Posted on March 16th, 2018


‘Sinhala Only’ affected education as well. The British had instituted a two-tier system of education with compulsory vernacular education for the majority and a restricted elite education in English for a small minority. Vernacular education was provided from Grade one to Grade five. Most rural children left school after Grade five. From Grade six, education was in English. The English schools were largely in the hands of the Christian missions.

In the 1930s, State Council decided that a sound policy on education was needed. The  Executive Committee for Education  looked into this, and recommended in 1943 that education should be free, compulsory and the medium  of  instruction should be the ‘mother -tongue’ or swabhasha. There was some fuss and opposition, but eventually, this became law in 1947 and swabhasha education commenced in the primary school in 1949.

I belonged to the second batch of pupils who came under this rule. My school made a very smooth transition from English to Sinhala in Grade VI and we children did not feel the difference. But those concerned about Swabhasha education knew the battle was not over.

In 1954, the first batch of swabhasha educated pupils had reached the pre-GCE O level class (then known as Senior School Certificate, SSC). In 1955 a deputation representing All Ceylon Bhikku Congress, Lanka Jatika Guru Sangamaya, All Ceylon Ayurvedic Congress, All Ceylon Literary Association and the Sinhala Jatika Sangamaya met the Prime Minister to urge the implementation of swabhasha at GCE O level in 1955. This was done. Then came the first Higher School Certificate (HSC) in Swabhasha in 1959.

The transition from English to Sinhala for HSC was smooth because the HSC teachers supported the change and worked hard to make it a success. The young graduates who came to teach in the Sixth Form were bilingual and enthusiastic.

I offered Ceylon History and Western History for the exam. My history teacher, who had just graduated from University, did not translate from the prescribed English textbook. She taught us directly in Sinhala glancing at the textbook as she speedily ‘rattled’ on.  She was very confident and therefore made us feel confident too. I wish to recognize her in this essay. She was the sister of the better known Gananath Obeyesekera.

The teacher who took over from her, ignored the textbook altogether and taught us in Sinhala directly from her University notes, which were in English.  I am where I am today because of their good teaching and I remain grateful.

Siri Gamage has something similar to say. ‘I entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in September 1968 from Walasmulla Maha Vidyalaya’, he said. I was among the two who were fortunate enough to enter university;  I studied Buddhist civilization, history, political science for the HSC in 1967. We had not only university graduate teachers who were qualified to teach in the school but they had a passion for teaching.

Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Pirivenas were elevated to university status in 1958 and its graduates became the first to pass out in the Sinhala medium. But that did not satisfy the ‘Sinhala only’ group. They wanted access to the University of Ceylon.

The HSC   exam also doubled as the University Entrance exam and the first batch of Swabhasha undergraduates entered the University of Ceylon in 1960. This would have been a small group.

The real avalanche came the year after, 1961, when, due to the success of Swabhasha teaching, there was an intake of 1,273 and the University created two categories of residential and non-residential students, to accommodate the lot.  I belong to this group. In the following year 1962, the University admitted 1550 and conducted external examinations for the first time for 1015 candidates. The authorities had insisted on taking in all those who had qualified.

K.N.O Dharmadasa has provided an account of what happened next in the University.  The Arts faculty of the University of Ceylon was to start teaching in Sinhala in 1960 and the science faculties in 1968.   Preparation for this   should have started years before, but 1960 found the university unprepared, said Dharmadasa. Opinion has been divided on the issue of Swabhasha, between the academic body University Senate, and the executive body, University Council, observed Ralph Pieris.

But there was support for Swabhasha from unexpected sources in the university.  I recall Prof C.C. de Silva, then Professor of Paediatrics, a highly westernised person, saying, when he came to dinner at our house, probably around 1958, to the surprise of his listeners, that it should be possible to teach medicine in Sinhala.

Critics  are unaware of the enormity of the task that lay before the university teachers,  said Dharmadasa   There were no textbooks in Sinhala, no Sinhala terminology and the lecturers did not know Sinhala. ‘Even in the arts faculty, they faced difficulties.’

The lecturers responded positively to the language change. Some academics knew Sinhala. Others were not so fortunate. They ran to the department of Sinhala to learn Sinhala. .KNO recalls a lecturer from the Medical faculty, ‘with a Kandyan name’ sitting in his Sinhala for Beginners class which was conducted for foreigners, so that he could teach in Sinhala. He had had his education in English

The Sinhala Department of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya took up the challenge. The public are not aware of the great responsibility shouldered by this department in the transition from English to swabhasha in the university, said K.N.O. Dharmadasa. ‘They did yeoman service’. (Sunday Island. 8.4.07 p 13).

