Posted on March 19th, 2018


The Sinhala Only reforms of 1956 heralded a new phase in the social and economic development of the country.  Until that time, the small minority of English educated people, 2% of the population, had a monopoly over University education, employment opportunities, as well as the business world, which   worked in English, a language alien to two thirds of the population of the country.

One of the effects of British rule was the emergence of western educated elite for whom coveted opportunities in the public service, the profession, business and politics were readily open. The rural poor in the pre 1956 era had access only to sub-standard educational facilities, mainly provided in Sinhala. Employment opportunities for the rural Sinhala population were very limited. Many impoverished rural families were happy to send their sons and daughters to homes in Colombo to work as domestic servants. All that changed with the introduction of Sinhala Only,

The main result of ‘Sinhala Only’ was that it helped in the upward mobility of this Sinhala speaking group. Sinhala educated persons could not rise upward, as long as English remained the dominant language. Once Sinhala became the official language, the Sinhala speaking population, mainly rural and Buddhist, achieved upward mobility in no time.

‘Ape Aanduwa’ brought dramatic changes to the life of the Sinhala educated. Prior to 1956, they had no place in society, said P.A.Samaraweera. He praised ‘the unique service rendered by SWRD by bringing to the fore, the educationally and socially deprived vast Sinhala majority.’

One very important move, through which mobility was achieved, was Swabhasha in university. .University education was a must for the best jobs and positions and the Sinhala speakers wanted their slice. Before 1960, university education was exclusively for the English educated, who were mostly from Colombo and largely Christian.   You had to have English at ‘O’ level, for entrance into the Medical Faculty. Medicine was at that time, the most highly prized degree in the University. Opening medical education to Sinhala speakers in the 1960s was a big leap.

Swabhasha should not be looked at as a stupid change of language. ‘Sinhala only’ was primarily   a method of gaining access to the University.  It led to a highly successful, long overdue upward move of the rural Sinhala speakers. This rural Sinhala Buddhist group displaced the English educated community who had been dominant in the University earlier.


The swabhasha entrants came from all sorts of strata, urban and rural. Many came from the lower middle class and below. A former student of Ralph Pieris came to see him in the 1980s to seek his help for something or other. After she left Ralph told me, ‘I remember this girl. She was a lorry driver’s daughter and I wanted to help her. She wanted to study sociology and I took her into the course.’  He does not seem to have minded if the girl could not read an advanced sociology text in English. Something much more important was happening in the University and he wished to contribute. The language issue would right itself eventually.


It may be helpful to show how students were taken into the University in pre-swabhasha days. In the 1950s those who passed all four subjects entered ‘direct’ while those who passed only three were summoned for an interview. This raised hopes.


I recall one girl, from Ambalangoda, probably a distant relative, who stayed with us for this interview in the early 1950s. While working full time as a teacher and also attending to the housework and looking after her mother, she had gone for classes in her limited spare time and had managed to pass in three subjects. She was rejected at the interview. I recall my mother asking her, ‘why did you not tell them your difficulties’ and she replied ‘they did not ask me.’


My music teacher’s daughter was called for interview for medicine. They were so happy thinking that that she had been accepted and so disappointed when she was rejected. They were not rich people. Another interviewee who came from a railway family, was asked, ‘if your name is Gooneratne, why have you come to the interview in a dress.’ This had upset her. My guess is that this interview was intended to weed out the lower middle class and take in those from the upper classes.  This interview method was eventually scrapped.

Sixty years after ‘Sinhala Only’, Sinhala is again under attack. Of all the elements in the historic 1956 agenda it was the enthroning of the Sinhala language that was resented most, observed H.L.D. Mahindapala in 2013.  There is a deep animosity and resentment towards ‘Sinhala only’ today in 2018. The language issue still rankles. The critics are mainly, but not all, English speaking and Christian.

The anti ‘Sinhala only’ critics of 2018 are hitting out in all directions. The Sinhala Only Act was political opportunism and not statesmanship, said one critic. The regime of SWRD was a national disaster except for the status given to the hitherto oppressed common man, said another. Sinhala only   was accompanied with the unleashing of the forces of indiscipline and lawlessness said a third.

