Posted on June 20th, 2019


Revised 9.9.19

Analysts pointed out that turning Sri Lanka into a bilingual state would not be an easy task. It would take a long time.  In 2008, Raja Collure pointed out that in Canada, the process of bilingualisation has already taken over forty years.  And in   Canada, unlike Sri Lanka, the two languages English and French shared the same script. In Sri Lanka the Sinhala and Tamil scripts were completely different. We cannot dream of a bilingual government service even within the next few decades, said Minister Ganesan in 2017.   If so, then a trilingual society is also far away.

At the start, the country mechanically followed the bilingual/trilingual language policy. At the Sarasavi film awards 1998, all the films that came up for awards were Sinhala, but every single announcement including the remarks of the winners were laboriously translated into Tamil. This was soon abandoned. It was too cumbersome. Activities were carried out in a single language with brief translations in the other two languages, if at all.

A bilingual language policy can be used to delay, obstruct and distort. The first meeting of the Galle Municipal Council for 2018 had to be temporarily suspended due to a language matter. Mayor Priyantha Sahabandu had delivered a speech in Sinhala at the start of the meeting. Councilor M.M.Rihana complained that it was in Sinhala and that she could not understand it. Rihana asked for a translation to be provided to her.

She pointed out that her fundamental rights had been violated due to a lack of translation services available at the Council. It took over one and a half hours for the Council to reconvene. A Muslim clerk working at the Municipal Council was found to function as an interpreter and the Council meeting was able to continue.

In 2002 it was observed that shipping legation got delayed because of the trilingual policy. International Maritime Organization had decalred some conditions relating to shipping and Sri Lanka had ratified them. But when it came to incorporating these into Sri Lanka’s     shipping legislation, there was a problem with the Tamil terms and the legislation was delayed.  The legislation had to be issued in all three languages at once.

A very serious misuse of the bilingual language policy took place with regard to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. The present   constitution, (1978) declared that Sri Lanka was a” unitary state”. This was confirmed in both, the Sinhala and Tamil versions. The Sinhala version said Ekeeiya rajya’ and Tamil version said Otriyatchi”. But In the draft Constitution drawn up by Yahapalana in 2019, the Sinhala version continued to say ‘ekeeiya rajya’ but the Tamil version said Orumiththa Nadu”. ‘Orumiththa nadu’   is not ‘unitary state’. Orumiththa Nadu means ‘a country that is formed by amalgamation.’ This implies that Sri Lanka is a Federal State.

The public are prepared to accept a bilingual language policy, provided it is Sinhala and English, not Sinhala and Tamil. Derana Sinhala service had special news broadcast, on 22nd April 2019,   after the Easter Bomb blast. Breaking news” was given, as it happened ,  in Sinhala and English. Tamil was forgotten.

In August 2002, Ceylon Cold Stores advertised for trainee brand managers fluent in Sinhala and English.  In September 2002, Bonsoir asked for a co-coordinator fluent in English, French and Sinhala.  A parent announced, Don’t let the state force Tamil down our children’s throat. I  want my child only to learn Sinhala and English. The only compulsory language other than Sinhala should be English,”

A  new website by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) set up in 2018 for the local government elections, called ‘Nidahas Yugayak’, is exclusively in Sinhala, said Sanjana Hattotuwa. There is not a single word or section on it in English or Tamil. All featured videos are in Sinhala. All the related social media accounts are in Sinhala. All the President’s speeches are in Sinhala. But where is the outrage asked Sanjana Hattotuwa. Social media is also largely silent about the discrimination against the Tamil language and Tamil peoples by Google and Microsoft, he added.

There is no outrage because Tamil speakers are ready to work in Sinhala . Most Tamils who live in the south, and today there are probably more Tamils in the South than in the North, already know and use Sinhala, said Sebastian Rasalingam in 2012.

 Researchers reported in 2014 that in most of the  administrative divisions declared as bilingual, the administration was done in Sinhala, and the Tamil speaking community accepted this. In Ambagamuwa division in Badulla district.  the Tamils were in the majority in towns and estates, but the  staff in the DS offices conducted their work in Sinhala. Office files were maintained in Sinhala.  In Hali Ela DS office many Tamil speakers complete their forms in Sinhala and made written submissions in Sinhala. If the estate Tamils can come to Colombo and get their work done at pass port offices and at the job agents to offices it would seem that they can communicate effectively, said Rasalingam.

In Colombo there was a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Tamil, Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Moors and Malays. The majority were competent in Sinhala both spoken and written. They were therefore able to do business with the government institutions in Sinhala. The Police stations in Colombo operate almost exclusively, in Sinhala but the majority of Tamil speakers can manage in Sinhala, Selvakumaran observed in 2008.

In 2018, at the National Savings Bank ,  a Tamil client refused to  even look at the Tamil  version of the document  he had come for. ‘All three documents will be the same’ he said and readily signed the Sinhala version, giving his wife access to his locker.

