Posted on May 31st, 2016


The Official Language Act no 33 of 1956   said that the Sinhala language ‘shall be the one official language of Ceylon.’  The Act was to come into effect on 1st January 1964.  Sinhala had not been used as an official language since the fall of the Udarata kingdom in 1815. Therefore vocabulary, sentence structure and communication styles had to be modernized. Specialists in Sinhala language took on the task with great dedication.

The Official Languages Department, set up in October 1956 started work on Sinhala glossaries. Sinhala was not a ‘new’ language.  It had a long history of usage, an existing vocabulary, a systematic grammar and many ‘root’ words, therefore finding suitable Sinhala words took time. Others joined in. Aelian de Silva coined the words ‘piripahaduwa’ for refinery, ‘pirithel (petroleum), supirithel (super petrol) thekala (three phase)  and rasyuruwa (reservoir) while translating the 1951 Annual Report of the Dept of Government Electrical Undertakings. Opponents of ‘Sinhala only’ ridiculed the activity, saying ‘universal joint’ had been translated as ‘sarvaloka puttuwa’. M.J. Perera, head of the Official Languages department declared that such a word did not exist. This was a hoax.

The transition to Sinhala was readily   supported by the bilingual officers who were working in government departments at the time. They made administration in Sinhala acceptable. The officers mainly came from the ‘Buddhist schools’,   such as Ananda, Nalanda and Rahula, where Sinhala had been given prominence. Anandatissa de Alwis, being an Anandian,   declared that Ceylon was able to establish Sinhala as the state language because of Ananda College. D.B. Dhanapala another Anandian,  also  observed that  In  1956, when Sinhalese became a national language, Anandians who were well versed in Sinhalese were present, in significant numbers  in the Ceylon Civil Service, Official Languages Department and other state departments.  They were superbly bilingual and could assist in the move from English to Sinhala.

Schools were teaching in the ‘mother tongue’ from 1949 and the first batch of swabasha students were scheduled to arrive in the university in 1960. The Arts faculty 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. The Sinhala Department of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya rose to the occasion. The public knows nothing of the great responsibility shouldered by this Department in the transition from English to swabasha in the university, said K.N.O. Dharmadasa. ‘They did yeoman service’ (Sunday Island. 8.4.07 p 13).

The task facing the university and its teachers was enormous. There were no textbooks in Sinhala, no Sinhala terminology and the lecturers did not know Sinhala. ‘Even in the arts faculty, they faced difficulties.’   D.E. Hettiarachchi, head of the Department of Sinhala,   created a special   division in the Department, known as ‘Swabasha office’ headed by senior lecturer P.E.E. Fernando .    Sinhala lecturers sat for long hours with specialists in the different disciplines, coining suitable Sinhala words.  They were assisted by lecturers from Sanskrit and Pali departments.  Pali and Sanskrit lecturers also had a sound knowledge of Sinhala. 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   contribution of the Sinhala department is now forgotten, said Dharmadasa. It should be placed on record.

Lecturers responded positively to the new language policy, though they had doubts about the long term benefit of it. Some knew Sinhala and worked hard to help the switch over to swabasha.  A.V. de S Indraratne pioneered the teaching of economics in Sinhala. His book ‘Mila niyaya’ (1961) was for long the only publication available on the Theory of Price in Sinhala.  Other lecturers ran to the Department of Sinhala to learn Sinhala. Dharmadasa 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. The Sinhala Department conducted refresher courses for those who wanted to brush up their Sinhala grammar and writing skills in preparation for the changeover. Dharmadasa helped a senior colleague in the History Department by translating his lecture notes from English to Sinhala.

The university set up a Question Paper Moderation Board which included Sinhala lecturers.  Prof. Hettiarachchi, P.E.E. Fernando and other senior dons, went through every Sinhala medium question paper drafted by the other Departments to ensure that the language was correct and precise. The Department did all this with a very small staff, helped by the senior teachers in the Sanskrit and Pali Departments.