‘1956 saw the rise of a newly invented culture and slogan about country, nation and religion, meaning a Sinhala Buddhist nation, excluding the other ethnic groups. ‘Sinhala only’ was arrogantly legislated the state language, replacing for the speakers of other languages, one imperial language with another, ‘said a fourth critic.

These critics were snooty. ‘After 1956, there was a drastic breakdown in discipline with the mob invading Parliament which is a precinct where dignity and decorum should pervade, ‘said one critic.  ‘The masses went berserk, storming Parliament, with a person cheekily occupying even the Speaker’s Chair! ‘said another.

‘Sinhala only’ has been blamed for most of the political ills in the country. ‘Sinhala only’   gave rise to a long lasting civil war and a period of terror, said Leo Fernando. The Sinhala Only policy was a denial of human rights to a section of the country’s population, he added.

‘Sinhala only’ divided the children into language streams. The replacement of the single and common instructional medium of English, with Sinhala and Tamil, also tore the ethnic communities apart when the national need was to forge a common Sri Lankan identity, the critics said. If English had been retained as a compulsory link language, the history of this island may perhaps have taken a different turn, sparing us the violent social upheavals that occurred in the early seventies and the mid and late eighties of the last century.

The brutal ethnic war, the politicization of every institution, the rise of a barbaric political culture replete with corruption, nepotism, abduction and murder, and the overall hospitalization of the body politic, are all direct outcomes of the shortsighted policies of 1956, said H.L.Seneviratne. Elmo de Silva is perfectly right to see 1956 as the beginning of all the problems the country has been saddled with since then, Seneviratne concluded.  An opponent intervened to say, Philippines, Zimbabwe and Kenya conduct all their educational and political activities in English and they suffer from all those sins Seneviratne attributes to Sri Lanka.

‘Sinhala only’ was also the cause of the rapidly declining standards in the public service and the professions, said these critics. The turning point was clearly 1956, when English was abandoned, they said. The Sinhala terms needed to replace the English terms were lacking.  I have shown that this is not so.

‘Towards the latter part of my public service, when letters were received from private institutions the subject clerks merely minuted ‘idiripath karami’ (forwarded) unlike when English was in use’, said Elmo de Silva. Earlier,  subject clerks studied the files, flagged the connected documents and gave a draft of what the reply should be, leaving very little for the executive officer to add, except to make some minor amendments.

One critic said ‘I met a doctor who had left the country in disgust at the demand made for them to study basic language skills, and a promotion given to a junior who had them, which he thought was discrimination.’  But another said, ‘people who lament that they lost their rights to work in the English language forget that the people they serve are the Sinhala educated and they have a right to client service in the national language ‘.

‘Sinhala only’ is blamed for the present day loss of English.  ‘Sinhala only’ in schools brought down the standards of English, and everything else as well, to be on par with the lowest, said critics. SWRD made the fatal error of foolhardily going the whole hog, by dispensing with English from the secondary school curriculum, said critics. Sinhala speakers, in their enthusiasm, decided to abandon English altogether.   There was no interest in learning English in the rural schools. This helped to restore English as the exclusive privilege of the rich.

At Walasmulla Maha Vidyalaya the English teacher used to sleep on the table keeping his head on it as students showed little interest in learning the language, recalled Gamage.  I remember in the 1960s there was only one English trained teacher at the Anuradhapura Central and from the day he was appointed he went behind MPs to get a transfer to a school in Colombo, recalled Samaraweera.

This placed the swabhasha student in a vulnerable position observed the critics.  Today, many parents in rural areas are desperate to get their children taught written English in the rural schools they attend. They are painfully aware that without knowledge of English, the prospects of their children obtaining good and remunerative positions, particularly in the private sector, are quite remote. Because English was neglected from 1956, good teachers of English have become increasingly scarce. Today, it is difficult to find teachers of English to deploy to these rural schools, said critics.

These pro-English critics sensibly ask why they cannot come up with some practical solution like giving induction training in English to the vast numbers of graduates who are under employed or unemployed.  These graduates are intelligent young people who could be equipped admirably, by making them go through an intensive induction training course in English and deployed thereafter, to teach the much valued subject in rural schools which are currently starved of English language teachers.

Supporters of ‘Sinhala only’ agree that letting go of English was a mistake. We agree that with Sinhala as the medium of instruction there should have been more emphasis on English as well and there are no qualms about that said Samaraweera.  A.V de S Indraratne thought it was a mistake not to have made make English compulsory from grade 3 onwards.

