Scuttling of English Language in the early 1950s



Goolbai Gunasekera had written in this newspaper three Sundays previously that making Sinhala the national language and compelling schools, hitherto teaching in English, to have only Sinhala and Tamil mediums of instruction was destructive, counter-productive and had a long lasting (even as of today) adverse effect on the country. I agree totally with her.

Two Sundays ago, Pro Bono Publico wrote a ‘Response to Goolbai’. I have the press clipping of his opinion before me as I write. Read three times over but I find it difficult to pin point exactly what he intends conveying. His third para reads thus: “The English education that was available to a few was not available to the vast majority. Thus they were deprived of top posts. The Sinhala and Tamil educated majority had to be satisfied with the lesser posts, despite their being clever and capable.” In para four he continues: “The change in language policy with a switch to Swabasha, meaning one’s own language, (not Sinhala only which is a political canard) while English continued to be taught. This enabled the Sinhala and Tamil educated youth in the remote areas of the country to enter the higher echelons of employment. This was a necessary step to correct a social anomaly.”

I see an anomaly in what he means. Para three says it was unfair that many students were deprived of English and their education being solely in Sinhala or Tamil, they were deprived of top jobs. Then with education in Swabasha made compulsory, students who studied in Sinhala or Tamil were enabled “to enter the higher echelons of employment.” Hence I go no further with analysing Pro Bono Publico’s critique. I totally disagree with him when he says “Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists are scuttling English education, to say the least, is an unkind remark.” SWRD B scuttled the entire country’s future by his Sinhala Only policy which was to please the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists to gain popularity. Also incorrect of Pro B P to say “Talking of world usage of Sinhala and Tamil…. ” neither are world languages and Sinhala is used by a miniscule of world population.

My main point in this counter opinion to Pro BP and in agreement with Goolbai is that education aside, the entire future of the country was jeopardized by the Sinhala Only policy brought in by Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956, just 24 hours after he became Prime Minister. Why the hurry? To keep a promise he made to give a place to the Pancha Maha Balavega which was disastrous as it was too soon to bring the vedamahattaya and rural school teacher into mainstream politics just to please the Sinhalese majority.

I write after reference to the relevant literature and advice from a very senior public servant now retired, on this ever recurring topic: the damage done by discarding English usage in the 1950s and doing very little thereafter to remedy matters by making English teaching compulsory and English usage wider and much more prevalent.

The Official Language Act (No 33 of 1956) commonly referred to as the Sinhala Only Act, was passed in Parliament in 1956 replacing English with Sinhala as the sole official language of Ceylon with the exclusion of Tamil.

“The Act was controversial as supporters of the Act saw it as an attempt by a community that had just gained independence to distance themselves from their colonial masters, while its opponents viewed it as an attempt by the linguistic majority to oppress and assert dominance on minorities. The Act symbolizes the post independent Sinhala majority’s determination to assert Ceylon’s identity as a Sinhala Buddhist nation state and for Tamils, it became a symbol of minority oppression and a justification for them to demand a separate nation state, Tamil Eelam…”

In 1958 Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act was passed giving official status to Tamil as medium of instruction in school and university education and for admission to the public service as well as for correspondence and administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

CWW Kannangara’s name must NOT be quoted when referring to the Sinhala Only Act and all the horrendous conflict and turmoil that followed. He cannot be blamed for the divisive nature of the laws that followed this move, which he had not advocated.

We have to be thankful to him for free education from KG to university with choice of medium of instruction and English at higher levels; for the improvement of education in rural areas by setting up Central Schools; and for promoting education in the primary classes (Gr one through five) in the mother tongue with English taught from Grade three (then Standard three) onwards. These provisions he brought in in 1941 as Minister of Education in the State Council. Thus the sobriquet used on him: ‘Father of Free Education.’

If his policies had been followed and SWRD Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Only Act not introduced and implemented, education could have continued in English or as parents and educators decided in different areas of the country. Children learn best in their mother tongue hence CWW’s wise move to have primary education in any of the three languages.

He inaugurated Central Schools to be similar to Royal College, Colombo. In 1941 three such schools were started; in 1945 they increased to 35 and in 1950, 50 Central Schools flourished and many top public servants were from these schools distributed in rural areas throughout the island.

So it was the Sinhala Only Act that affected adversely all in Ceylon. CWW Kannangara’s policies benefited rural students with the opening of Central Schools and the retention of the teaching of English. This changed drastically with the abandoning of the teaching and usage of English after 1956.

One stark comparison that exemplifies this fact is to consider Sri Lanka against India. India retained the use of English not only as a link language but almost a national language alongside Hindi and Urdu. She has landed on the moon and is a nation up front globally, courted by most other countries and host to VIP international groups. Where is formerly resplendent Sri Lanka – bankrupt and still rife with corruption and awash in drugs and thugs.

English was considered the world’s lingua franca. It has gained importance and worldwide usage as the world went electronic and more scientific and technological. Considering Sri Lanka, what a universe of literature, scientific knowledge, arts, drama and in every other sphere were our children deprived by abandoning English. These children are almost senior citizens of today and yet denied access to English literature and vast resources of knowledge in the English language. This deprivation still exists today among our young adult population. No concrete steps have been taken to alleviate this poverty. The future too seems bleak.



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