Posted on February 28th, 2019


With the elevation of Tamil to a national language in the 1978 Constitution, Tamil became entrenched in Sri Lanka in two important sectors, ‘education’ and ‘employment.’


Tamil became a compulsory subject   in Sinhala medium schools. The Education Department issued a circular making Tamil compulsory for all schools from year 2000. It was compulsory from Grade 1 to Grade 9 but could be dropped at O level. School children have responded well. There are ‘Tamil days’ in the schools.  In 2016 the all island Tamil language day   organized by the Ministry of Education was held at Dharmaraja College, Kandy.

Tamil was readily accepted as a subject in the ‘South’ too. In 1999 the Matara district office of Department of Education launched a programme to teach Tamil language in all the Sinhala medium schools in Matara District under the Swedish Aid programme.   Before   that, Ilma College, Kotuwegoda, Matara had taught Sinhala, Tamil and English in 1998.  In 2017 over 1,500 students in Matara had completed the Tamil proficiency course conducted by two NGOs, Samadhi Foundation and Dakuna Educational Institute.

But there was a snag. There was a serious dearth of teachers for teaching Tamil in secondary schools. Principals of schools in the Hambantota district complained in 2018 that there are no teachers for Tamil language in their schools, although the teaching of the language has been made compulsory. As a result, Tamil language tuition teachers are charging exorbitant rates from students.

With the elevation of Tamil to a national language, the Tamil medium school in the up-country tea plantation sector got a new lease of life. In the 1990s the  Plantation Schools Education Development Programme ( PSEDP) was  launched by the Ministry of Education with Swedish aid ( SIDA).The project covered Badulla, Kandy, Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Ratnapura, Kalutara, Colombo  (Hanwella) and Galle districts. New Tamil medium estate schools came up in Nuwara Eliya, Hatton, Walapane, and Kotmale. By 1997 Rs. 286 million from SIDA and              Rs 300 million from Sri Lanka government had been spent on estate schools.

However, in 1999 Minister Arumugam Thondaman complained that there was only one Tamil school in Deniyaya. There was a shortage of teachers too. The Sri Pada Collage of Education had been set up in 1986, with German aid, to train Tamil medium teachers for estate schools. 1377 teachers were posted to estate sector schools from 1994, but there was still a notable shortage in 1999.  Thondaman wanted a further 10,000 teachers in the estate schools.

It is unlikely that Tamil was made compulsory in University, but in 2000, Sabaragamuwa University had a compulsory Tamil paper. DEW Gunasekera said in 2008, that the Higher Education Ministry has agreed to start Tamil and Sinhala classes in the Universities.


The Tamil language also bounced into the government sector. Circulars went out to say that under the new language policy all state employees were required to attain proficiency in the ‘second language’ within the first five years of employment. This meant that Sinhala speaking Government servants had to compulsorily acquire knowledge of Tamil within five years.

Accordingly, the Official Languages Department began language training in 1992.The Department said that as at 2003, the department had trained 7290 public servants in elementary Tamil and 527 in higher Tamil as well as 1183 in elementary Sinhala and 95 in higher Sinhala. Language training programmes were also conducted by a number of public institutions   in 1998 NAITA inaugurated Tamil classes for officials.

A study of the language proficiency of public service employees conducted by the Department of Official Languages , (probably around 1998),  showed that out of the 3,500 employees in government ministries, 3,368 were proficient in Sinhala, 1,015 in English but only 119 in Tamil.

However, there has been some interest in learning Tamil.  The media reported in 2010 that Central Bank employees have shown keen interest in learning Tamil. They have to undergo 108 hours of training in both speaking and writing skills before they sit for the written and oral examinations conducted by the Department of Official Language, said the media.

Circulars were issued from time to time regarding language proficiency in employment. The circular presently in force is Public Administration Circular 07/2007. Public Administration Circular 07/2007 stated that all new public service recruits after July 1. 2007 must compulsorily acquire a sufficient level of proficiency in the national language other than their mother tongue, within five years. This meant that Tamil was compulsory for Sinhala speaking recruits to the Public Service with effect from 01 July 2007.

This 2007 circular divided the Public Service into three segments for assessing language proficiency, Management, Middle and Lower grades.  Three categories of bilingual proficiency were also identified,  (i) basic conversational skills with minimal reading and writing ability particularly for government officers directly dealing with public enquiries as well as the police and health services (ii) higher level of conversation and ability to correspond (reading and writing skills) and  (iii) sufficient ability to read, analyze and draft reports in that second official language. Employees were  to be tested at these three levels.

