The Absurdity of Compelling to Learn Three Languages
Posted on November 7th, 2010

Dilrook Kannangara

A number of political commentators have highlighted the need to learn three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English by everyone. Although it looks very good on the surface, it is not the right thing to do for various reasons. Encouraging people to learn as many languages as possible is no doubt good and it should happen. But compelling them to learn languages that are of little use is a tragedy. Those who recommend such outdated remedies are detached from ground realities leading to unwise judgements. In short, two persons need just one language (not three or two) to communicate with each other! Can those pundits understand that? Knowing more languages does not make it any easier.

If a Sinhalese person meets a Tamil, they would choose one language to communicate. It would be either English, Sinhala or Tamil; not a combination of all three. So just by improving the fluency of one language, the communication problem can be overcome. However, there are exceptions. In the public sector, a percentage of employees equalling the Tamil speaking population percentage (less than 15%) may be fluent in Tamil so that they can better serve Tamils. There is nothing to gain by overdoing it. The use of translators and interpreters must increase making these into professional status as in many other countries. That can take care of the inability to communicate with government servants in some areas. Giving financial incentives to government servants to learn languages is another good move.

 Tamil population percentage is not more than 15%. A marked reduction is seen due to large scale migration out of the country. Of this 50% live outside the north and the east and they are reasonably conversant in Sinhala. All traders in Greater Colombo area and their children are remarkably fluent in Sinhala. At present, except a very few hundred thousand, most Muslims are fluent in Sinhala. That puts the total percentage of people who cannot communicate in Sinhala at less than 10%. It is absurd to suggest that over 75% of the population must suffer a new form of compulsion just to please this 10%. It is much easier if this 10% learns Sinhala! This is what happens in most democratic countries. If it is too harsh (on just 10% of the population that is), there is another solution which is to teach both communities English.

 The Indian model has been suggested by some pundits. However, in India native Hindi speakers are not required to learn Tamil, Malayalee, Oriya or any other language! It’s the native Malayalee, Oriya, etc., speakers who have to learn Hindi as a second language.

 Coupling Muslims and other minorities with Tamils is another huge mistake. When Muslims were branded as Tamil speaking people against their will in 1931, Tamil separatists expected Muslims to support their plan. However, it ended 60 years later by the complete wipe out of Muslims from the Tamil majority north. Today most Muslims are fluent in Sinhala. All other minorities including Colombo-Chettis, Moors, Malays, Veddhas and even Burgers without complaining acquainted themselves with the Sinhala language. There should not be any special treatment for Tamils and Tamil language users. If people are allowed free will to learn a language of their choice they would certainly make the best decision.

 Teaching Sinhala to Tamils and Tamil to Sinhalese was first suggested by communists. Again they emphasised it in the Official Languages Commission which was headed by them. It worked well in communist settlings but not so well in democratic nations. If Singapore can be regarded a democracy, even Singapore is fast moving away from the use of multiple languages to Mandarin and English. Lee Kwan Yu famously said, “speak your language at home”. Other democracies including Malaysia, UK, USA, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, etc. are doing very well with just one or two languages. Outdated “ƒ”¹…”do-gooder’ theories must not be followed in Sri Lanka.

 Learn Two Languages Including English, Not Three

Learning one’s mother tongue comes naturally to everyone. However, learning an additional language is very difficult and time consuming. After all learning languages does not give any economic benefits to most people and obviously they have better things to learn that will put dinner on the table! Learning a third language is twice as difficult and time consuming than learning a second language. This is the practical reality which must be taken into account before making any decision. Teaching English must be enhanced rapidly. Everyone must have access to developing English proficiency. When a large percentage of Sri Lankans are fluent in English, the communication barrier between Sinhalese and Tamils will collapse.

 Sufficient English knowledge can totally bridge the communication gap between the three communities.

 If the time, money, effort and resources wasted in teaching a third language is put to teaching more English to both camps, it will be much more productive.

 This is the way to go in the modern day. Learning a bit more English is much more beneficial for everyone than learning a little Tamil. It can enormously enhance one’s career, business and other pursuits. This is the most important factor language pundits must consider. The time, money, effort and resources wasted in teaching a third language can be also put into learning technology or commerce subjects that can lead to real development. On the other hand, the time and resources can be better used learning a language of commercial use like Chinese, Hindi, German, Japanese, Korean, French, etc. That can give people tangible benefits. A large number of students were found cheating at the Korean Language Proficiency exam recently. It shows the practical need to enhance learning and teaching this language.