The initial reaction against English was a natural swing away from an alien language which had been imposed on the Sinhala speaking population. Once Sinhala got its ‘place’ there came   a voluntary swing back to English. The Sinhala speakers, happy and confident, are now ready to embrace English. This positive feature is ignored by those who moan about the loss of English.

‘What set me thinking of the importance of English is when my domestic helper, my electrician, and a Rev. Monk wanted me to help them with at least some spoken English ‘said one critic in 2018. I do not agree with this. My observations differ. My housekeeper, electrician, plumber and trishaw driver all know English. They have known English for the last decade or more. My housekeeper’s grandchildren go for English classes and elocution lessons.

Anti ‘Sinhala only’ critics point out that even today, English, not Sinhala, is supreme in Sri Lanka. Half century after ‘Sinhala only’, Sinhala remains subaltern to English, they said. Commercial activities as well as much of the business of government, is done in English today. The private sector works entirely in English and public servants have to interact with this sector, the critics continued.

Though the Sinhala draft is considered the primary one, in the case of laws, it is usually a translation of the English original, said a critic. I am of the view that all the administrative legal enactments are not yet available in Sinhala. Even if these are translated, the Sinhala used would be so Sanskritized that very few will understand, he concluded.

Supporters of ‘Sinhala only’ hit back. English is useful in business only up to a point.   A study compiled by the British National centre for languages says French is used to trade with partners in Africa, Spanish in Latin America and Russian in Eastern Europe.

Anura Ekanayake, who studied at Dharmaraja, and worked at Unilever said that intelligence and ability were more important than a knowledge of English. Even multinational corporations never look at how well you speak English. If you find it difficult to communicate in English ask whether you could speak to them in Sinhala. They will appreciate that. (Sunday Leader, 21.9.08 p 1). They also point out that English is not a very good language to express Buddhism.

There is also a startling new argument. These critics say that the government should have followed a policy of ‘English only’ instead of ‘Sinhala only’ in schools. We should have expanded and strengthened the clear path that had been laid by the pre-1956 government for democratizing English, by using English as the medium of instruction, they said.  If the government had not entrenched Sinhala in schools, then all the schools would have turned into ‘English only’ schools. ‘Sinhala only’ and ‘swabhasha’ prevented the island from developing an all island school system which taught in the English medium the critics said.

The example offered is the Central schools. C.W.W. Kannangara   had the remarkable foresight in having Central Colleges set up in all the major districts with good teachers in English posted to these schools. These Central schools catered only to the brightest students selected from rural schools. The basic knowledge of English necessary to start receiving instruction in the English medium was impacted by an “English Assistant” that every primary school had.

Democratizing English as it did, as opposed to confining it to the upper classes in Colombo and elsewhere that used English as their home language was the right path. Through the Central Schools system every child who wished to get an education in English, and was willing to put in the effort, had an opportunity to master English said the critics.

A few very bright students from Central schools gained entry to Peradeniya and shone in their studies, some even passing the prestigious CCS examination, said one critic. During my period at the University and even thereafter, there were students who came from remote villages where English was not spoken at home but who excelled in their studies in the English medium, and obtained positions in the ADB, IMF, World Bank. This shows that given the opportunity of studying in English, our rural students can match in learning skills, the best students in the highly reputed schools in urban areas, concluded these critics.

Supporters of ‘Sinhala only’ challenged this. How long would it have taken, had the pre ‘56 policies continued, for the entire population to be on par as those of Colombo elite? Did the country have enough resources then to implement such a wide education programme? Even after centuries of colonial occupation, only a handful were English educated, not the masses. It is almost impossible for the whole nation to be English educated within a short span of time, they said.

Even if they succeeded by a miracle spreading English far and wide in the country,  the Colombo elite would have continued to enjoy their  elevated position and would have ensured that it  remained so. The assumption that we would have had English educated population by now that would have had equal opportunities is a myth, they said.

‘Sinhala only’ critics  next turned their guns on Swabhasha in university They grieved over the loss of English and  were concerned about  ‘standards’ .Swabhasha lowered the standard of education in University since the students could not read the  texts which were in English, said these critics. ‘The Swabasha medium students sadly had no access to the well stocked libraries which had on their shelves, the best books in English literature and in addition the English translations of Russian, French and German books. The denial of access to English books constricted their intellectual horizons and their breadth of vision, as they had to solely rely on what was dictated to them by their lecturers’  said Hermes.