The 2007 circular stated that the training  would be conducted by the Official Languages Department. Training could be done by other state, private or non-governmental institutions too,  but on syllabi prepared by the Official Languages Department and the examination will also be conducted by the Official Languages Department. The proficiency exam tested both written and oral skills.  The Official Language Department  will hold assessment tests every five years and those who pass them will get an additional salary increment, continued the circular.

Financial incentives  were in place earlier too, but these were  enhanced in the 2007 circular. There would be a lump sum payment of  Rs15 000, Rs20 000 or Rs25 000  depending on the  level of proficiency gained,  in addition to a monthly allowance equivalent to an increment. Increments of officers who do not attain the level of proficiency stipulated will be deferred till they  satisfy the requirement.

Public administration appears to have   done its work very thoroughly. It had even prepared a template to help decide the level of language proficiency of a particular group of officers who did not come under an earlier circular. ( Public Administration Circular Letter 01/2014 )

But there was  criticism. The PA Circular No. 7 of 2007 relating to the requirement of obtaining competence in other languages for confirmation does not prescribe any effective sanction for non fulfillment of the requirements ,said Dew Gunasekera. Those who  do not obtain the required level of competence within the prescribed period must be discontinued until they obtain the necessary proficiency within a further stipulated period. If they fail to  do so they should not be permitted to join the public service.

The first proficiency exam was held around April 2008. 5000 or so candidates sat for Tamil language and 1700 sat for Sinhala language tests from the North and East Provinces. However, employees  seem  have been slow to pick up Tamil, for in 2016, Government employees were given a grace period in which to acquire competency in Tamil. They were given time till June 30, 2016. Since this was not sufficient, the grace period was extended  to December 31, 2016 ( Public Administration Circular No. 01/2014 (1) and  Public Administration Circular  dated January 14, 2016).

The Official Languages  Commission  had no illusions about the task  conferred on them. They pointed  out, without hesitation, the difficulties of turning the government sector into a bilingual service ,    considering the scale of the undertaking.  Over 90 percent of public employees are mono-lingual Sinhala speakers. Therefore around 40 percent would require proficiency in a second official language to perform their duties consistent with the official language policy. Since the degree of proficiency needed in Tamil, varied according to tasks and roles, the Commission suggested a calibrated approach .Public servants with greater contact with Tamil speakers should  be the first group to undergo training.

The Official Language Commissions   recommended in 2005 that the language policy be implemented over 15 years , in three stages of five years each.  One-third of public servants would be bilingual at the end of the first phase, two-thirds by the end of the second; and by the end of the third stage, the entire public administrative service would be bilingual.

But every five years some 20 percent of all public servants vacate their posts through retirement, resignation, and  illness. They are replaced by new hands needing training. At the end of the envisaged fifteen years therefore  only 40 percent of the original cadre will remain. By then it was best to recruit those who already know Tamil.

Other problems relating to  converting the public sector into Tamil speaking  were discussed. The training of public servants, in  the second language is a time consuming exercise, said the Official Language Commission in 2008. According to our estimates even if this policy is faithfully carried out it would take a minimum of twenty years to build a public service in which all are bilingually proficient. May be in about 10 years a dent can be made, the Commission concluded.

The Official Language Department  was also not very  encouraging. It said that that trying to compel all State workers to learn a second language, through the Department has  not  been successful.  The   Research Unit of the Department  analyzed the proficiency exam results after each round of exams. The  findings for 2017 showed that just two per cent of candidates scored over 75 marks in the second language in 2015 and 2016. Some 60 per cent who passed had obtained around 40 marks, which was the minimum score. This score is wholly inadequate for productive work. Efficient service can be expected only from the two percent that scored 75 marks or over.

Most who follow language classes do so with the sole purpose of passing the exams,” said Official Languages Commissioner. Their interest in the language wanes rapidly after the exam. It was  therefore pointless” to try and train all Government officials in a second official language. the  Department  recommended that  State sponsored language education be given  only to employees who show  a genuine interest in learning the language and who also  show interest in the culture of the ethnic group to which that language belongs.

The Tamil lobby agreed. Most public sector workers with second language proficiency certificates  do not speak, write nor understand the  language they studied. The lobby alleged that some State employees were using ‘dubious means’ to obtain second language proficiency certificates  to obtain promotions and incentive payments.

The government , egged on by the Tamil language lobby, kept on trying to improve matters. Official language Minister Mano Ganeshan told Parliament in 2016  that his ministry had prepared a cabinet paper to make the Tamil language compulsory for recruitment into the public service.  Another Cabinet paper has been submitted  in 2017  where those with bilingual abilities would be given extra marks at recruitment interviews in the state services.

