[lg policy] Sri Lanka: A bridge to unity and Life Skills for progress

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 21 15:39:38 UTC 2012

A bridge to unity and Life Skills for progress

The past five years has seen a record rise in the expansion and
improvement of the country’s road network. New roads have built at a
pace never seen before in all regions of the country. Similarly, there
has been a major activity in bridge building too. Together with the
development of roads, new bridges have been built in many parts and
existing bridges have been improved and upgraded. The building of
roads and bridges has been a key aspect of the government’s
infrastructure development policy.

It is a policy directed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa who sees the
importance of opening up hitherto untouched areas of the country for
rapid development, with emphasis on the rural areas, as well as his
emphasis of expediting development in the vast areas of the country
where development was prevented for three decades due to the presence
of terrorism. President Rajapaksa sees new roads and bridges as vital
to the development of the economy, as well as increased contact
between the different communities in the country, improving social and
economic relations among the communities to whom Sri Lanka is home.

Today we see the launch of another important bridge but different
bridge building programme, not at the level of physical infrastructure
that is so important, but at the level of the mind and human skills.
Language issue

Group discussions make language learning easy. File photo

The launch of the Ten Year Programme to make Sri Lanka a Trilingual
country and the declaration of the current year 2012 as the Year of
Trilngualism, are key aspects of President Rajapaksa’s policy on
social and economic development. This follows the President’s earlier
initiative that launched the teaching of English as a Life Skill,
which saw the training of English language teachers in schools, with
the assistance of India that has already taken major strides in both
the learning and teaching of English.

Language has been a major political issue in Sri Lanka for most of the
period since independence in 1948. Although language is generally
known as a unifying factor in society, experience has shown us that it
can also be a major divisive factor. It is not wholly incorrect to see
the non-resolution of the language issue as a major cause for the
ethnic crisis that has enveloped Sri Lankan society for several
decades, and ultimately led to the emergence of separatist terrorism
that caused so much loss of life, and led to vast damage to the
economy, as well as pushing back the progress of the country.
School curriculum

The language issue, which saw the increased separation of the two main
communities in the country, the Sinhala and Tamil people, also brought
about policies that led to an unquestionable perception of unfair
treatment of Tamil speaking people of the country.

We came very close to realizing the prophetic warning of Dr. Colvin R
de Silva in 1955, at the height of the language debate and the
campaign for Sinhala Only as the one official language, when he said
that one language would lead to two counties, while two languages
would ensure one country.

It took more than three decades with much political strife, and the
emergence and progress of an armed separatist campaign for the country
to shift from Sinhala Only, to the acceptance of both Sinhala and
Tamil as official languages, with the 13th Amendment to the
Constitution in 1987, which also saw the naming of English as the link

Some of the problems on language in the country came with the policies
on education. Among the chief causes of later strife was the policy of
education in the mother tongue, introduced before independence
following a resolution moved in the State Council by the late JR

Although the aim of this policy at that time appears to be to give
greater opportunities for learning to the indigenous people of the
country, then referred to as natives by the colonial rulers, in fact
this led to a considerable amount of the later separation of the
communities, beginning with the separation of children in schools
based on the language of instruction. As JRJ explained in introducing
this policy, it was based was the learned thinking at that time that a
child could be best educated in one’s mother tongue, which is not
questioned even today.

But in implementing this policy one saw the emergence of an even
greater divide in society, which would not have been seen by the
initiators of education in the mother tongue.

This policy, combined with the virtual elimination of English from the
school curriculum, through lack of emphasis on its teaching and
learning in the post- 1956 period, saw the emergence of a major divide
in society among those who had knowledge of English and those without

Combined with the inequities of the Sinhala Only policy as
implemented, the knowledge of English or the lack of it became a major
issue of social division, leading to considerable migration out of the
country, long before the separatist violence of the LTTE, and the
emergence of a privileged class, whose main privilege was the
knowledge of English, and the ability to passing such knowledge down
their progeny. The divisions among schools spread from schools to
universities and in the situation of a shrinking economy, with lack of
expanding employment opportunities, except in the state sector, that
too due largely for political reasons, those without a knowledge of
English began to be increasingly left out of whatever avenues of
progress available.

The public sector took in those educated in the Sinhala medium, there
were many disadvantages to the Tamil speaking, especially through the
short-lived but highly discriminatory system of admission to
Employment opportunities

Meanwhile, the private sector, especially in the service areas such as
hotels, marketing and the financial services kept giving preference to
those with a good or even passable knowledge of English.

Along with those educated in Tamil, the Sinhala educated too were
being shut out of good job opportunities. It did not take long for
youth who saw the opportunities for progress in society rapidly
shrinking, and the best opportunities going to those who had even a
little knowledge of English, which emerged as a social class, to name
English as the ‘Kaduva’ or sword, which can cut down those who did not
have it, and wielding it being the only for social and economic

The declaration of 2012 as the Year for a Trilingual Sri Lanka and the
launch today of the Ten Year Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka (2012 –
2021) is the important move at building new bridges among people. It
began with the full implementation of the language policy of the
government, with the decisive steps taken to teach both Sinhala and
Tamil in schools and the special incentives given to public servants
to gain proficiency in Tamil.

This was later extended by President Rajapaksa with the new impetus
given to the teaching of English in our schools, with the knowledge of
English being considered a Life Skill.

What is being initiated by the President today is the move to make Sri
Lanka a Trilingual country. This is bridge building both within Sri
Lanka and outside it too. Within the country there is all the
encouragement to build bridges between communities, with the wider
knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil leading to better interaction between
the two main communities as well bringing closer linkage between all
Tamil speaking people and the Sinhala speaking, This should in turn
lead to greater understanding among people, and hopefully contribute
to the process of reconciliation after a prolonged conflict that had
its roots in injustice in the matter of language.

The Trinlingual initiative goes further in helping to open the doors
to better and wider contact with the outside world, especially
important for the students and youth in our country to benefit from
the daily and major advances in technology, as well as the new
thinking that is taking place in areas such as economic s,
development, political thinking and social progress.

Learning of English as a Life Skill would, if well implemented by
those in charge of it, give our youth many opportunities they have
been hitherto denied, and available only to a small elite who had
access to and knowledge of English. This will lead us to the full
benefits of language knowledge, which is better understanding among
people, leading to greater unity, in the conditions of a sustainable
peace that is being built, as well giving our people a key to the vast
resources of knowledge outside our shores that become available
through the knowledge of English. It will also help break the social
divide that exists between those who wield the English ‘Kaduva’ and
those who cannot even reach it.

It is a new bridge of understanding and outreach that can propel Sri
Lanka towards greater unity within and better interaction, and
communication and participation with the world outside; a new bridge
to greater learning and understanding through the opening to the
knowledge resources of the world, in a culture that has always valued
learning as the path to progress. It is a bridge not too far, but
which took far too long to build!


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