Posted on June 18th, 2019


With the ‘rise’ of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka,  there was the desire to bring Tamil to the same level as Sinhala. Sinhala ranks first in  all trilingual lists including  name boards on roads. A suggestion  was made that the languages should be vertically written, on name boards,  with Sinhala in the middle. ( Daily News 16.6.09 p 10) . This  would eliminate the visible rank order and remove the dominant position of Sinhala .

There was also the desire to bring Tamil to the same level as Sinhala  on the cultural plane. This was best done by gathering Sinhala and Tamil writing together and running them alongside. Sri Lankan Mosaic”, (2002) published by Three Wheeler Press, funded by Michael Ondaatje, did just that.

 It published an equal number of Sinhala and Tamil short stories in English translation, implying that the overall output of writing was also equal.  However, the output is not equal. International Standard Book Number (ISBN) statistics showed that 6377  Sinhala and 677 Tamil books with ISBNs  were published in  2014.

Michael Ondaatje also wanted one significant modern novel in Sinhala and Tamil each translated into English and published by Three Wheeler Press, funded by Michael Ondaatje. Three Wheeler therefore published ‘Sangu’ by S. Ponnuthurai and “Podu purushaya” by Sunethra Rajakarunanayake. This is an unintentional lumping together of Sinhala and Tamil as vernaculars.

Sirisumana Godage was a prolific publisher of Sinhala works. His name was associated exclusively with Sinhala publishing.   He was persuaded to publish Tamil literature as well. Godage went further.   In April 2014, Godage held a function to salute senior Sinhala and Tamil writers at one ceremony. 15 writers in Sinhala and Tamil each were to be recognized .The 30 names were given in their own languages. Invitation was in both Sinhala and Tamil. Tamil literature, at least in appearance, had now come level with Sinhala literature.

But the Tamil lobby was not satisfied with what had been achieved. They complained that the official language policy with regard to Tamil was not satisfactory in 2017. Nirmala Chandrahasan said that the government should ensure that the Official languages policy is implemented in full, and this includes the Central ministries, and that Tamil speaking citizens (and Sinhala speaking citizens living in North and East) are able to communicate with and receive communications from the State in their language in any part of the country.

Although the Tamil language has been one of the official languages of the Country from 1987, and this is set out in the Constitution, this provision is still to be implemented fully. This fact is mentioned in the LLRC Report as a grievance to be rectified, concluded Chandrahasan. Article 24 of the constitution which makes Tamil the language of administration in the North and East is being violated openly, complained D Hoole.

Jehan Perera focused on the media. We call on the state television stations to carry the same discussion topics on their Tamil channels as they do on their Sinhala channels instead of showing films, music and sports thereby undermining the desire of Tamil-speakers to be one with the nation in its suffering. We request that such media programmes be translated for all to understand,” he said in 2019.

The Tamil lobby has no intention of letting go.  They were prepared to coerce if necessary. In August 2018, the Official Language Commission advertised for a ‘Language promotion and Investigating officer’.   The lobby would prefer, however, to persuade. The Official language Ministry has conducted a large number of awareness programmes and workshops to educate the public on the importance of the Official Language policy”, said Ganesan.  Workshops were conducted for district secretariats, police officers, health sector and various categories of state officials. Prathiba Mahanama, former Commissioner of Human Rights also gives lectures on the importance of the National Language Policy, he added.  

The Tamil lobby wanted to see the Tamil language entrenched all over the island. There are 332 Divisional Secretariats in this country of which 41 are officially declared bilingual, as Tamil and Sinhala speaking people live in these areas, said Minister  Mano Ganesan,  for example Dehiwala, Kolonnawa, Wattala and Nuwara-Eliya. Officials in these secretariats at least, should be able to communicate in both languages, as a start, he said.  

Ganesan said that any Tamil, anywhere, should be able to communicate with and transact business with the state, the law courts and the police in Tamil.  This means a full parallel service structure of Tamil translators, interpreters, typists, stenographers and a separate set of Tamil publications at all levels.   

Unfortunately, admitted Ganesan, there is a dearth of translators and interpreters in the country. This was in 2016. I have submitted a cabinet paper requesting to employ a large number of translators and interpreters. As this is a professional job, my Ministry will train civilians as translators and interpreters and appoint them especially to police Stations and judiciary services as we need to have proper translators in these departments. Just because one speaks Sinhala and Tamil, they can’t be proper translators and interpreters. 

Minister Ganesan admitted in 2017, that bilingual language proficiency within the State sector was nowhere near satisfactory. Learning the second language is considered an additional burden by employees although second language proficiency is tied to their promotions and incentives,” he said .