 However, this must not be interpreted as a discouragement to learning Sinhala or Tamil by Tamils and Sinhalese respectively. It must be softly encouraged for those who are willing to do so. Those who deal with each other regularly will voluntarily learn each others’ language which must be encouraged.

 It must be emphasised that both Sinhala and Tamil are national languages which means people should be able to do their work in any one of these languages. It must remain so.

 The Language Issue was Never a Root Cause of the Problem

Contrary to wrong beliefs popularised by Tamil separatists, the language issue was never a root cause of the conflict or the so called ethnic problem. Official Language Act became law in 1956 which made Sinhala the official language while recognizing reasonable use of Tamil which included using Tamil in Tamil majority areas. Did Tamil homelands suddenly emerge in 1956? Then it has a history shorter than some elders in the society! By 1956 Lanka Tamil Nation Party (Illankai Tamil Arasuk Katchi falsely referred to as the Federal Party) had been formed for over seven years! The infamous and racist 50-50 demand had been made exactly 25 years before (1931).

 Therefore it is silly to argue that the so called “Sinhala-only” act created these problems. When Chelvanayakam in frail health limped from Kachcheri to Kachcheri threatening Tamil government servants not to learn Sinhala, he hired the most expensive Sinhala tutors at that time to teach himself and his family the Sinhala language with all its intricacies.

 The root cause of the problem is the desire of a section of Tamil politicians to rule their very own nation which would be made up of Tamils.

 Pacifying Tamil separatists by spreading the use of the Tamil language is not the solution. People should be free to learn languages of choice and any language they learn apart from the Mother Tongue must give them tangible economic benefits. Compelling Sri Lankans to learn additional languages to pacify Tamil separatists or to put them out of business is similar to treating filaria with rheumatism medicine.

 The Myth about English

Fortunately the myth about English has been weakened over the past decades. Today English is no longer considered an unconquerable frontier even by the rural poor youngsters. They take it as a tough challenge and overcome it. However, opportunities, resources and finances are a big hindrance to them.

 Teaching Tamil or Sinhala because the government cannot afford to teach them or have the infrastructure to teach them English is such an unwise thing. Government plans to raise e-literacy rate to 75% in the next 6 years. Raising the English literacy and fluency at the same time is much easier!

 Seniors in the society remember with fondness how in the bygone era Sinhala elites and Tamil elites communicated without any problem with each other in English. Unfortunately due to short sighted politics the majority was not allowed an opportunity to be fluent in English until the move cropped up from within the people.

 Emerging huge opportunities in trading, ICT, shipping and freight forwarding, etc. industries badly require the proficiency of English and other global commercial languages plus ICT skills and technical skills. Equip people with these skills which will do more good to create a better life for them all without holding them back.

9 Responses to “The Absurdity of Compelling to Learn Three Languages”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    There is a lot of sense established in this article. Nobody should be forced to learn a laguage to appease the seperatist cause. LET ENGLISH BE THE LINK LANGUAGE. His Excellency The President wants everybody to learn English and be proficient in written and spoken English. Technology cannot be studied in tamil or Sinhala. English is a must.

    So, please do not force an additional language down the throats of people. It can be tantamount to breaching ones fundamental rights.


  2. Nanda Says:

    Thank you very much for this article.
    This is one of the best facts and surprisingly all including our editor missed out, no one making any noice for this stupid, absurd, crazy and more importantly unnessay idea of 3 languages.
    If one can say “sinahlaya is a fool, only good for eating kewum”, this stupid idea must have come from a sinhalaya like that.

