1 June, 2023


Definition Of The Mother Tongue, Bilingualism And Education For Nation Building

By Tissa Jayatilaka –

Tissa Jayatilaka

. . . facilis descensusAverno;

noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;

sed revocare gradum superasque evader ad auras,

hoc opus, hic labor est.

( The Aeneid, VI, 126-129).

The above lines constitute one of the most famous excerpts from Virgil which in translation reads: Easy is the descent to Avernus; for the door to the gloomy underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the upper air- -that’s the task, that’s the toil.

Then there is that nursery rhyme that we learnt as children years ago:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty  together again.

The few profound lines of the Roman epic and the simple ones of the nursery rhyme help illustrate the status of today’s Sri Lanka. As a country we have hit rock bottom if not the gloomy underworld itself. To  reach the surface, to pull ourselves up and recover our lost decencies, will surely require toil of Herculean proportions. What a gigantic task!  What labour is required to overcome the awful fall that we have had to endure?

I recalled Virgil’s lines, and those of Mother Goose, when I was invited to contribute my thoughts on the kind of education the younger generation ought to receive to begin the daunting task of our national resuscitation and regeneration. I have greater faith in the latter day Sri Lankan counterparts of Aeneas than in either the King’s horses or the King’s men  to resurrectSri Lankafrom its parlous state.  In the reflections that follow, I have striven  to speak and write my truth with sensitivity to other opinions within the human limitations I share with my fellow citizens. I have, however, not hesitated to express my views candidly.

I am in complete agreement with Susil Sirivardana’s assertion that ‘NationBuilding, asNationBuilding, has been singularly absent from [significant] writings and discussions on politics in Sri Lanka’. Sri Lankais yet a country and not a nation.  A country is a physical entity with defined geographical boundaries and a certain number of human beings living in that space.  For a country to become a nation, its  populace must form  a cohesive and integral whole;  must be able to bind together in such a manner as to be indivisible.Sri Lanka’s people  should bear allegiance to an ethos that is all-embracing and indissolubly Sri Lankan.  Such a populace will be made up of   individuals who can and will rally round that geographic entity which is home to all.  If these characteristics are present, the  country then becomes a nation in which socio-cultural heterogeneity is recognized, respected, valued and cherished while national homogeneity is celebrated.

By the foregoing definition,Sri Lankais a country  of several ethnic groups yet to morph into Sri Lankans.   Even these  groups are divided among themselves on caste and class lines to such an extent that we could even label their behaviour as tribal. We are Moors, Malays, Parsis, Sindhis, Bharathas, Chettis, Tamils and Sinhalese living in separate worlds.  A country divided against  itself cannot hope to become a nation.

The idea that a united,   integrated citizenry living in harmony is a   pre-requisite to the emergence of a strong nation is a precept of  Buddhist philosophy.  The Buddha was a consistent advocate of human brotherhood based on harmony and integration.  As we know, the Buddha opposed any discrimination based on caste, creed, colour, religion, power, position or wealth.  The philosophy he gave to the world extols the nobility of the Eightfold Path, which, if followed, leads individuals and societies to fulfillment.  The primary focus of Buddha’s endeavours was to demolish the pernicious caste system which dominated life inIndia of his time, but the arguments he advanced to show up the illogicality of the caste system  apply with equal force to other forms of discrimination based on colour, ethnicity, religion or economic standing.

My view is that Ceylon, as we were called  then, missed the opportunity to grow into a nation at the end of the British colonial period in 1948.  The competition and rivalry among the ruling clique of our country led to ruinous national division, and so we were well on the path to self-destruction even before we could say ’freedom!’ Given the uneasy relationship then between the Indian plantation workers and other Indians resident in Ceylon(Sri Lanka) and the Ceylon National Congress from 1927 to 1931, the consideration of the grant of citizenship to these  Sri Lanka-based plantation workers of Indian origin was not a priority for the Government of D.S. Senanayake. In fact, the Government of the day was actually hostile to the blanket grant of citizenship rights to this group. This state of affairs led to the significant and controversial change caused by the Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment Act, No.48 of 1948,   which, together with the Ceylon (Citizenship Act) No. 18 of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani residents ( Citizenship) Act no.34 of 1949,  gave rise to distortions in the electoral system of the fledgling independent country .The Citizenship Act of 1948 created two classes of citizens – those by descent and those by registration. The immediate effect of this distinction was the disenfranchisement of a large number of Indian Tamils, mostly in the central highlands but also in other urban areas, together with some Indian and Pakistani Moors. Not a very happy beginning for a country freed from the yoke of colonialism. By the time political amends were made years later, the disillusionment of the non-Sinhalese segment of the Ceylonese population with the political establishment of the state had become entrenched, to the detriment of national unity and harmony. The   largely Sinhalese segment of the  Ceylon National Congress, founded in 1919,   coalesced   in 1946 to form the United National Party (UNP) under the leadership of D.S. Senanayake . Those opposed to the UNP were the left-wing Trotskyites who formed the Lanka Sama Samaja Party ( The Ceylon Equal Society Party/LSSP) and the Bolshevik Leninist Party- – which, having splintered from the LSSP, later changed its name into the Bolshevik Samasamaja Party(BSP)- – and the Moscow-oriented Communist Party(CP).  In 1948, the Tamil political leadership split into two segments: Those  who joined D.S. Senanayake and the UNP of the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (TC) and those opposed to the TC that formed the Tamil Federal Party(FP).  Their Sinhala counterparts splintered into the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party less than   48 months  after   ‘independence’ .To those of us who believe in our common humanity, subsequent events have proved that those early divisions and segmentations were shadows cast by events to come.  To the great detriment of our common future, competing   Sinhala and Tamil ethno-nationalisms thus  strangled the birth of an overarching Ceylonese nationalism.

