[lg policy] Sri Lanka: A realistic look at the language policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 16 15:20:23 UTC 2011

A realistic look at the language policy
November 15, 2011, 6:26 pm

By Ariyawansa Ranaweera
ariyawansa.ranaweera at gmail.com

I must salute Mr. Rohana R. Wasala for his timely and balanced article
on ‘Language, Culture and Development’ when appeared in your journal
on Friday the 28th of October. At a time where a section of our
literati attribute in very strident tones, almost all the social and
economic ills that affect our country, to the language policy adopted
in the late 1950’s R.W’s sober analysis gives the lie to this
misguided view.

As he very correctly states in his article "a language of a community
is not something that you can take possession of or discard as easily
as you can put on or take off a garment." Language of a race is not
only a means of communication among its members. It is a cultural
construction that nurses a race into maturity. It is a repository of
their way of thinking, their perceptions, their beliefs and
aspirations, and an embodiment of their way of living. Any living
language has these attributes. As it evolves through time, language
also grows, and changes with the community. It creates its own words,
idioms, proverbs, which are the true reflections of the soul of its
people. Look at the whole array of pithy, meaningful, and ironic
idioms and proverbs created by the common people. If one forces down
the throats of a people an utterly alien language, would this
linguistic ebullience prevail? Sinhala is enriched both by sevi-vahara
(Language learnt) and jana-vahara (Folk language). These two in turn
enrich each other. Prof. K.N.O. Dharmadasa once stated in one of his
articles that out of all South Asian Languages, Sinhala alone
developed from its very inception as a vibrant language, as it was
nurtured by its association with literary creations starting from
Seehalattakatha of 3rd century A.C. Any language imbibes from other
languages new words and through them the knowledge created by those
languages. T.S. Eliot speaking of poetry said in one of his famous
essays – Social Function of Poetry – that a true poem can be composed
by a poet only through the medium of his own native language. He goes
on to say: to force down and alien language, to a community you have
to wipe out all the members of that community root and branch. Because
originality is inextricably tied up with once own language. Original
thinking, Original discoveries, be it in the areas of humanistic or
scientific, emanates only through once own indigenous language. This
is the very reason why almost all educationist in one voice say, that
a child has to be introduced into the world of knowledge through his
own native language. Rabindranath Tagore, a strong proponent of
Bengali language said this very forcefully, when he said that "a child
imbibes his native language with his mother’s milk."

So our lawmakers who introduced both Sinhala and Tamil to be the media
of instruction in the late 1950’s did not blunder. On the other hand
it was a well thought out policy measure, which brought immense
benefits to the majority of the people, as very correctly pointed out
RW. He goes on to state very aptly "Ignorance or deliberate
repudiation of their own history and culture leads some people to
underrate the local language, Sinhala and Tamil for the overwhelming
majority of us these languages are vital."

Unfortunately, some of our scholars have the misconceptions that the
introduction of the local languages into the main stream of our
educational system, was a hastily done exercise in 1956 to pander to
the political exigencies of the day. This is far from true. It was in
1944 the Mr. J. R. Jayewardene moved a resolution in the State
Council, to declare "Sinhalese as the official language of Ceylon
within a reasonable number of years." An amendment was proposed by V.
Nalliah, a Tamil State Councilor, for providing both Sinhala and Tamil
the status of official languages, and it was seconded by Mr. R. S. S.
Gunawardane. The resolution was ratified by 27 to 2 by the
legislature. Prof Sasanka Perera, in his piece which appear in The
Island (Oct 26, 2011) says "Demand for Swabasha was a protest against
the privileges enjoyed by the English educated elite, privileges not
open to the masses educated in local languages."

This was the beginning of the move to enshrine local languages, both
as official languages and as the media of instruction. As a result in
the educational reforms proposed by Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara in 1943;
gradual introduction of the local languages, as media of instruction
commenced. Its started in 1945 from Grade 1. Year by year this measure
was introduced to higher classes. Coincidentally, it reached Grade 11
in 1956, which was the preparatory grade for university entrance, and
the 1st batch of undergraduate, who sat the entrance examination in
the local languages entered University of Ceylon in 1960. All these
facts prove that the language policy adopted by our law makers was not
a hasty measure to aimed at political expedience.