The Sinhala Dept conducted refresher courses In Sinhala for those who wanted to brush up their Sinhala grammar and writing skills in preparation for the changeover. Dharmadasa recalls helping a senior colleague in the History Department by translating his lecture notes from English to Sinhala. The department did all this with a very small staff, helped by the senior teachers in the Sanskrit and Pali departments. Those who worked included Hettiarachchi, P.E.E. Fernando, D.J.Wijeratne, Sri Rammandala, Peter Silva.  Senior teachers in the Sanskrit and Pali dept helped them.

The issue of terminology was dealt with competently. Prof. D.E. Hettiarachchi,   created a’ Swabasha office’ in the Sinhala department   , headed by Senior lecturer P.E.E. Fernando   where  the  Sinhala lecturers,  assisted by  Sanskrit and Pali lecturers, sat for long hours with  specialists in the different disciplines, coining suitable Sinhala words.  The resulting glossaries were cyclostyled and distributed to the teaching staff to be used in their lectures and tutorials.  These glossaries were later acquired by the Department of Official Languages and used as the base for the Department‘s own glossaries.  This valuable service is now forgotten, said Dharmadasa. It should be placed on record.

The Swabhasha responsibilities of the Department of Sinhala were not confined to the compilation of technical terms. The university created a Question paper Moderation Board and the Sinhala specialists on it, such as Hettiarachchi and P.E.E. Fernando, with other senior dons, went through every Sinhala medium question paper drafted by the other department s to ensure that the language was correct and precise.

Teaching was directly in Sinhala. The lecturers had to accurately summarize what was in the English   language texts, since the students could not read and understand them.  Those who knew Sinhala were able to make a positive contribution. A.V. de S Indraratne and F.R.Jayasuriya pioneered the teaching of economics in Sinhala. They took up the challenge, when others said it was not possible to teach economics in Sinhala, said Indraratne.

Others who knew their limitations and did not even attempt to teach in Sinhala also supported Swabhasha. Indraratne told me that Ralph Pieris had   applauded Indraratne’s economics book in Sinhala ‘Mila Nyaya’ and wanted him given a promotion or increments or something on the strength of it.

Today in any forum in which economics, political science, medicine or a technological subject is discussed in Sinhala, including television and radio, the speakers use the Sinhala medium with great facility and style, said Dharmadasa. Sinhala technical terms come to them with great ease. Our language has been able to develop a corpus of words for dealing with areas of modern knowledge, a facility which was not there 50 years ago.

These terms and expressions were first developed for university teaching. The use of Sinhala in this manner, for extension work, could therefore be considered a valuable byproduct of Swabhasha teaching in university.

University of Ceylon, Peradeniya   had no intention of ever becoming a ‘Sinhala only’ university.  Academics silently anticipated that once Sinhala was securely established in the country, the university would revert to English with Sinhala alongside.

English textbooks were never translated into Sinhala. Where necessary they wrote original works directly in Sinhala. A.V. de S Indraratne wrote ‘Mila niyaya’ (1961) on the theory of price.  ‘Even today it is considered a competent textbook on economic theory at university’ said Indraratne in interview in 2012.

Writing directly in Sinhala was the policy even before Sinhala Only. In 1951 or so Dr S.D. Ratnapala was appointed senior resident obstetrician in Castle street maternity hospital. He was a lecturer to the midwives and nurses and he wrote an excellent book about pregnancy and labor in Sinhala and included Sinhala terms for the technical terms in obstetrics.   Prof G.P. Wannigama wrote a book in Sinhala on carbon chemistry which remains to this day as a landmark feature, said  R.O.B. Wijesekera in 2014.

The University at Peradeniya was determined that the ‘Sinhala Only’ student should not leave the University also as ‘Sinhala Only.’ They were going to be exposed to ‘English also.’ This was done in two ways.

Firstly, students were introduced to English terminology while learning in Sinhala. This was done as soon as the change over came. The importance of this has been ignored. I think this was a spontaneous decision on the part of the teachers. I recall doing this myself, when teaching sociology in Sinhala, for a short time, as a stand in, in a university in the 1990s. No one told me to do so.

Secondly, the University     gave the students a compulsory training in the English language. They were force fed English, whether they liked it or not. At Peradeniya, the University   set up an English language teaching unit as soon as teaching switched to Sinhala. This was in place in 1961. I recall looking for a fellow student to be told that that she had gone for the English class. I think the 1960s students resented the emphasis on English, but later generations realized its value. Anyway the University insisted on it.

The University developed this Unit into a permanent one, with trained teachers who were also graduates of the University and therefore sympathetic to the needs of the undergraduates. The aim of this course was to help the student read and understand an academic text. The focus was on reading and comprehension.