The Tamil lobby however, is jolly well determined to see that all government servants speak and work in Tamil. Since force feeding” Tamil to state sector employees had failed, they had to think up something else. They decided that employees must know Tamil BEFORE they took up government service. Minister Ganesan said in 2016, that he had put forward a Cabinet paper asking Cabinet to declare that State employees should be completely   bilingual before they were given state jobs.

This means that pupils needed to be taught Tamil thoroughly and properly in secondary school. At the moment, even basic Tamil is not taught. In 2019 several schools in Agalawatte complained that no teachers had been appointed to teach Tamil. Parents complained that they have to send their children to private tuition classes to learn Tamil. Ganesan admitted that ‘Right now there is a shortage of six thousand language teachers – Sinhala, Tamil and English. So we are in the process of training teachers. Up to Grade 9 a second language is compulsory, but there also the quality is not good,” he said. 

It appears that the Tamils themselves are unable to study in Tamil.  Zahira College, Hambantota is the only Tamil medium national school in the District to teach Advanced Level Science and Mathematics. “Two teachers had been appointed to this school for teaching those subjects but they did not remain in the school for long. Now, in 2018, the Tamil medium students do not have an opportunity to study science or mathematics for the Advanced Level examination, said critics.  

Schools in the Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces do not teach Science and Moths in Tamil, at Advanced Level in 2019 as they do not have Tamil teachers. This is despite the Central and Uva Provinces having separate Provincial Education Ministries for Tamil schools. Maths and Science teachers from the Northern Province were brought down to teach the subjects, in the past, but now it is not happening. The Provincial Education authorities do not show any inclination towards getting them down.

 In the Central Province, the Tamil Provincial Education Ministry Secretary is also the Provincial Agricultural Minister. He has no time to overlook the Education sector, said complainants. The few schools that have Tamil stream Science and Maths restrict admission. They insist that students must have 9‘A’s in the Ordinary Level examination, to gain entry into the Science and Maths streams.

Despite these bilingual problems, Sri Lanka became a trilingual nation in 1987.  Sinhala, Tamil and English became official languages carrying equal rank. The legal position of English, which was supposed to be a ‘link language’ appears to be the same as Sinhala and Tamil, observed K.M. de Silva. The trilingual situation was accepted without protest by the public because they had absolutely no intention of complying with it. They intended to work around it.

Important areas of public life went trilingual effortlessly. The Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka and all Acts of Parliament were in all three languages.  The Hansard reported in all three languages.

Government forms, such as birth, death, marriage, passport applications, which are now online, are trilingual. But Instead of separate forms for each language, the government sensibly arranged for one form with instructions in all three languages. Thus avoiding the creation of a ‘permanent circus of three languages with three sets of translations, adding to the public sector costs’ as one critic put it. There was a rank order in which the three language were to be listed, Sinhala first, then Tamil followed by English.

Road directions and street names   were given   trilingually. There was    a prescribed rank order and a prescribed size for the three scripts. The rank order was Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Kandy Railway Station however, had Sinhala in large letters, above the main entrance, with Tamil and English in smaller letters on either side. In Jaffna, the name boards of Jaffna Railway station,    University of Jaffna and police stations were trilingual, in the prescribed rank order.   Notices inside Jaffna Railway station were also given in all three languages.

Commercial establishments, both government and private, also followed the trilingual policy. State banks and private banks, for instance, gave directions in all three languages, in the official rank order. Cheque books, savings books, Fixed Deposit applications and Fixed Deposit certificates carried information in all three languages.

But it appears that there is room for improvement. In 2017, Yahapalana government repeated that steps will be taken to ensure all external and internal movable and immovable signboards are trilingual.  All documents and forms for public use will be available at State institutions in the three languages. Efforts will be made to ensure citizens receive oral and written responses in the official language of their choice or the link language at all State institutions.

The government planned to make the whole of Sri Lanka trilingual. There was a Cabinet decision to this effect in 2012.  A trilingual dictionary with pronunciation has been prepared by the Department of Official languages and is now available online.

A ten year national plan for a trilingual Sri Lanka  was published in 2012, by the government Policy Research & Information Unit [PRIU]. This plan said, inter alia, in Phase 1 there will be a national cadre of 1st and 2nd language teachers, there will be school textbooks and cassettes of songs in all three languages.   At phase 2 English and the 2nd language will be introduced to Grade 5 exam, as well as O and A levels, and a pass in them will be compulsory to proceed further. All university students will be taught to be competent in Sinhala, Tamil and English.  There will be exams for trilingual competence for government servants. There will also be an appreciation of cultural practices of Sinhala and Tamil dance, music, drama literature and rituals.  