The university had no intention of ever becoming a ‘Sinhala only’ university.  Academics anticipated that once Sinhala was securely established in the country, the university would revert to English. Undergraduates were therefore taught   English as a separate activity and English terminology was included in the lectures.  Textbooks were never translated.  Where necessary they wrote original works directly in Sinhala.  This took place outside the university too. G.P. Wannigama wrote a book in Sinhala on carbon chemistry ‘which remains a landmark features to this day’.   Around 1951, Dr S.D. Ratnapala, who was teaching the midwives and nurses at Castle Street maternity hospital where he was resident obstetrician, wrote an excellent book in Sinhala about pregnancy and labor, providing Sinhala terms for the technical terms in obstetrics.

University education in swabasha did not lead to lowered standards, as opponents hoped. It  simply opened up higher education to a vast group of  promising, intelligent  young persons, mainly rural, who thereafter obtained  post graduate degrees  in prestigious universities abroad and  went on to practice their professions  successfully at  home and abroad.

Sinhala has    modernized very successfully.  Sinhala now has a huge vocabulary and a very incisive style of delivery. We only need to switch on the television to see this.  Whatever the subject under discussion, whether fashion,  cricket, health problem or outer space exploration, the speakers express themselves fluently and clearly in a formal Sinhala  which  is now the norm for both written and spoken Sinhala.  Parliamentary debates are also in Sinhala. In science, there is a greater use of English words,   such as ‘Oxygen’ instead of ‘amlakara’. Computer science straightaway used the English terms, instead of going for unfamiliar new Sinhala words. The value of this is obvious.  The English terms are the standard terms in this subject.

Dharmadasa concluded ‘In any forum in which economics, political science, medicine or a technological subject is discussed the speakers use the Sinhala medium with great facility and style. Sinhala technical terms come to them with great ease and one feels proud that our language has been able to modernize in this way, developing a corpus of words for dealing with areas of modern knowledge’ .


  1. stanley perera Says:

    Can anybody remember Kodiswarn’s case in early sixties. Kodiswaran a clerk at Kegalle Kachcheri successfuly chalenged the Swabasa policy of Bandaranayake time. Sinhalese living in foreign countries hardly teach their children the written language. May be by lingual only in coloquial. Just a handful of Sinhalese teach Sinhala language to read and write. In their next generation Sinhala language will disappear. That is why the UNO says Sinhalese are an extinct race like eskimos and red Indians.

  2. Senevirath Says:

    එදා සිංහලෙන් ඉගැන්වීමට මහත්සේ වෙහෙසවී කටය්තුකල සැමට පින් එදා එහෙම නොකලා නම් අද ජාතික බලකායක් නැහැ .එහෙනම් ප්‍රභාකරන් අද ලංකාවම අල්ලාගෙන සිංහල උගත්තු නිසා ජාතික හැගීම් අවදිවුනා . ඒ බලකිරීම නැත්නම් මහින්ද ත්‍රස්තයන් විනාශ කරන්නේ නැහැ සුද්දන්ට අව්ශ්ෂ්‍ය විදිහට කටයුතු කරනවා මිසක් පෙනෙන්නේ නැද්ද රනිල් ගේ හැටි 56දරුවනි ඔබට පින්

  3. Ananda-USA Says:

    I feel compelled to contribute to this discussion because I am grappling with the issue of how to impart a good Science education to a number of rural children I have adopted, so they can gain admission to a university, and thrive after they enter a university.

    The medium of instruction in Medical, Dental, Engineering, Physical Science and Bio-Science faculties is English so I am trying to give these kids an above average command of English so they can adjust to the change in the university. The universities give a 6-month crash course in English to entering students, but it is ludicrous to expect the kids to overcome the language barrier so quickly.

    Although all of these children have obtained a B or better in English at the GCE O-Level, their do not have a good command and avoid using English like the plague.