Salaries and promotions were to be tied to language proficiency. Government  servants with fluency in Tamil and Sinhala will get salary increments, the media reported in 2010.  The financial incentives  were to be increased in 2008, on a sliding scale of Rs500 to Rs1000 to Rs2000 per month – depending on level of qualification.

Devanesan Nesiah said  in 2012 that  In order to motivate officers to gain proficiency in all three languages, a new incentive scheme consisting of fixed sums , should be introduced on passing the relevant examinations and a monthly allowance for using the additional language in day to day work. The incentive allowance must be paid only to those officers who work, in addition to their normal duties, in a language other than their first language. There should be a strict check on this payment and appropriate norms should be established. Those who draw the monthly allowance should be available for posting outstation as required. There should be periodic monitoring. Due consideration should be  given to second and third language competency. There should be    special grades created for public employees with higher and advanced levels of proficiency in both the second official language and the link language said the Tamil lobby.


Despite the language training given to government employees, there was a chronic shortage of Tamil speaking cadres. There was crippling shortage of Tamil speaking officers in public administration  despite the fact that eleven years had passed since Tamil was also made an official language, said Nesiah.

The Department of Motor Traffic, in  1998 had a staff of 400.  There were only 8 who could work in Tamil. In Colombo Municipal Council  in 2008 or so, not even 1% of the total staff was  Tamil proficient, though  31% (200,000 people) in the area were Tamils and 25% (165,000 people) were Tamil speaking  Muslims.  In Trincomalee, of 418 public employees, 190 were proficient in Sinhala and 269 in Tamil. In Badulla,   of 947 employees, 941 were proficient in Sinhala and 37 in Tamil. 

No notice appeared to have been taken of the ethnic composition of the various districts when recruitments and postings were done. The Official Languages Commission should, before postings are made, Identify the Departments and the Service Grades that need fresh recruitment of Tamil speaking officers  This Identification may be done by the Ministry of Public Administration in consultation with the Official Languages Commission . The Ministry of Public Administration should  then post the officers according to the needs of each Department.

In  1998 P.P. Devaraj asked in Parliament about   the lack of adequate Tamil speaking staff, such as clerks, translators, typists and stenographers. He was told that action was being taken to fill vacancies in the cadre for Tamil typists and Stenographers. There was a dearth of translators.

The Tamil lobby said it was the duty of the government  to appoint Tamil· staff according to a_ prescribed quota. “Or at least a public relations officer , who is conversant  in English, Tamil and Sinhala who can help ” people not conversant in Sinhala.” All offices should have a minimum of 10% Tamils speaking officers going up to      50% where Tamil is predominant. This issue would have been solved if recruitment has been in terms of ‘proportional recruitment’ said Nesiah.

In this situation, the obvious solution was to enroll Tamil officers,  to deal with Tamil clients. The Official Language Commission  had in 2005 proposed an increase in the intake of Tamil speaking public officers so as to satisfactorily reflect their number in the population. I am seeking approval from the Cabinet to employ retired Tamil public servants to each government department and ministry as a transitional measure in order to attend to correspondence with the Tamil speaking public, said Dew Gunasekera in 2008.  Official Languages Commission could seek government approval for the special recruitment of Tamil speaking cadres and additional posts  be  created for the purpose, suggested Nesiah  in 2012.


When a bilingual language policy is inflicted on a monolingual population,  a good translation service is essential. There was instead a serious shortage of Tamil translators   in government departments ,such as the Department of Registration of Persons.

In June 2005 there were only 166 translators in all-island government service. Of this number, 108 could translate from Sinhala to English, 44 from Sinhala to Tamil and 14 from Tamil to English.  IN 2017,  the approved number of translators for 49 ministries was 94 and the available number of translators was 61. It is estimated that a further 62 translators are required for the smooth provision of services, said Centre for Policy Alternatives.

There was a dearth of qualified personnel who could be recruited as translators or interpreters. Majority of those who applied for such positions did not have sufficient competency in  two languages. When 400 posts of ‘apprentice translator’ were created in 2000, only 240 persons accepted appointments and of this number only 150 remained. Low pay and low status contributed to under-recruitment of cadre and high turnover, said B Shanthakumar.

The government  offered inducements. The government said that  payments for translators or translations can be based either on the number of words of the document to be translated or on the translated document. (Public Administration Circular 12/2003 (11).

The government also said that officers performing as translators, without any disturbance to the duties of their respective institutions and subject to the approval of the head of the respective department; have the ability to engage in translation work of other government institutions and are thus entitled to receive any respective payment as per the provisions provided in public administration circular No. 12/2003. (Public Administration Circular Letter 04/2012)

The Official Language Commission  also struggled with the issue of translators. The Commission had initially proposed the abolition of the present Translators Service and its replacement by two separate institutions: the Government Translators Service and Government Interpreters Service.