Tamils and Muslims already know Sinhala and speak it well, fluently and stylishly. Both groups want their children educated in the Sinhala medium The Indian Tamils on estates have also indicated they want Sinhala. But their schools teach in Tamil. Therefore estate Tamils are learning Sinhala privately.   The Tamil medium is dying out in schools. ‘Introduce a Sinhala stream into all Tamil schools at Grade one and see what happens’ said critics.

In 1997, a delegation of Muslims told the Minister of Education that a large number of Muslims outside the North and East were switching on to the Sinhala medium.  They wanted a special officer to supervise and coordinate Sinhala teaching in Muslim schools.

 Wimala Ratnayake has stated that when she left teaching in 1986, she found an increasing demand by some Muslims and even a few Tamil parents to get their children admitted to the Sinhala stream in Colombo. (Daily News 26.9.97 p 7)  A growing proportion of Muslims in Sinhala areas are opting for Sinhala as the medium of education instead of Tamil, said Devanesan Nesiah in 2015. 

Muslim parents have been trying for decades, to get their children into the Sinhala medium in school. They complain that when they try to get their children admitted to the Sinhala stream the authorities refuse to do so. They admit the children to the Tamil stream. The reason given by the education authorities was that otherwise the Tamil stream would not have any pupils and would die out.

In 1998, Muslims in Kandy district alleged, with evidence, that Muslim and Tamil children were denied admission to the Sinhala stream. One parent had filed a Fundamental rights case on this matter.

The Tamil speakers in the north are also interested in learning Sinhala. Presidential Secretariat of the Government of Sri Lanka (PRIU) said that Sinhala language teaching was started in the north in 2009 itself.  It was taught in pre-school as well. . A survey   in 2013 found that nearly 80% of Tamils in the north are willing to learn Sinhala along with English. A Trilingual Learning Centre was started at Kalviyankadu,  Jaffna in 2014. A huge number of applications were  received from Jaffna alone, in 2014, to learn Sinhala    at this centre.

From 2014 Sinhala language training had been provided in Vavuniya and Punthottam, Mannar, Mullativu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna. Children in all five districts of the north were given the opportunity to learn Sinhala and English for six months in the after school hours at Mankulam Maha Vidyalaya in Mullaitivu.

Sinhala language classes for Tamil speakers, and  public officers in north and east are held during weekends, courses are well organized and keenly attended with a remarkable rate of success reported Tudor Silva in his 2014  study  on the language needs and services in selected bilingual administration divisions in Sri Lanka .

There is an imbalance in the teaching of Sinhala and Tamil at government service level. The government has been slow to start teaching Sinhala to Tamil government servants. First batch of public service Tamil officers from five secretarial divisions in Batticaloa district passed out in 2012 from the National Institute of Language education and training.  The Institute said in 2014 that 700 have now learnt Tamil and 200 Tamils have learned Sinhala.

The Tamil speakers who said they did not know Sinhala were  criticized. A Tamil whose family had lived for three generations in Colombo, complained that  the government department he went to did  not have  Tamil speaking officer to deal with his needs. This was greeted with scorn. After living all his  life among Sinhalese did  he not know  enough Sinhala to conduct his business,  critics asked. 

The total population of Tamils in the 2012 Census was 2,269,266. Out of this, 392,583  (17.3%) know Sinhala. This leaves 1,876,683 who do not know Sinhala.  This amounts to 2 million out of a total  Sri Lankan population of  20 million. Instead of teaching this 2 million  to speak in Sinhala, the state has decided to make the  other 18 million learn Tamil. This is absurd.  Further, a Sinhala speaker  is expected to know  Tamil to serve as a public servant even in Sinhalese areas where Tamils are only 5% or less.

A reader wrote in to a newspaper, asking  ‘why  should I  learn Tamil. The Tamils should learn Sinhalese. Where in the world is it necessary for the majority to learn the minority language. The rule worldwide is for the minority to learn the language of the majority population. Which county in the world could force a minority language down the throats of its majority citizens.  Tamils readily learn the language of  the countries they emigrate to. It is  only in Sri Lanka they find it difficult  to learn Sinhala. Tamils have gone to countries like Norway or Poland and learnt those difficult languages in record time”, he concluded.

The emphasis on Tamil language did not lead to an elevation of the Tamil language, as the Tamil lobby hoped. It went the other way. It led to an elevation of Sinhala. At Independence Day celebrations, the main speech is always in Sinhala, with   quick, short translations in Tamil and English.

Clause 23 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka said All laws and subordinate legislation shall be enacted or made and published in Sinhala and Tamil, together with a translation thereof in English”. Then it said that Parliament shall, at the stage of enactment of any law determine which text shall prevail in the event of any inconsistency between texts .

 This has been scrupulously followed and all Acts of Parliament say in its final clause “In the event of any inconsistency between the Sinhala and Tamil texts of this Act, the Sinhala text shall prevail”. This made the position of Sinhala stronger.

A total of more than 240,000 letters are received monthly by all 49 ministries and among these, the overwhelming majority (70%) are in the Sinhala language, 25% are in English and 5% are in the Tamil language, said the Centre for Policy Alternatives after a survey in 2017. Only about 1% of the correspondence received in the Hali Ela DS office was in Tamil said Tudor Silva after a survey in 2014.