Unfortunately, the proponents of enthroning English at the expense of
the local languages turn a blind eye either deliberately or otherwise
to the immense benefits that accrued to Sri Lankans during the five
decades after the introduction of local languages.

In spite of all efforts by our colonial masters and their followers,
only a minuscule number of people in the country can handle their
affairs in English. R.W. says the percentage is 10%, but I doubt even
that figure.

Just think what a catastrophe it would have been, if we had continued
to ram English down the throats of a reluctant majority, depriving the
masses of their rightful place in the larger society. The rural
intelligentsia would have remained marginalized. It was the sagacious
language policy which enabled them to come out of the cold, and assert
their rightful places in the community. To use a cliché, it really and
truly empowered them! If not for the recognition of the local
languages, would we have been a true representative democracy? It
would have turned out to be an elitist oligarchy, confined to the
privileged few, as in the Colbrooke-Cameron days. My guess is that
only 10% of our parliamentary representatives are able to converse in
English. Such is the case in all other local government institutions.
So what? They are the true sons of the representative democracy we

We pride ourselves on being a nation that has the highest literacy
rate in the South Asian region. ‘The Island’ issue of November 1st
says, it stands at 92% at present. The news item further says, "The
highest literacy rate means that people in that country will be more
productive." It is this literacy rate that has enabled us to be almost
on par with the developed countries in the Human Development Index. Is
this not a direct result of the language policy adopted by us in the
late 1950’s? It was the school system which used local languages as
the media of instruction, that was instrumental in bringing this mass
education to our people, which even a country like India has not been
able to achieve so far.

A considerable amount of new knowledge has been created by the
university community through local languages. (I am not competent to
comment on the scientific field). I have a fleeting acquaintance with
the university system as a visiting lecturer. The university dons and
the undergraduates conduct some important research into languages,
folklore, semantics, journalism, history, archeology, economics and
geography etc..., and their research papers and thesis are available
in the universities, and some are published. Most of them show much
erudition and depth, and intellectual discipline. But the trouble with
those who venerate English is that they either scoff at them or they
do not possess the language proficiency to read and understand them.
The university system by and large performed efficiently the three P’s
expected of them through local languages, they being the Protection,
Production and Propagation of knowledge.

Then we must turn to the resurgence in the cultural field.
Approximately 7,500 books were written in both local languages in the
year 2010 according to the National Library Services Board. This
number indicates easily a considerable achievement for a small country
like ours. And the subjects covered are diverse and varied such as
science, philosophy, medicine, psychology, religious works,
management, economics, planning and fiction. Thus the local languages
play a considerable role as conduits of knowledge to the populace.

Take the area of fiction. We have produced talented writers whose
talents and skills easily compare with writers of any other
nationality; specially in the fields of poetry and short story.

Drama is another area which has benefitted from the language policy
under discussion. The new crop of dramatists, who play a vital role on
the local stage, are all products of education gained through local
languages. That does not deter them from producing dramas, ranging
from Greek and Sanskrit classics from Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Dario
Fo, besides their own original works.

Preservation of the fundamentals of our traditional dancing, folktales
and folk poems by committing them to writing is another area that
should be mentioned. All this amply proves the vast benefits of the
language policy, which gave pride of place to the local languages.

This does not in any way belittle the importance of teaching English
as a link language. No one in his proper senses would contest that.
English is a window to the world of wisdom and knowledge. It is the
international language which will connect us to the wide world of
commerce, industry etc.

What really has gone wrong, in imparting the knowledge of English to
our student population is something that has to be discussed
separately. Suffice it to say that in our ignorance and negligence, we
threw to the winds, all the infrastructural arrangements of English
teaching we developed over the years, in the name of restoring the
local languages to their rightful position.

Yes. We have to infuse English into our education stream. But in doing
so we have to be careful not to destroy all what we have gained over
the past decades thanks to our language policy are bound to end up in

The short sighted hasty measures like starting classes in schools all
of a sudden to teach all subjects in English thrusting English as a
medium of instruction on university students who used Sinhala and
Tamil as their mediums in their entire student career.

I hope the ten year tri-lingual program, Mr. Wasala speaks of in his
article has recognized these aspects.


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