Focus first on parity in use of national languages

Saturday, 19 August 2023 00:00 –      – 33

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe told students at a school prize-giving recently that the country’s children will have to learn Hindi and Chinese in the future to fit into the changing world.

“The education system in Sri Lanka will have to change drastically to fit into the future. We will have to introduce new subjects. Our children will have to learn Chinese and Hindi in addition to English in order to fit into the changing world,” the President said at the annual prize-giving of Anula Vidyalaya, Nugegoda.

The comments on learning Hindi, the official language of India, and Chinese, triggered many comments, most pointing out that Sri Lankan students should learn Tamil and English first before focusing on learning other languages.

Sri Lanka’s national/official languages are Sinhala and Tamil while English is the link language and while on paper there is parity in status for the two languages, in practice the country has a long way to go in implementing the language policy. Also while much emphasis has been placed on the study of the English language, in this too the country is lagging behind with the majority, be it in the public service, university students or schoolchildren, struggling to master the English language.

There is no arguing that the President’s comments that Lankan students should be learning more foreign languages is a well-thought-out one. One can never know too many languages and knowledge of a new language enhances chances of finding better employment, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Many who have learnt a foreign language such as Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc., are today gainfully employed as teachers, both in schools and as private tutors as many seeking foreign employment are keen to master the language of the countries they hope to secure employment in.

The language issues in the country have been problematic since independence. Ask anyone what triggered the alienation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the majority will point to the Official Language Act (No. 33 of 1956) adopted by the Government of then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956 which made Sinhala the one official language. Since then, the law was changed and both Sinhala and Tamil were made official languages, but implementation is dismally poor till today mainly due to apathy among those in the majority community to learn Tamil.  With the Public Service, the Police Department, etc. dominated by Sinhala speakers, Tamils have been denied equal access to public services. It is often a frustrating experience for those not conversant in Sinhala when they seek the services of a Government ministry or department with official forms, notices, etc., all printed in only one language. The situation is worse where the Police Department is concerned with statements recorded in Sinhala only in areas outside the north and east even when the person involved has no proper knowledge of the language.

The same issues are also faced by those who wish to access Government services in English, the knowledge of which among those in the public service remains poor.

Successive governments have begun incentive programs to reward public officials for learning their second language and made it mandatory to pass a language examination for promotions, but this has not yielded the desired results. Which is why while students should be encouraged to learn Hindi and Chinese and other foreign languages in the future, it is more important to focus on improving the proficiency among the public in the official languages of this country as well as English. The best place to start is in schools and while this has already started, more needs to be done as learning of local languages does not get the serious attention that it must. The Government must aim to make citizens trilingual with a satisfactory level of knowledge in the country’s languages first which would go a long way to bring about national reconciliation and provide for true parity of status for two national languages while sound knowledge of English would help mould future generations to be well-rounded citizens.



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