There is a clear preference in the modern world for just one language per country. This is usually the language considered indigenous to that country.  In Sri Lanka this means Sinhala. Sinhala   today is not like Sinhala yesterday. Sinhala now has a greatly improved image. It is used everywhere and can cater to any subject. There is an impressive vocabulary and stylish delivery. Sinhala has greater strength and vitality than it had in 1956.  Everyone, from President and Prime Minister downwards speak it.

There are many advantages in having just one national language. A common language helps to link the total population   and create a sense of community. Communication increases understanding among people and eliminates misunderstandings. A single official language will also act as a leveler, because it will provide a level playing field. A multilingual language policy is time consuming and expensive.  It also means ‘language load’ where citizens need to know at least two languages or, preferably three, English, Sinhala and Tamil. A single language will do away with’ language load’ 

At the practical level it will be more economical to work in one language than three. One language will cut administration costs. At present the state sector is producing documents in triplicate, in three different languages.  One language will avoid delay in communication with the state.  It will help citizens to communicate with the state without the tension of translations and interpreters.

It would be great if everyone spoke and understood Sinhala which is the language spoken for communication among the Sri Lankans now that English has declined, said R.M.B Senanayake . It would be great also to see the promotion of mutual understanding if all Sri Lankans spoke Sinhala. In 1956, it was done the wrong way. By forcing it on non-Sinhala speakers. .The Sinhalese extremists have to take the blame. But now that we have learnt from our mistakes, we should seek to promote a common language among all our people by mutual consent. Sinhala fills such a role.

Tamil people should be free to consider Sinhala as their language of school education if they so wish and except in the North and perhaps to some extent in the East many Tamil people may prefer to learn Sinhala in school as their main language with Tamil as a secondary language..When I served in Jaffna in the early 1950s, I noticed how Tamil people liked to speak in Sinhala, said R.M.B Senanayake.



In 2019 there was an Official Language Day and Week from July 1 to July 5. This would include an Official Language School Day with the theme ‘promoting bilinguality’, and an Official Language Youth Day on the theme of ‘blooming of language ‘ 


A Circular issued by the PSC in 2014/1, said that all public servants who joined the Service after 2007, must have an Ordinary Level pass in the Sinhala or Tamil Language, as the case may be. Accordingly, Sinhala public servants need to have Tamil proficiency and vice-a-versa.

 However, teachers unions   complained that teachers, who could not reach this level, were deprived of their annual increments and promotions. The Public Services Commission then issued amended Circular, No.2014/1(IV), which   said that as of January 31, 2017 teachers over 50 years were allowed to follow 100 hours of Sinhala/Tamil Language course, Instead of an Ordinary Level pass in the second language,  

 In June 2019, public sector trade unions also asked for this concession. They want an amendment to the Circular and asked Ministry of Public Administration and  Ministry of National Integration and Official Languages   to submit a Cabinet paper regarding the matter.


British Council In June 2019 initiated, a Tamil language course for public officials, in partnership with the National Institute for Language Education and Training (NILET).

British Council announced that it will hold a four-week intensive training course for a core group of NILET trainers. They will be shown a task-based methodology for teaching Tamil as a second language to public officials. They will learn to use a content and language integrated approach. This includes not only teaching grammar, vocabulary, speaking and listening in a motivating and participatory way, but also addressing language needs in the public service, such as health, education, social services, employment and police.

The NILET trainers will practice this new methodology by delivering a specially developed Tamil language course to Sinhala speaking officers from two bi-lingual Divisions in the Kandy area. Field officers have been selected using a new Tamil Language Placement Test which objectively measures their second language skills. By the end of the project, 150 NILET trainers will have made more than 600 public servants proficient in Tamil.

The course is part of “Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka” (SRP), a four-year program launched in March 2018. SRP is jointly funded by the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Foreign Office. It is implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the British Council in partnership with the Ministry of National Integration, Official Languages, Social Progress and Hindu Religious Affairs.


National Integration, Official Languages, Social Development and Hindu Religious Affairs Minister Mano Ganesan,  said In June 2019  that if the people had understood one another’s language and respected them, there wouldn’t have been a national problem.

Ganesan said that he didn’t believe that there was such a big issue over language contrary to claims made in some quarters.” there was no issue regarding the language issue among political parties and races as all agreed on it.”Ganesan said. Sinhala and Tamil were official languages and English was the link language. “This is our language policy.”He said that all sign boards in the country should be in all three languages. (Concluded)

2 Responses to “THE TAMIL LANGUAGE IN SRI LANKA Part 15”

  1. Christie Says:

    Tamils are Indian Colonial Parasites and their language is part of Indian Colonialism and imperialism.

    Tamil should be removed.

  2. Christie Says:

    Thanks Kamalika for the series of articles.

    Tamil is the business language of the island. These Tamil speaking people are the people who finance our Sinhala politicians. It is the case from the time democracy was introduced. Handys, Captains (N M Perera), Gnanam (Phillip), Hidramains and Kundas (Banda) Eswarans (J V P) etc.

    Tamil is the language of nonviolent aggression and oppression in our island.

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