The notion of a trilingual Sri Lanka was welcomed by the ‘minorities’. Every citizen must learn all three languages said M.S.M. Ashraff in 1998. Every Sri Lankan should be able to speak Sinhala and Tamil, said Mano Ganesan  in 2017. Estate employees and residents in Nallathanni protested against the defacing of the English and Tamil language names on the name board of Sri Pada. The protesters demanded that the authorities punish those responsible for the crime.

How trilingual was Sri Lanka, really. The last Census, of 2012 gave the following figures for Language literacy by ethnicity”

                                            S            T        E

Sri Lanka                           79.7%    26.4%  30.8%

Sinhalese                          96.4       5.3        31.1

Sri Lankan Tamil            17.3      94.1     24.3

Indian Tamil                    20.9      86.2     19.4

Sri Lankan Moor            40.6      94.8     38.7

Burgher                           77.0      29.1     97.4 

Malay                               81.8     97.1     66.8

(Table 10.4: Language literacy by ethnicity, 2012 Census) .

This table shows that 79.7% spoke Sinhala, 30.8% spoke English and just 26.4% spoke Tamil. This means that the rank order of use was Sinhala, English and Tamil.

Here comes the second statistic. The Schools Census, Ministry of Education 2017 said that there were a total of 3,055,926 Sinhala Medium pupils, 1,025,358 Tamil Medium pupils and 84,720 English Medium pupils. According to this Census there were 6,332 Sinhala  medium schools  and 3009  Tamil medium schools  There were 558 schools which taught in Sinhala & English, 173  schools which taught in Tamil & English  , 75 schools teaching in Sinhala & Tamil  and  47  schools which  taught in Sinhala, Tamil & English . The Northern district had 898 Tamil medium schools and 28     Sinhala medium schools. 

The third statistic is also from education. All Island Tamil medium schools short drama competition organized by the Tower Hall Theatre Foundation and sponsored by the Education Ministry had 50 schools participating in 2016.The All Island Schools Drama Competition for Sinhala medium schools had 300 schools participating.

Yahapalana government announced that it was going in for trilingual education in a big way.  In 2018 Cabinet approval was obtained for two trilingual schools. Trilingual Mixed National Schools for Grades 6-13 in Nanuoya, Nuwara Eliya, at the cost of Rs. 800 million, and in Wellawatte, Colombo, at the cost of Rs 900 million.

In 2019, Cabinet approved a proposal for a trilingual mixed National school in Peradeniya, at an estimated cost of Rs 1,141 million.  Yahapalana government said it had also started trilingual schools in Kurunegala, Kandy, Colombo and Meerigama and intends to have more trilingual schools in future. It also plans to convert existing schools into trilingual National schools in the near future. Students of all nationalities will be allowed to study in any of the 3 languages. 

Trilingual education was loudly welcomed by Christians, Muslims and Marxists. All schools must adopt a trilingual policy. Teaching should be in one medium but they must also learn the other two languages, said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith in 2016. At least one subject should be taught in Tamil and one in English to Sinhala students and vice versa said Elmo de Silva in 2016.

The Ministry of education should see to the teaching and testing of bilingual (Sinhala and Tamil) competencies or trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil and English) competencies from the primary level up to higher-secondary level, said DEW Gunasekera in 2008.

Prof Furkan, principal of Zahira, pointed out that in the new Tri-lingual National Schools all children should learn all three languages from Year 1 to Year 13 to be really tri-lingual. This will also mean that when they enter local Universities they will be more competent in the English Language to handle higher education at tertiary level here or even overseas.

It is unlikely that Yahapalana has a clear policy on trilingual education. The idea, it seems, is to teach each  pupil solely in one language . That is easy and convenient. That will  of course, continue to  keep pupils  separated  according to language , which is what the policy is trying to avoid. Hopefully  the pupils will probably be brought together for  games, art and so on.

UNESCO has   made recommendations on this matter,  first in 1999 and in 2003. UNESCO maintains that initial instruction must be  in the mother tongue, but this must now be supplemented by other languages. Schools must now move from monolingualism to bilingualism and multilingualism. Children should  be given a ‘multilingual education. They must be taught at least three languages, the mother tongue, a regional or national language and an international language, decalred UNESCO. Critics however, warn that pupils should learn the international language, as an additional language and not to the extent that it endangers one’s native language.  ( CONTINUED)

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