    The problem is compounded by the NO good textbooks written in Sinhala for A-Level Science subjects like Bioscience (Botany and Zoology), Physics, Chemistry, Pure and Applied Mathematics. The Department of Education provides down loadable e-books for the O-Level, but not for the A-Level. The only download able A-Level books are teacher instruction guides for use by the teachers. This deficiency in textbooks is not filled by private publishers and bookstores either.

    As a result, the students are TOTALLY DEPENDENT on the handwritten notes they take in class, and for those who can afford to pay for it, notes taken in TUITION CLASSES.

    On the other hand there are plenty of good Science textbooks written in English in the USA and elsewhere, but these are usually very expertise if new. Used textbooks are available but expensive to ship to Sri Lanka as they are very heavy and bulky.

    One alternative is to equip the students with inexpensive e-readers like the Amazon Fire Tablet, and download inexpensive but excellent e-Books at less than 20% of the price of a paper textbook. I became a Amazon Prime member, bought an Amazon Fire Tablet for each of my kids, and allow them to download the books they need in Sri Lanka using my Prime account.

    In addition to Amazon e-books, other organizations such as K12 dot or have e-books for download, often at no cost.

    The fly in the ointment of this neat solution for the lack of textbooks is …. you guessed it ….. they are all written in English. If the student avoids, or cannot easily comprehend, a book written in English this neat solution will not help.

    My desperate solution is to send each kid to an Science in English class with the specific goal of teaching the kids to use the English textbooks I have provided. Will it work? I don’t know …
    but time will tell.

    The POINT of all that I have said is that despite our love affair with Sinhala … our mother tongue …. if we don’t enable our children to access all of the information available worldwide in English, we are doing ourselves es a disservice. We are but 16 million Sinhala speakers immersed in a world of 6000 million people communicating largely in English. If we shut ourselves off from that world of English, we will become an isolated pond incapable of competing in the modern world. If we cannot compete, and propel our country into DEVELOPED WORLD status like Singapore within the next decade, the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka will emigrate to DEVELOPED nations allowing foreign immigrants willing to learn English to REPLACE us as the new citizens of Sri Lanka. The message is CLEAR: ADAPT or DIE!

    As Lord Buddha taught us, we must adopt a SENSIBLE Middle Path to this dilemma by becoming FLUENT in both SINHALA and ENGLISH like the Singaporean Chinese who are FLUENT in both CHINESE and ENGLISH and THRIVE in their city state far smaller than Sri Lanka.

  4. Dham Says:

    Appreciated your good work again.
    I was in the same category as “your” children. I believe it is a metal thing not to read English text books. Not sure about biology ( I never did), but other 3 subjects can be learned in English too. I found ZERO problems in the Uni because not only I went though these English books but I also gave tuition to someone ( in Sinhala with English books) who need help in London A/L and got him to pass and go there for study.
    Despite the problem of science subjects to be translated, if you remember the series of HEWAGE applied mathematics books in Sinhala were excellent ( these books came while I was in A/L but I used them for teaching). It means we can produce our own books for A/L too.
    Many thanks and appreciations shall go to those unknown University Staff, the unsung heroes. May they be enlightened in their respective lives for light they offered to Sinhalas!

  5. Ananda-USA Says:


    Thank you for the kind words.

    When I studied for the Science A-Level exam, the medium of instruction was English, and the textbooks were excellent English books by foreign authors.

    However, I was intrigued by your experience as a Science student taught in Sinhala and then doing well in the university.

    I would like to get copies of the HEWAGE books you used for my kids. What are the exact titles and who publishes them now, and from where can I get them now?

    We have searched in all the bookstores selling such books in Sri Lanka but have found nothing suitable.

  6. Ananda-USA Says:

    After my experience getting Science books for my kids in Sri Lanka, I am toying with the idea of writing Sinhala Language books, or translating existing English language books to Sinhala and making them available as freely downloadable e- books.

    Recently, I bought some excellent English to Sinhala conversion dictionaries specifically for Scientific terms unknown in my days as a student.