Today all undergraduates are given a compulsory three months intensive, immersive course in English before teaching starts. The course thereafter continues throughout the degree years. The classes are incorporated into the University timetable. In the science faculties, attendance at the classes is compulsory.  Attendance is recorded and they have to pass an exam at the end.  In some cases a certificate of proficiency in English is necessary to obtain the degree certificate. Therefore each generation left the University with some knowledge of English, and hopefully some confidence in using it.

Initially there was a disinterest in acquiring proficiency in English, and hostility towards those who knew English, Now there is a change, said GH Peiris in 2016. Several departments are conducting lectures in English with no resistance from the students.

The swabhasha students   in the pure and applied sciences were able to manage in English. They had mainly to learn scientific terminology   and master specific phrases in English. There was no need for style, dash and imagination.  The customized English courses for medical and engineering   students produced by the Peradeniya English Department were excellent, said a friend who had taught in the course.  Some students also studied on their own and attended private English classes when the University was closed.

By the time I entered the university, I had little to no knowledge of English and even avoided those who spoke English in my first year to avoid embarrassment, said academic Siri Gamage. The university had English classes but their emphasis was to give us reading and comprehension skills.

However, teachers we had such as Hemamali Gunasinghe,  [and Lalitha] Gunawardene  taught us the value of communicative English also. Most of all, their teaching approach helped us to eliminate fear within us about speaking in English. Additional tutorial classes in Gampaha (during university closure due to 1971 insurrection) and in Kandy privately conducted by a talented teacher from Trinity helped me to further my English language skills. The encouragement received from my seniors was invaluable”, concluded Gamage.

I was from a small village in Baddegama Urala area and did not know English when I entered Vidyodaya,” said B. Dhanapala, writing from Quebec, Canada. So first year lectures were in Sinhala and we were e encouraged to write out our chemistry lab reports in English using model answers to copy from. In the final year we were able to use English fairly well. There was no opposition from students for this scheme. When I passed out I was able to read English texts and write answers in English and am now in Canada. At that time, the number of available English teachers was small.”

C.S. Weeraratne observed that almost all the science professionals who were undergraduates in the post 1960 era studied at Advanced level in swabhasha and subsequently in English at University level. A large number of them went abroad, and worked in the English medium, obtained their postgraduate qualifications without any difficult. Learning at A’ level in swabhasha has not been an obstacle for them to pursue higher studies nor to practice their profession effectively.

Many University  alumni  ( who had entered as Swabhasha students] have found lucrative employment both in Sri Lanka and overseas, said Hugh Karunanayake. the system has responded positively in later years, and there seems to be a definite improvement in the quality of Arts Graduates.  The Science faculties have always maintained wholesome standards, he said. in 2018, universities teach in  both Sinhala and English.  This means is that English has returned, but Sinhala has remained. Sinhala does not feel threatened either,

Swabhasha also brought about a vital improvement in university education at Peradeniya. Before 1961, the library, that wonderful storehouse of books that the anti-Swabhasha group talks about so lovingly, was closed at weekends and also closed at 4 p.m. on week days.  ‘The students are simply sitting around at weekends, when they should be in the library,’ complained Prof. J.E.Jayasuriya. The pressure to keep the library open longer came only after the Swabhasha students came in.  The change came after I had entered so the year was probably 1962.

The change over to Swabhasha in the University was not simply a change of language. it was also a significant social revolution. A group of young people, who had been deliberately excluded from University education, were now storming in, confident and demanding. This frightened some and pleased others.

I belonged to the second group of swabhasha entrants into Peradeniya (1961) and was interested in the new group of girls I was meeting.  My recall today is that the pupils who came from Central schools were happy, confident and eager. They had passed a highly competitive exam, and were looking forward to the University experience.  They arrived in groups, not singly. So they knew each other already, unlike the rest of us.  The opposite sex was not a problem either. The Central schools were co-ed schools and  both groups arrived together into University .

The brighter ones were in the Halls of Residence.   I do not think they had any problems adjusting to hall life, they had each other.  But they complained about the food in the halls, which the rest of us, from westernized homes, thought were very good!

The subjects they studied did not frighten them either. Most of them offered arts subjects, because their schools did not teach science. ‘Wait till they introduce science to those schools and see what happens’ said a critic ominously. They all offered Sinhala in which they excelled. This must have helped to shoot the standard for Sinhala literature  in the University sky high!  In my first year, the Sinhala literature lectures were held in the Arts Faculty auditorium ,because there were so many of us. Later,  the Sinhala lectures had to be given in two sessions, the numbers were so large, reported KNO.

The swabhasha entrants came from all over the country. Many in the Halls of residence were from farming families.  I recall  going to see a girl in  Sick Bay, accompanied by another undergrad. I cannot recall why I went, who sent me and what transpired, but I recall her telling me that she came from a village, her parents were very  poor, they had hardly anything and  she was there on a bursary. There would have been more, of course, but that is all I can remember.