These critics treasured their English education. ‘We were fortunate we had entered the University before the Sinhala Only legislation was enacted by SWRD IN 1956.We were singularly fortunate to have had our entire secondary and University education in the English medium said one devotee of English.’ I often thought of how knowledge of the English language opens a vast spectrum of information and knowledge to any person. I was able to reach some position in life due to my knowledge of English,’ said another.  They were happy to note that teaching in the University had now reverted to English.

The anti-Sinhala critics have a deep love of English, which goes beyond the mere acquisition of a language. ‘I consider my knowledge of English, though limited, as a heritage, particularly from my father that I have bequeathed to my children and grandchildren enabling them to excel in life’, said one critic.

These pro-English critics are firm admirers of British rule.  They nostalgically recall the positive elements of colonial heritage, like the rule of law, independence of the public service, judiciary. Further, these critics say that   all children should have been trilingual. policies like nationalization of estates and the schools take-over have been reversed in the national interest, the same should be done to ‘Sinhala only.’

The anti ‘Sinhala only’ critics were stubbornly dismissive of Sinhala.  RMB Senanayake had doubts about teaching science in anything other than English.  Definitely not Sinhala, which would take the society ‘back to the middle ages’. Aelian de Silva had asked for reasons as to why Sinhala is unsuitable as a medium for science and technology. RMB has not answered this query adequately and Aelian has repeated his request. (Island  20.9.2008 p 9).

Swabhasha in University was vigorously defended by those who had benefited by it. Is enabling people to receive university education in the Sinhala medium, an attempt to drag people to the lowest denominator’, asked Samaraweera. Despite drawbacks, it was definitely an attempt to elevate all to the highest possible position.

The country should be proud of the fact that the post 1956 generations had access to university education, however diluted in quality at the beginning, said Karunanayake. it improved over time. The reforms brought about by recognising Sinhala has paid dividends, and will continue to do so conclude Karunanayake.  Today’s swabhasha graduates do not see themselves as pathetic. They are confident and alert. At the University convocations, the women graduates, which is the category that I am interested in, am smartly dressed and   carry themselves well, heads held high.

The advantages of bilinguality, of knowing both Sinhala and English well is never discussed when the language issue comes up. ‘Sinhala only’ critics wish to eliminate Sinhala altogether.  ‘Students have to unlearn and disgorge the local terminology they imbibed in school. What a waste of time and effort,’ they said. This can be contested. You do not unlearn the terminology of one language when you study another language .You simply put them together. The unstated target in Sri Lanka was always to make the middle class competent in English and fluent in Sinhala of a high standard.

Sri Lanka has always had superbly bilingual persons who knew both English and Sinhala very well.  Every generation from the 19th century onwards, threw up bilingual persons. Yasmine Gooneratne (b.1935) says that Vijita Fernando at university ‘chose an unusual combination of subjects, English, Sinhala and Economics., Sinhala was not at the time a  fashionable subject for study among students form elite Colombo schools  [in the early  1950s.]

Chandani Lokuge (Ph.D 1996) is a very successful creative writer in English and a professor of English in Australia. Her first language was Sinhala and she studied in it up to University level. Her father had employed a private tutor to teach her Sinhala literature right through her secondary education.  She is ‘the daughter of a proudly Sinhala Buddhist father.’

Finally, a look at what is happening elsewhere. In Denmark, an increasing number of schools teach in English, said BBC News. One in six of every book sold in Denmark is in English. English books are cheaper and the language so much richer in words.  Danish products are advertised to the Danish market in English. Companies  now  work in English. ‘You cannot get a job without English’.  Danish,   spoken by 5.5 million speakers could disappear in 20 or 30 years if nothing is done to protect it, said linguists. ‘You use it or you lose it,’

In Sri Lanka, there are Sinhala words for modern terminology. At the annual International Book Fair in Colombo, attended by massive crowds, the most books sold are in Sinhala. Many stalls only carry books in Sinhala and they are packed with customers. Some even come looking for specific titles. I went to the Dayawansa Jayakody stall looking for books by Ellawela Medhananda.

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