    As Kamalika Pieris relates, the dons in Sri Lanka have done an excellent job in creating Sinhala equivalents for English Scientific terms.

    Now, if only other dons would go that extra mile and write a broad selection of good Science textbooks for students …..

  7. Dham Says:

    Sorry I could not find ANY of those books recently. can’t remember ‘exact’ titles. I can ask my brother ( who is a teacher) and let you know.
    If you are mistaken, they are for O/L not A/L. I was studying for A/L in school when I tutored for O/L student and to that London A/L student I was talking about.
    HEWAGE book was for applied mathematics. I am not sure there books from him for other subjects.
    When I searched for these books in 2008 or so for my own children, I couldn’t find a single book but they may exist.
    To explain the content, he had many very good problems for the student to practice. They are mostly numerical (numbers , not much proving this and that) but they are good even today for early A/L too to get a good knowledge of mechanics ( statics, dynamics and hydrostatics).

    If I could build a small house in a rural village and teach poor children, that would be the best I could do as a worldly enjoyment.

  8. Dilrook Says:

    Sinhala-only refers to the official language only. It has no automatic bearing on the language of higher education which must be English. It is a joke to educate students in higher studies in Sinhala.

    On the other hand, all state functions must be in Sinhala only (with some provision for limited Tamil and English use as needed). All schools must make it compulsory for all to study the Sinhala language.

  9. aloy Says:


    I too appreciate your effort in educating some students from rural SL to be able to cope with what they should learn in the universities.
    I am also connected somehow with the teaching as my wife is a teacher who has been teaching mathematics to students at my home as well as in her school ever since we are married. At times I help her by doing photocopying and at times solving difficult problems in further maths in A’level. Though she is retired now for most of the time students come to our house for tuition practically everyday in the evening. Even as I write I hear her talking to the students. According to her the syllabus our students follow in SL is very low level. Currently she is writing some books for lower secondary (that is 7th, 8th and 9th years) which are on the same lines as UK and Singapore syllabuses. They are almost finished now and she plans to publish them soon in SL as well. She prints lessons out of them and gives to her students and finds them doing very well in their schools. Sometimes I hear her giving lessons on skype in the middle of the night to our grand daughter in UK from those books and she too have come first among all her parallel classes with about 150 students.
    As for teaching english I believe the international school in SL are doing a wonderful job. Even in places like Kegalle where we have some relatives we find that after a couple of years learning, those students can confidently speak in English. But the problem is they are expensive. Only parents who can afford about Rs.15-20k per month can give that education to a child. Another way of giving confidence to young children to speak in English is to talk to them in English. When my children were small (3-6 yrs) we used to talk to them in english and also read to them from ‘Lady Bird’ books. I used to take them to my lap and read the series 1,2 and 3 which had about 200 easy to remember most common words. They picked up english in no time so much so that their thinking also switch to english unlike some of us who would think in Sinhala and then speak in english. There were very interesting stories to children in those books. After a while they used to talk to each other in english. Perhaps this is a good way of giving confidence to our children.
    So thanks and keep up the good work.

  10. SA Kumar Says:

    Sinhala-only refers to the official language only

    All schools must make it compulsory for all to study the Sinhala language.- is it true compulsory or voluntary ???

  11. SA Kumar Says:

    KAMALIKA PIERIS- You are a very clever You have not mention any word about Tamil – good job

  12. plumblossom Says:

    Sinhala and Tamil are national languages which means that native languages have been provided their rightful place and English is being used as the international language. This is correct and fair by all people. Even when Sinhala was first made the national language, Tamil, along with English were made official languages. This is also fair by all concerned. So there is nothing to complain about and the TNA separatist terrorists should be informed of that. According to the UN charter, minorities of a country should be provided cultural, language and religious freedom and Sri Lanka has not only fulfilled such requirements but gone over and above that requirement and provided even political rights in terms of provincial councils too.

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