The entry of the rural Swabhasha student into University was something that the rural parents had long wanted. It was not something beyond their comprehension. I recall seeing two  people  in sarong standing on the main Galaha road and  gazing at Hilda Obeyesekera Hall, as I was walking past. ‘They can easily put three persons into these rooms,’ one said resentfully to the other. The year would have been 1961 or 1962.

The rural parents coming to see their daughters would arrive by bus around mid morning and an unsympathetic warden (name withheld) would make them stand in the hot sun, outside my Hall of residence, till 4 p.m when the official visiting hours started. I recall once bumping into such a family  in the morning as I was going for lectures. They said that they could not wait till 4.p.m.they had to get back to their village.  They had brought something for ‘ape Kamala’. I offered to hand it over and did so.

It was suddenly announced at dinner in my Hall, that we had to eat using cutlery. This was a deliberate hit at the rural group who had just come in. I thought this was unnecessary and did not comply. Whatever the purpose, this was not the way to do it. Cutlery continued to be optional. I have included these two incidents to show that there were other issues as well when the Sinhala speaking group entered University. Some thought that they should not be there at all .Others thought they should be forcibly westernized.

However, some senior students who had studied in the English medium  took an interest in the Sinhala medium students. A friend of mine,  a brilliant student, who was doing History honours in English, made it a point to coach a younger undergrad who was doing her  History special degree in Sinhala .I am not sure about this, but she may have been the first to   do so. ( names withheld).

I  now come to issue of Intelligence. The Grade V scholarship of the 1970s brought bright rural children into urban schools. They immediately stood out for their superb Sinhala and their exceptional intelligence. ‘They only  lack English,’ said an admiring informant.  I am using this to argue that Swabhasha brought into the University, in the 1960s, highly intelligent young people who deserved a University education, but had been denied this privilege till then.

I think that we undergrads must have been fed the idea that since we were Swabhasha entrants,  rural and backward, our intelligence level would be low. I recall asking Ananda Kulasuriya, then senior lecturer in Sinhala and a relative, whether he thought the  intelligence level  in the University had gone down with us, the Swabhasha entrants and he said, ‘on the contrary, I think the intelligence level of the student is now far superior to what it was.’

Intelligence and potential   do not seem to have   mattered in the old University of Ceylon. What mattered was social class and the knowledge of English. Swabhasha on the other hand, brought in a group of highly intelligent persons who replaced, or rather displaced the mediocrities whose main qualification was that they knew English.   This level of high intelligence in the Swabasha group has persisted. The English unit teachers I spoke to, and the lecturers I approached,    all agreed that throughout the years, the Swabhasha students have continued to be very intelligent. (continued)


  1. Christie Says:

    Thanks Kamala.

    “වහර නු සරෙන් සපයා” මට තුවක්මුවක් (ගිනි අවියක් ‘ගිනි පෙල්ලක් වෙන්න ඇති”) තිබුනනම් ඔය සින්හල අපිට සින්හල කවපු උන් පරලොව යවනව.

    අද රට විරු විරුවියන් පිටරට ගෙදර දොරේ වැඩකරල පනමක් එවනව. ඉන්ග්‍රිසි ඉගෙනගෙන තිබුනනම් පවුමක්නෙ කක්කුස්සි බලාගන්නෙ නැතුව.

    ඔන්න ඕකයි කෙරුවාව.

    බන්ඩගෙ උන්ට ඉන්ග්‍රිසි පොඩි එකී එන්ගලන්තෙ.

  2. SA Kumar Says:

    SOME OBSERVATIONS ON “SINHALA ONLY”- all fine , why not named “Sinhala & Tamil Only ” (‘mother -tongue’ or swabhasha or Thai moli)

  3. Senevirath Says:

    සිංහලෙන් ඉගෙන ගන්න සරසවිගිය අයගේ බුධ්ධිමට්ටම ඉතා උසස් වීම ගැන සමහරුන්ට තරහය් යාන්තම්වත් මේ තරමට ජාතිකත්වය පනගහමින් ඉන්නේ ඒ ය නිසා නැත්නම් මෙලහටත් රට ඉවරය්ප්‍රභා සහ කොටි පරදවියයුතුය් කිව්වේ බලකලේ ඒ සිංහල උගත්තුමිස රනිල් වාගේ ගත්තෝ නොවෙය ඉංග්‍රීසි උගත්තු බොහොමයක්ම හෙළ සිරිත් විරිත් පවා පිළිකුල් කළා උන් ගත්තේ ඉංග්‍රීසි භාශාවනොවෙය් ඉංග්‍රීසිසංස්කෘතිය

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