in 1956, first with Sinhala and then with Sinhala and
Tamil, is one of the greatest achievements of any post-independent
government as regards language policy.

Up to 1956, only eight percent of the country was conversant in the
English language. The mother tongue of 92 percent of citizens was
either Sinhala or Tamil. Since English was the language of
administration proficiency in it was a deciding factor in obtaining
jobs in the fields of engineering, medicine, administration and
accounting. All important positions in the country were closed to 92
percent of the population. The National Language Act opened the doors
to this 92 percent.

Q: But was Tamil not sidelined by the Act?

A: No, because the ‘Reasonable use of Tamil Act’ was introduced almost
immediately after the Sinhala Only Act. Why Tamil seems, on the
surface, to have been marginalised was that some of the best English,
largely missionary schools, were in the North and the East. Because of
the location of these schools most of the Tamil people were competent
in English. Consequently they were able to secure a large share of
employment opportunities. With the enactment of the Sinhala only Act
not only English educated Tamils but Sinhala elites lost many

However since 1956, when Sinhala was made the language of
administration, the country as a whole was discouraged from
experimenting on language planning. Language exercises were not
encouraged. As a result the discipline of language planning had
completely died out by the turn of the century.

Q: Can trilingualism promote national harmony?

A: Yes. This is not my opinion alone. The people of Sri Lanka,
especially those living in rural areas are exceedingly liberal and far
more progressive, than the intellectuals and academics of the country,
in their views on the relationship between language and national

The majority of the people believe that learning the other national
language will facilitate better understanding between the races.

According to the Socio-linguistic survey 2010, 92 percent of Sinhala
people living in majority Sinhala speaking provinces, 98 percent of
Sinhala people living in majority Tamil speaking provinces, 92 percent
of Tamil people living in Sinhala majority provinces, 94 percent of
Tamil people living in majority Tamil speaking provinces, 92 percent
of Muslim people living in majority Sinhala speaking provinces and 89
percent of Muslim people living in majority Tamil speaking provinces
said that learning the other national language promotes national

Moreover 90 percent of Sinhala people living in majority Sinhala
speaking provinces, 100 percent of Sinhala people living in majority
Tamil speaking provinces, 91 percent of Tamil people living in Sinhala
majority provinces, 52 percent of Tamil people living in majority
Tamil speaking provinces, 88 percent Muslim people living in majority
Sinhala speaking provinces, 44 percent Muslim people living in
majority Tamil speaking provinces identified language as an essential
element in establishing unity among different linguistic groups.

To be continued


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