Sri Lanka: Towards A Language Revolution for Reconciliation and Development

The language revolution should encompass the general public, particularly the rural youth. It should not create a divide between any ‘English elite’ and the masses. There can be websites to promote the language awakening and the revolution.

by Laksiri Fernando

A ‘revolution’ is any combination of events which produces a radical shift in consciousness or behaviour over a relatively short period of time.” – David Crystal

( February 5, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The matters of ethnic reconciliation and economic development in Sri Lanka are closely intertwined. It is largely accepted today that erroneous language policies in the past have had a considerable negative impact on both ethnic reconciliation and economic development in the country. Although one of the key causes for the dual predicament is therefore identified, the country is far from implementing a correct policy in respect of language. Let me give a very simple example.

The 1978 Constitution made Tamil a national language, along with Sinhala, while keeping Sinhala as the ‘only’ official language. This was changed in the 13th Amendment in 1987 in a positive direction, but what was stated was “Tamil shall also be an official language.” This is like saying, this is my wife and this is also my wife! It was a clear insult with hesitation to accord equal status. This hesitation particularly came in the implementation of the official language policy amply analysed by A. Theva Rajan (‘Tamil as Official Language,’ 1995) and Ketheswaran Loganathan (‘Sri Lanka: Lost Opportunities,’1996) among others.

Colvin’s Diagnosis

A diagnosis of the problem (Samudaya) came from Colvin R. de Silva six decades ago in 1956 as follows, also with a prognosis.

Do you want two languages and one nation, or one language two nations? Parity, Mr. Speaker, we believe is the road to the freedom of our nation and the unity of its components. Otherwise two torn little bleeding states may arise of one little state, which has compelled a large section of itself to treason, ready for the imperialists to mop up that which imperialism only recently disgorged”. (Hansard, Vol 24, Col 1917, 1956)

What he meant by ‘parity’ is basically making both Sinhala and Tamil official languages in 1956. This came from his/their socialist thinking or Sama Samaja (equal society) principles. But the unfortunate fact was that he himself abandoned this principle when it came to the drafting of the 1972 Constitution. Therefore, it was not only SWRD Bandaranaike’s ‘one language’ policy that later made ‘two bleeding nations,’ but also Colvin’s own constitution in 1972. As Loganathan has correctly commented, it was a terrible lost opportunity.

This is a dreadful predicament of many politicians and intellectuals. They say one thing, and do quite the opposite later or at the same time. It is not just a revision or improvement of their views, but opportunistic political summersaults altogether. Look at what GL Peiris say and do today. He was the main architect of the August 2000 new constitutional draft. Now he is talking against a new constitution. He was also the main peace negotiator and one of the key drafters of the Norwegian brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE in 2001, which virtually separated the country. Now he is talking against any concession to the Tamils on the pretext that it would divide the country.

When Colvin talked about parity of status, he also correctly spoke about “unity of its components.” What he meant was ‘our nation,’ to mean the Sri Lankan political or the civic nation, comprising of different cultural nations or communities (Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims) that should be united by recognizing their ‘cultural and language rights.’ This is multiculturalism and in accordance with the most enlightened views of human rights today. However, it is doubtful whether the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) or its leaders like Tissa Vitarana subscribes to these views any longer by aligning with the Joint Opposition (JO) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The 13th Amendment

It is not correct to consider that the 13th Amendment was or is a panacea. That is one reason why we need a new constitution. I am only focusing on the language policy in this article. The 13A declared, “English language shall be the link language.” But what does it mean? Does it mean the link between the two languages? Or the link between the two language speakers, the Sinhalese on the one hand and the Tamils and Muslims on the other? The second proposition is more plausible, and a good one, if opportunities and facilities are made available throughout the country. It also can be a link to the external world at large.

English has its own merits as an international language. It was the official language before 1956, and the major lapse was its discriminatory character against the Sinhala and the Tamil speakers. This had to be changed, but not by completely dethroning its use in education or administration. The major blunder in 1956, as highlighted by Colvin was to make Sinhala the only official language, discriminating against Tamil speakers. The whole incident also revealed a major defect in Sri Lankan politics in general. When a defect wanted to be rectified, the tendency is to go to the other extreme even negating what is positive in a given situation.

I didn’t borrow my proposition ‘language revolution’ from any other. However, after using it for some time, I have found the book by David Crystal titled ‘The Language Revolution’ (Polity Press, 2004). This book discusses three major trends in the international scene together: (1) the emergence of English as an international lingua franca (2) the crisis facing number of languages currently endangered and (3) the radical change and possibilities of promoting languages under internet technology. All the propositions are relevant to Sri Lanka in creating a language revolution for reconciliation and economic/social development.

Before the 13th Amendment, while Sinhala remained the official language, Tamil was declared a national language along with Sinhala. That was a progress from the 1972 Constitution which allowed only some special provisions. Recognition of Sinhala and Tamil as national languages still remains and should continue to be so with provisions to ‘preserve and promote the two languages and their literature.’ That could be the meaning of ‘national languages’ without allowing them to be submerged or neglected. The national languages primarily mean, the languages indigenous and ‘sacred’ to the people.