  3. sena Says:

    This article make sense however many minorities know all three languages at working level. So opportunity should be available to those who want to learn all languages without being forced to do so. The writer’s observation on the past –“Seniors in the society remember with fondness how in the bygone era Sinhala elites and Tamil elites communicated without any problem with each other in English. Unfortunately due to short sighted politics the majority was not allowed an opportunity to be fluent in English until the move cropped up from within the people”.– in my opinion is one of the main reasons that we remain relatively less technologically advanced country. In 1950s many Asian countries (notably who did not adopt a foreign language as the working language) took advantage of emerging technological trends (one was electronic technology) to set up industrial base and has now advanced to knowledge based economies that can compete with anyone. While there is no problem in communicating in English, we use this capability as a way of gaining social status, a primary qualifications for all important jobs including science and engineering and marginalizing those who are not proficient. I assume that in 1950s while their colleagues in East Asian countries were busy guiding their economies to modern knowledge based economies our professionals, politicians and administrators (like legendary CCS) were languishing in their offices preoccupied with impressing each other with their high standard of English while just like today depending on poor blue collar workers to shoulder the economy.

  4. A. Sooriarachi Says:

    I agree with the belief that compelling people to learn 3 languages is not the right way to go. However, I think we all agree that it would be beneficial to the society if everybody had a BASIC knowledge of all 3 languages used in SriLanka, just enough to communicate with each other across the length and breath of the country. Therefore, I support the teaching of all 3 languages in school, but students NOT compelled to focus on more than TWO for examination purposes. Leave it to the individual to select the preferred two languages. For instance, Children of a farmer in the East may wish to continue farming and may see it more beneficial to know Sinhala and Tamil rather than English and it would be unfair to expect them to sit for English Language examinations. During my schooling I learnt Sinhala and English for examinations and took up Pali as my optional 3rd language. Some others did, Latin or Sanskrith. Had they taught Tamil instead, I might have learnt it to get a basic knowledge.

  5. M.S.MUdali Says:

    I agree with Sooriya’s comments. Considering TWO languages for employment is a good idea. But English is needed for the CYBER world activities.

    I was born and studied in Vavuniya. In those days we treated the ENGLISH period as a FREE one and ran home to look after our HOMEwork like Cattle and paddy farms.

    Even I asked my teachers why Sinhala was not taught. They said “go and study in a Sinhala medium school”. I hated those statements.

    Now I hope new ideas are floating in the minds of Sri lankans. I welcome those ideas!

  6. Siri Says:

    I tend to disagree with the above articles. They are very negative. This type of attitude is good for some who do not want to study a third language. In the old days when my parents went to school students in Colombo Catholic schools had to study Latin or French as a third language. This I would say was not of much use as Latin was a dead language which was used only by the Cathlic Church and Lawyers and French was useful only if one travelled in the Continent of Europe. However studying a third Language is an advantage especially if it is popularly used in one’s locality. If you were with two Tamil friends and could only talk to each other in English, but if the two tamils started to talk in Tamil to each other in your prescence like they always do, you would feel uneasy not knowing whether they were talking ill of you. If you knew Tamil there would be no misundestandings. The Sri Lankan students going to China, Russia, Germany and Japan on scholarships have to do a language course in the language of the country before starting their higher education. It is not impossibe for smart people. I know Sri Lankans who are fluent in five languages. Our former ambassodor to China Mr Charlie Mahendran could speak chinese and the Russian ambassodor to sri Lanka can speak fluent Sinhalese. When I studied in grade VI in 1953, instead of Latin or French they decided to teach us Tamil. I was able to talk, read and write in Tamil. However after one year they discontinued it. It would have been nice if we had done it all the way to SSC level. What I am trying to say to my friends who wrote against it above is that it is useful to know a third language especially as it it widely spoken in Chenai by a large population. Now living in the USA I have learnt to speak in spanish as this language is spoken widely by house cleaners and laborers who are a cheap source of available for work in the house.

  7. Samson Says:

    Encouraging people to learn any language is one thing, compelling them to learn is another. Things have changed from the olden days. I 100% agree with the writer that improving English knowledge in the community will resolve all the problems.

    Other business languages should also be targets. But it must happen without compulsion. People should be free to learn a language or languages of their choice apart from English and their own language.

  8. Nanda Says:

    Siri and Soori,
    When Sinhala students are busy doing GCE exams, they will miss out on Maths, Sciences trying to pass Tamil. What a burden ?
    Learning spoken Tamil is one thing, making it compulsory is another. Let the minority learn the majority language, not the otherway around.

  9. Lorenzo Says:

    Compulsory learing Tamil is old and outdated nonsense. Teach kids a language that will be of use, not a burden. Anyway this problem is not based on language.

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