The sorry fate of our 2500 year linguistic heritage
Posted on February 9th, 2021

S. Akurugoda

I remember the days before 1956, when the official language of the country was English.  Most of the Sinhala schools in villages had classes up to 8th standard and those who wanted to do higher studies in English had to go to collages in the main cities.   All most all the government officials other than low-ranking workers were English educated.

Things have changed remarkably after the introduction of the Official Language Act, paving the way for the majority community, especially those who lived in villages including myself to move forward.  The Official Language Act of 1956 replaced English as the language of the country with Sinhala.

After the introduction of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987, stating the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala” while Tamil shall also be an official language,” with English as a link language”, followed by the 16 Amendment in 1988, the status of the Sinhala language maintained for 32 years from 1956 to 1988 as the country’s official language started diminishing gradually while that of English language appears to be regaining slowly but surely.

As per the 16th Amendment made in 1988, Sinhala language, in effect, is no longer the Official Language or the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka. It is only an Official Language, in the sense that it is the language of administration in seven provinces other than the Northern and Eastern Provinces, whereas Tamil can be the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka in addition to its Official Language status, since there is no limitation imposed on its application as in the case of Sinhala. Sinhala is no longer the language of administration throughout Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, International Schools are popping up everywhere and national languages are no more the medium of their education.  Sinhala, we hear in TV channels (including the national channels) and we read in printed media now is not the Sinhala we learnt but a mixture of Sinhala and English.

Even after 64 years of the replacement of English as the language of administration of the country, the highest court of law of the country is still conducting its investigations and delivering their judgments in English.

It is interesting to note how the Law Collage stopped its medium of legal education, Sinhala, in 2010 after 25years, when the Ministry of Justice was under Rauff Hakeem. Soon after this change, an abnormal number of law applicants got admission to the law collage from a specific community. Most recently, there was an attempt by the current minister to recruit 150 Tamil (Sinhala is not a requirement) speaking lawyers to police department.

 Making the situation worse, Council of Legal Education has issued a Gazette Notification upgrading English, the link language, as the mandatory medium of legal education commencing from 2022, thus preventing the use of Sinhala for the purpose of legal education, anymore, anywhere within the country.  This rule is applicable not only to Law Collage but to all the universities, the Open University and the Kotelawala Defence University.

The Gazette Notification No 2208/13 dated 30/12/ 2020, under the subject Council of Legal Education Ordinance”, the following new rules 28A have been introduced.

28A.   (1)  All courses conducted at the Sri Lanka Law College shall be conducted in the English Medium.          

              (2)  English shall be the mandatory medium of examinations and shall be introduced in the following manner-

  (a) Preliminary Year, commencing from the year 2022– a minimum of three (3) subjects to be answered in the English medium;

(b) Intermediate Year, commencing from the year 2023– a minimum of five (5) subjects to be   answered in the English medium;

   (c) Final Year, commencing from the year 2024 – all subjects to be answered in the English   medium.

(3) The Council may, considering the medium of instruction at any university established or;deemed to be established under the Universities Act, No. 16 of 1978, the Open University of Sri Lanka or the Kotelawala Defence University, at its discretion, grant exemptions to any person who has obtained a Bachelor of Laws Degree (LL.B) from any such university, from the application of this rule until the year 2025.”

The law is a scheme of control backed by the state for the protection of social interests. Unlike engineering and medicine, the law is social engineering and social medicine. Hence it is the responsibility of the state to ensure its free availability to its citizens to understand their rights and duties and to act according to the law.

Once the new rule 28A is in action, imposing further limitation of the use of Sinhala (the language of the 74.9% of the population, according to the 2012 censes) in the legal system throughout the country, the entire legal proceedings including hearing of court cases will be in English violating the constitutional provisions and rights of the ordinary citizens. The Council of Legal Education consists of 14 members chaired by the Chief Justice.  Out of 14members, six are appointed by the Minister of Justice. Thus any legal action against this injustice may not be possible.

By chasing away our 2500 year linguistic heritage to the backyard, what patriotism are we trying to protect? The nation “Sinhala” lives only until its “language” is alive. The day the Sinhala Language becomes dead that would be the funeral date of Sinhala nation!

5 Responses to “The sorry fate of our 2500 year linguistic heritage”

  1. aloy Says:

    We south asians have ne common heritage. We seem to understand each other culturally as well as linguistically as something binding all of us. For instance take the fist line of lyrics of the legendary song:

    “Neele Gagan Ke Tale”

    Though I do not understand hindi, I can straightaway translate it as:

    beneath the “nil ahas thale” and when you play the song you get the same feeling as any Indian would.

    I have worked with many Indians and Pakistanis abroad and felt the same warmth of friendship and hospitality. Perhaps it is the religion that is keeping all of us apart. May be people like Imran Khan and a new leader from India could work together to form a block like EU and rejoin the separated people.

  2. aloy Says:

    Sorry: “We South Asians seem to have one common heritage.”

  3. aloy Says:

    I must apologize for being somewhat out of context. But the problem we have is the missing link in the chain ( or the common thread).I have been talking about. To correct it we need to do a surgical operation. And there seem to be no one capabalevof doing that.

  4. Nimal Says:

    If we make English our official language then there would be harmony among all different communities. The English language seems to be common to all nations.From the time I am in UK thousands come from abroad to learn this language.
    First language to be spoken on the moon was English.

  5. Ratanapala Says:

    If there is a will there is a way. What lacks in Sri Lanka is the will of State Officials and conniving politicians, to make Sinhala the Official Language in all its manifestations throughout the land. There are interested parties from the very beginning out to deny Sinhala the due place in Sri Lanka.

    Indonesia whose official language is Bahasa Malayu or now called Bahasa Indonesia is the official Language throughout Indonesia. This is despite the fact that there are many other local languages within the Indonesian archepelago and the colonial official language was Dutch. All affairs of the State of Indonesia are conducted in Bahasa Indonesia and they have no issues in this regard. Bahasa Indonesia as well as Bahasa Malaysia originates from a tiny nondescript island in the region where the Koran was first translated into a language called Bahasa Melayu.

    Similarly there are many countries around the world who do not depend on English for conducting their state affairs. Finns, Norwegians, Swedish who all have much lessser populations compared to Sri Lanka conduct their affairs in their own languages – not in English, not in French,not in German or even in Russian – which are the major languages in their regions. It is the remaining slavish mentality of the Kalu Suddas and vested minority interests that keep Sri Lanka mired in an English Language trap.

    Countries around the world understand the importance of English as a medium of communication. However most documents in the UN are either kept in French or in Spanish. This is because French is a much more precise language for record keeping and Spanish cover larger populations.

    As for the purposes of litigation in Sri Lanka, the importance of Sinhala must be paramount for the larger population is not conversant in English and justice that is doled out incoherently is no justice at all. Otherwise go all back to Silindu’s time more than a hundred years ago when English ruled our fair Land!

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