Subsequently, in  2006 the Commission revised its view and suggested the creation of a single ‘National Translation Centre’ modeled on the Canadian Bureau of Translations for provision of both translation and interpretation.  The Centre would also compile glossaries including development of new terminologies and the development of a database of useful words and terms for translations. The Centre was initially mooted to be a unit within the Official Languages Department and subsequently a separate institution.

The Commission also proposed that universities take over the   task of   providing translators and interpreters for the public sector, graduating at least 200 translators and 200 interpreters each year, prioritizing translation and interpretation between official languages. In addition to diploma and postgraduate courses, it is recommended that degree level courses be initiated but emphasizing vocational rather than academic skills. There is no indication that  the Universities accepted this, but In 1998 Kelaniya University  had a NORAD programme to train undergraduates in  Tamil as a second language , to be appointed as translators in different  government departments .

The process of translation  also came under scrutiny.  Up to now, the government had concentrated on the translation of documents from English into the official languages and vice versa,  but not between the official languages. Now   Sinhala to Tamil translations have become necessary. This will not be easy.

Tamil and Sinhala belong to two different language  families with different language structures. And this makes translation  complicated.  The Sinhala subject verb agreements is not found in Tamil. There are hardly any words in Tamil that sound familiar to Sinhala speakers either. There is ‘kakkam’ for ‘crow’ which could be a borrowing from Sinhala.  But salt is ‘uppu’ in Tamil ‘lunu’ in Sinhala.   Water is ‘tanni’ in Tamil and ‘vatura’ in Sinhala. There is ‘thangachchi’ and ‘nangi,’ ‘paal ‘and ‘kiri’, ‘enna’ and ‘what’,   ‘ontu,’ ‘rentu’ and ‘eka’  ‘deka’.

The scarcity of competent interpreters is even greater than that of translators. The Commission suggested  the recruitment of university graduates, qualified in one of the three languages, to be trained as interpreters for a further two years. The government also had the responsibility to provide the necessary equipment for transcription and simultaneous interpretation.

The attitudes towards the Language policy are defective, said the Tamil lobby. There has been a widespread failure to implement Tamil as an official language.  There is a lack of will and commitment to ensure implementation  of the Tamil Language as an official language of the country, though it was recognized to be so in 1987.

The absence of political will and hostility or disinterest on the part of the bureaucracy has hindered the enforcement of Tamil as an official language, as has the absence of any compelling reason for Sinhala-speakers to become proficient in a language spoken by linguistic minorities and unimportant to political, economic and social power.

There is  a lack of sensitivity, amongst a majority of government  officers, to recognize and respect the linguistic rights of the people whose mother tongue is Tamil but who are citizens of this country. Little notice was taken of the two ‘new’ official languages , Tamil and English.

There is also a lack of commitment on the part of authorities to take effective steps to ensure that all the people enjoy their linguistic rights. The Government and the Ministries under the Government  have failed to provide the  necessary financial and other resources needed for the effective implementation of the Official Languages Policy. The availability of finances and cadre positions is inadequate,  certainly,  but even the available funds have not been sought and obtained for the implementation of the Official Language Policy.

There is a definite lack of interest amongst the  majority  Sinhalese to learn the Tamil language as a second or third language. As they can function in their offices with their present language ability, they do not see the necessity, urgent or otherwise, to learn the Tamil language or even the English language. Even officers who had passed Tamil proficiency examinations and drawn incentive allowances appeared to be mostly unable to work in Tamil, particularly in relation to correspondence.

There is a prejudice against Tamil, said the Tamil lobby. That is not surprising. Tamil is not a national language, or an  international language  and it is not cultural or commercially important. The majority of Sinhalese are reluctant in speak in  Tamil. Some  public servants feel that learning Tamil as a second language is demeaning. They do not see why they should learn it when it is not of any real or substantial help to them. They  would  prefer to study Hindi, French , German , Russian or Japanese.

On the other hand, observed the Tamil lobby, there is also a general reluctance on the part of Tamils and Tamil speaking people to use their own language for communication and transaction of business with government institutions. It is felt that the use of Tamil in communicating with these offices will result in bias against them and would also lead to delays in getting their work done. They are willing to get someone else to write for them or transact business for them in Sinhala in order to expedite matters.

The Tamils generally resign themselves to the use of either English or Sinhala in order to communicate their needs and interests effectively.  Tamil speakers when possible will write official communications in Sinhala, fearing that use of Tamil will delay or deny them a response. This has reduced the pressure on public officers to provide a bilingual service. (Continued)

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