24 JULY 2006
Before 1956, children in this country were taught in the language chosen for them by their parents. If they happened to be in any of the leading schools of the time, or even many smaller ones, the medium of instruction was always English. Schools which provided instruction in Sinhala or Tamil were located mostly in the rural and less affluent areas.
After 1956, Muslim parents were allowed to choose the medium of instruction for their children whereas Sinhala children had to be taught in Sinhala and Tamil children in Tamil. Where the parents were mixed, it was generally the sound of the father’s name which presumably decided which language the child should treat as its mother tongue. More recently, the more affluent have gained the freedom to send their offspring to Ainternational schools where English is the medium of instruction but Sinhala and Tamil, too, are taught compulsorily.
The current position regarding the legal status of the languages is approximately as follows. Sinhala and Tamil are official languages whilst English is a national/link language. For convenience, all three will be referred to here as Anational languages.
As any mindful person would observe, the divers provisions of the language laws are presently being implemented in a sporadic, limited and negligent fashion. The scale of the disregard of this sensitive issue can be gauged when we read reports to the effect that the total yearly budget allocation for the implementation of the Official Languages Act of 1998 is only Rs600,000 or so for a population of 20 Million; that, in Wellawatte, where there is a Tamil population of 55%, the proportion of Tamil-speaking Police Officers is 5%; and, in Jaffna, which is over 95% Tamil, there are only 6 Tamil-speaking officers; and so on. Repeated calls by Tamils, and even Sinhalese who are not fluent in Sinhala, that all government publications, forms, road names, signboards etc should be produced in all three languages is almost uniformly ignored. Letters written in Tamil and English are answered in Sinhala, if they are answered at all. Hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of vacancies for translators are not being filled for reasons best known to those in power.
Some of those who are very concerned about this state of affairs write to the media proposing that every child should learn all three languages from the time it enters school. They quote the example of Switzerland, where most citizens speak 3-5 languages comfortably, having been taught these from a young age. However, this is not a very popular proposal with many of our citizens both for historical reasons as well as because of where they live, what they do, and with whom they associate. They object strongly to having a third language forced down the throats of their children because they are satisfied that their progeny would be able to manage perfectly well with their mother tongue and a little English, subject to the state implementing properly the language provisions presently included in the law regarding government publications, forms, road names, signboards etc.
The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) has endeavoured to consider the matters referred to above in an unemotional manner and has identified what appear to be the more significant issues and counter-issues. These are set out very briefly below.
CIMOGG is particularly conscious of the need not to heap additional burdens on our children, who are already heavily encumbered with huge loads of homework and tuition classes. For many others who have completed their schooling, the acquisition of a second or third language, which they do not really need to use often, represents a formidable hurdle and a substantial waste of time. Hence, it is important that the state makes suitable provision for those who are fluent only in one of the three national languages to be able to live anywhere within Sri Lanka and transact official business in their chosen language.
The importance of having one’s ethnic and cultural roots preserved and the need to have free access to an international language have also to be taken into account. For this, school children should learn their mother tongue as well as English, which is accepted even by the proud nation of China as the most useful language of international commerce, science and communication. Moreover, children should be given at least one hour of conversation and one hour of reading every week in the third language (Tamil or Sinhala, as appropriate) so that they would not find themselves totally Adeaf and dumb in the company of any other of Sri Lankas language groups. In school, acquiring knowledge of a third language (whether it be Sinhala or Tamil) should be rewarded with some kind of incentive but poor linguistic achievement should not be cause for penalising a child, in whatever form, because that would cause it to hate its teacher, the language itself and those who speak it.
On an urgent basis, however, public servants who have to interact with members of the public or communicate internationally must acquire a reasonable measure of fluency (not necessarily mastery) in the written and spoken forms of all three languages. Those who are already in service should be given good facilities and generous incentives (higher salaries and quicker promotions) for passing both written and oral examinations in a second and a third language.
Those who wish to enter government service (including corporations, boards, authorities etc) should, say, after the year 2008, be required to reach sufficient prior fluency in the two languages which are not their mother tongue so as to be able to interact with any citizen reasonably comfortably. The shortage of teachers should be dealt with by using simple audio-visual equipment and lessons prepared by a select group of teachers. TV, radio, tape recorders, CD, DVD, the printed media and all available resources should be utilised, with extra support given to those who live in rural areas. Employing modern techniques, it would be perfectly feasible for a Tamil wishing to enter public service to learn to read and speak sufficient official Sinhala or, similarly, for Sinhalese to learn to read and speak sufficient Tamil by following an intensive 6-month course. Reading and speaking English to the same level of competence would take another 6 months.
As time goes on, public servants should be free to improve their proficiency in any of the national languages and be rewarded appropriately for their efforts.
CIMOGG’s approach is that, other than for public servants, there should be no compulsion on anyone to become proficient in all three languages. Everyone else should be encouraged to learn other languages rather than be coerced to do so against their inclination, prejudices or lack of talent. By doing so, avoidable resentments could be minimised.
The state should not treat citizens as if they are stupid and incapable of taking personal decisions properly in the interests of their children. In particular, the state should not interfere in what parents decide should be the mother tongue of their children, providing it is one of the national languages.
These suggestions are made with a view to reducing conflicts in regard to issues of importance to the country in respect of the learning and use of languages for official purposes. They would need to be refined to suit special situations but the use of compulsion should be kept at a minimum. The bonus that would accrue from the sincere and speedy implementation of a scheme based on the above ideas would go a long way to counter the mistrust and ill-feelings which were generated fifty years ago by a less generous approach.