However, that recognition should not preclude making English (also) an official language along with Sinhala and Tamil.

A Pragmatic Approach to English

The approach to English should be completely pragmatic. It should not be considered as a superior language which was an attitude developed during the colonial and post-colonial times. We are now not ‘post-colonial,’ but independent. That should be the attitude and determination whatever the hangovers remaining in some people’s crooked minds. English as a link language does not make much sense except for those who are already conversant with that language. But by making English (also) as an official language, its progress could be rapid even as a ‘link language.’

English is already the business language particularly in urban Sri Lanka. Promoting it throughout the country could make the links between the leading businesses and the emerging businesses in rural/provincial towns. It should be promoted not as a must, or a burden, but as a vehicle of pragmatic progress. There won’t be much resistance from the people, except perhaps from some politicians.

English particularly important in university education. There can be better Sinhala and Tamil language promotion for those who study languages, literature and culture, if the other studies could be conducted purely in English. This is already the case in natural sciences, particularly in medicine and engineering. For lawyers or law students, all three languages are important. A major drawback for arts or social science students in employment and social progress is their insufficient English language proficiency. This cannot be changed unless all teaching moves to English medium in all universities.

My university experience since 1964 (first as a student) tells me that social science students had inhibitions on English medium studies earlier on, influenced largely by narrow nationalism or prevailing circumstances. However, this has changed considerably. New generations are quite willing to learn English and ‘learn in English,’ but major obstacles come from the lack of teachers to teach in English. This has been going on continuously as a vicious cycle, as new teachers are usually recruited from Sinhala or Tamil medium streams.


A language revolution should entail complete move to English as the sole language in university education, except in language studies of Sinhala or Tamil, and the recognition of English also as an official language in public administration. The second move also means that any citizen or resident could communicate with any government institution in English, other than Sinhala or Tamil. Its primary meaning however is the necessary competence of all administrative officers in English, other than Sinhala and/or Tamil. This is trilingualism.

There are two ongoing dynamics in the current economic development scenario. Firs is the anticipated partnership between the public sector and the private sector (PPP). If the partnership is going to be fruitful, the public officers need to have sufficient competence in English. Second is the projected foreign investments and partnership in some important economic sectors in the country. The anticipated foreign participation could of course come from different countries. However, the common language would mostly be English. If our public officers are not adequately competent in English, bargaining and working together could be difficult and at the disadvantage to Sri Lanka.

There can be valid concerns that the move towards English as ‘the language of university education’ and ‘a language of public administration’ would disadvantage the indigenous languages of Sinhala and Tamil. This should not be the case. It is an accepted fact that competence in one language could easily be extended to other languages. What should be discouraged is any superiority complex attached to English use. The language competence and use are mutually reinforcing. There were times in ancient Sri Lanka that the language policy being not just trilingual, but hexalingual (shad basha).

UNESCO since 1980s has promoted a policy of trilingualism to include (1) the mother-tongue (2) the ‘neighbours-tongue’ and (3) an international language. This is a minimum policy of promoting increased human interaction for knowledge, education, peace, social harmony and sustainable development, within a multilingual and a multicultural framework. In the Sri Lankan context, the ‘neighbours-tongue’ means Tamil to the Sinhalese and Sinhala to the Tamils. The best international language for Sri Lanka obviously is English. However, a language revolution could entail the promotion of competence in many more international/foreign languages like Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, French and Russian.

Digital Means

For a language revolution, there are great technological advantages at the present juncture. In addition to ‘paper and printing’ or ‘radio and TV,’ the digital means of internet, social media and electronic devices could be utilized creatively. A language revolution should begin at pre-school and at home. It could be fun for children. By the age of five, children could acquire a considerable amount of vocabulary, not limiting to one language. Without any reservation, children should be given a firm grounding in their mother-tongue and the neighbours-tongue, Sinhala and Tamil. Language/s and Maths (simply said, ‘letters and numbers’) are the basics in any knowledge upliftment. There is an excellent SBS TV program in Australia titled ‘Letters and Numbers’ which could easily be adopted. There was one Naween Fernando who won a title in one of the competitions.

There should be language labs in every school equipped with digital means as much as possible. This does not mean the neglect of other subjects, natural or social, and particularly history. But history or religion should be taught in a non-antagonistic manner. If language revolution begins in schools, it would be easy for universities. In the meantime, it could begin at universities with advanced language labs and competent teachers to teach, until the schools fall in line and even thereafter.

The language revolution should encompass the general public, particularly the rural youth. It should not create a divide between any ‘English elite’ and the masses. There can be websites to promote the language awakening and the revolution. The most important would be comprehensive website/s with sound tracks for people to learn, Sinhala, Tamil and English. Easy translation software should also be available crosscutting and linking Sinhala, Tamil and English.

A most important role could be played by teledrama, TV and radio programs making people to acquire trilingualism through education and lively experiences. I should also commend on some initiatives already taken by some teledrama/film directors and producers. What might be pre-requisite for such a language revolution is the changing or stalling of the archaic, parochial and conservative mindsets and attitudes of the politicians and the ‘Brahmins’ in society.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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