[lg policy] Importance of choice in the use of language media

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 9 16:22:18 UTC 2012

Importance of choice in the use of language media

Expanded versions of the speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the
inaugural session of the ‘Global Languages Meet’ on

January 7, at the Sir Sayoji

It was an honour to be present at the launch of the People’s
Linguistic Survey of India, and I must congratulate Dr Ganesh Devy,
your founder, on so successfully pushing through this initiative, a
landmark venture after the pioneering work of Grierson nearly a
century ago. The ready collaboration you have received from the
Sahitya Academy and the Central Institute of Indian Languages is a
reflection of the deep commitment of your country, and its official
and unofficial academic institutions, to expanding the boundaries of

I am sorry that we are not so advanced in Sri Lanka. Indeed it was sad
that my collection of short stories, written originally in English and
Sinhala and Tamil by Sri Lankans, appeared not in Sri Lanka, for we
have no similar public service oriented publishing house, but in

I am grateful to the National Book Trust for taking on the book, and
now getting ready a companion volume of poetry. In one sense however I
should be thankful that the book had originally to appear in India in
English, for this meant that it would be translated into all your
national languages. And hence the deep satisfaction at being able to
present Dr Devy, at the Chotro Conference yesterday on ‘Imagining the
Intangible: Language, Literature and the Arts of the Indigenous’ with
the Gujerati version of those Sri Lankan stories. I look forward now
to the Tamil version, whereas in Sri Lanka, where we do not have
enough translators, such an initiative would not have been easy.
Trilingual publication

What I like to think of as that trilingual publication, for the
material was originally in three languages though I published English
versions initially, is in line with recent policy developments in Sri
Lanka. These have been laid out, I hope inspiringly, in our
President’s budget speech last year. He dwells at length there on the
trilingualism that he hopes to introduce into Sri Lanka, in a
programme that will be launched on January 21st. That initiative will
I hope fast forward, if not trilingualism in general, at least
bilingualism in a significant mass of our people, to break free from
the monolingual straitjacket in which absurd policies on the part of
successive governments has confined us.

It is difficult for you in India, where anyone with claims to be
educated is at least bilingual, to understand quite how rigid were the
limits we imposed upon ourselves. Given the general quality of our
basic education system, which compares very favourably with yours, in
terms of access and literacy and female participation, it is shocking
that we should have fallen short with regard to linguistic and
technical competencies for the vast majority of those who get such a
good basic education. In particular the absurdity of the decision,
made in the 40s, to force Tamil children to study in Tamil and
Sinhalese in Sinhala, ensured that generations of youngsters grew up
with no possibility of communicating with each other.

Social justice

In one sense perhaps we can understand those provisions, as a reaction
against what seemed the colonial conditioning we had had before. As
had happened after Macaulay’s famous minute in India in the previous
century, Sri Lanka had seen English medium schools established to
produce faithful adherents of the empire. This was a relatively
exclusive system, run in the 19th century mainly by Christian
foundations, and it did not benefit the vast majority in the country.
But around the turn of the century Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims
too began their own schools, which were soon producing bright and
learned students who were able to use an English education to
challenge imperial dogma.

In short, instead of attacking good institutions in the name of
equity, we instead replicated them so that their benefits would reach
a wider mass, a strategy that was later abandoned in the process of
equalizing downwards that we thought, inspired by the politics of
envy, was the only way of promoting social justice. So, similarly, in
the 30s, our first Education Minister, who took office in the fairly
extensive steps towards self-government we were permitted on an
experimental basis – the first non-white colony to be benefited thus,
I suppose because we were too small to present any threat, unlike
India – introduced a system of Central Schools which opened up
knowledge to students in the regions.

But, just as that initiative was bearing fruit, another aspect of
nationalism struck, and Sinhala or Tamil became compulsorily the
medium of education, at primary level in the 40s and then at secondary
level in the 50s. Though English was supposed to be a compulsory
second language, it was so only in the strange sense of the word
compulsory which Sri Lanka has invented, meaning there are no
sanctions if the ostensible requirement is not fulfilled. There was no
serious attempt either to make Sinhalese students learn Tamil or Tamil
students Sinhalese. And so the stage was set for generations to grow
up unable to communicate, except for those in the charmed circle of
Colombo, whose English of course continued excellent.

And to make matters worse, in 1956 we made Sinhala the only official
language, having shut off a quarter of our citizens from learning it.
So they were deprived of jobs in the government sector, which
contributed to deep and wholly understandable resentment. Sadly,
instead of resolving these political problems, we had in the early 80s
strong arm tactics on the part of the state that led to terrorism,
which became more and more intransigent as well as brutal. But now,
having finally rid our country of this, we need to overcome those
earlier understandable resentments, and in particular ensure a sane
and practicable language policy that provides maximum opportunities to
all our citizens.

English medium education

We began to move in this direction when Tamil too became an official
language in 1987, but we took few measures to enforce this. In the 90s
however we began to promote bilingualism through ensuring that
students learn the other official language, though unfortunately we
have come nowhere near producing enough teachers for this. And then,
in 2001, we also introduced the possibility of English medium
education. This had been frowned upon previously, in terms of dogmas
about the necessity of mother tongue education, though the elite had
found a way round the statutory provisions, and ensured good English
for their children.

In this regard the comment by Agnihotri, who spoke just before me,
about the absurdity in a multilingual society of enforcing mother
tongue as a medium was most instructive, for as he indicated, we need
to promote better understanding of more languages so as to encourage
better communication all round. Schools with mixed populations also
encourage this, and we need therefore to promote children learning
together, and interacting in all spheres.

I would be wary then of the suggestion in the keynote address
yesterday at the Chotro Conference that we should welcome the
existence of monolinguals since they ensure that usage of their own
languages continues.

The argument that language is like money, and when some countries use
two currencies and others just one, the currency of the latter will
triumph, is not I think convincing. There are other reasons for the
dollar to do so well, which have to do with confidence that we should
promote with regard to our own currencies, whilst also encouraging
free trade. I believe this applies to education too, where artificial
restrictions will only contribute to disaster.
Decision making power

We need to maximize choice, in the confidence that parents will push
for what is best for their children, and those children will use the
opportunities granted to them well, to promote their own interests as
well as their country.

Given the dogmas that have been drilled to us, in reacting to the
impositions of colonialism, such decisions will be difficult.

But we need to trust in the decision making power of parents and the
capacities of our youngsters to learn.

While certainly the right to education in the mother tongue must be
upheld, the right to choose what may be more advantageous should also
be promoted.

Indeed, though we in Sri Lanka are lucky, in that both languages used
as mother tongue can easily be used as mediums of instruction, in
India you have difficulties given the plethora of languages spoken in
small communities. Whilst certainly those languages must be recorded
and preserved, as your admirable linguistic survey will ensure,
arguing that they must all be available as mediums of instruction is
impractical and will not serve the interests of children, who must be
also given command of another language that they can use widely for
self advancement.

At this gathering then that celebrates the diversity of language, we
should also ensure diversity as to usage, and ensure empowerment
through education to the widest possible extent.

Language, we must remember, is a tool, and it should not be treated as
an end in itself.

This may be difficult for linguists who appreciate the beauty and the
character of the various languages they study, but always at the
centre of any vision we wish to advance should be people, and it is
their interests we should consider in formulating policy.


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