Clearly the previous generations have failedSri Lanka.  How then should we seek to empower and enable our younger generation to undertake the responsibility of resuscitating and revitalizing our society to make us a nation?  Assuming that education is absolutely crucial to such a re-generation ofSri Lanka, how should we set about to reform our system of education?  An essential step is to de-politicise  it.

 Need for depolitisation of Educational Reform

Given that the administration of education in Sri Lankais centralized and the population served by the system relatively small, education reform has hitherto been instituted and terminated with a startling regularity.  Consequently we have had to endure United National Party – inspired or Sri Lanka Freedom Party – inspired reforms as opposed to national educational reforms.  In tiny sapling, STURDY TREE, The inside story of Primary Education in Sri Lanka, Kamala Peiris relates how a very significant systemic restructuring of elementary teaching was curtailed  by a change of government:

We learnt through this harrowing experience the simple unpalatable fact that the negative effect of hierarchical power of authority. . .was repeated many times over  in the state machinery.

Such reforms as those introduced in the past are highly politicized:  not  based on sound educational theory, but  serving  a particular political agenda.  We need a system of education that will serveSri Lanka, not a  political entity within it.  We should  enable the dog to wag the tail.

Our educational reforms for the 21st century must be predicated on  belief  in a common future for all citizens ofSri Lanka.  We must  take pride in our core values and celebrate them with each ethnic group cherishing its language, religion, and culture;  but  we must come together on the basis of our shared values, including  our political and economic systems.  Sri Lankans by and large accept the democratic way of life and subscribe to a non-statist economic policy, regardless of their individual core beliefs and values.

The motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum— out of the many, one, or many uniting into one– is apposite here.  An  absence of  fundamental unity, however,   makes it necessary for outside arbitrators to seek to bring us together each time we go through periods of mad conflict. Until and unless we recognize our common humanity and learn to love and respect each other, we will be forever doomed.

W.H. Auden’s lines illustrate these sentiments brilliantly:

There is no such things as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

However difficult the task may seem, if we wish to become a nation we have to build a national community free of the idea of ethnic hatred and caste division. Such a project obviously calls for courage, imagination and statesmanship. Nothing less will saveSri Lanka.

What should a system of education aimed at building country into a nation out of a country look like?  Any education reform inSri Lankashould immediately eliminate the tyranny of the pre-university examinations, making the ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels more creative and less dependent on cramming.  Such modification would also severely damage the tuition industry – – a definite side benefit.  The ‘O’   and ‘A’ Level examinations today are fossilized educational artifacts that fail to reflect what we know about how to promote, reward and measure authentic learning.  Not only do these GCE Examinations primarily reward only one kind of learning style, they also convey a promise that cannot be delivered: that is, on the basis of available statistics, of the approximately 75,000 students who are deemed “qualified” for university admission based on their GCE “A” Level Examination and who apply for such admission, only 12,500 (a little over 17%) can be accepted.

At the core of educational reform   are the status, training and professionalism of the individual teacher.  Even people justly or unjustly cynical of courses in education theory and pedagogy will, I think, agree that hiring secondary school leavers and university graduates solely as a way of dealing with unemployment does not enhance the possibilities of students’ learning.  Being unemployed and a potential voter at a national election should not be the primary qualification for becoming a teacher.

Beyond this starting point, it is crucial that teachers have access to a variety of teaching methods other than the traditional lecture.  “Lectures” often degenerate into dictation,  which in turn promotes  passive learning geared towards passing the Final Examination rather than an active understanding of the meaning and practical consequences of what is being learned.  In Folklore of Sri Lanka, Nandasena Ratnapala recounts the folk tale in which Mahadenamutta falls into a well.  Instead of rescuing their teacher, Mahadenamutta’s five disciples study the handbook of instructions written by their teacher.  The handbook contains, however, no instruction as to how the disciples should conduct themselves in case the teacher falls into a well. Sinking   farther into the well, Mahadenamutta demands that his students give him the book of instructions and the “great teacher” proceeds to write in it “Whenever your teacher falls into a well, take him out”.  Mahadenamutta then throws the book of instructions back to his disciples who, upon reading it, are finally able to pull their teacher out.  In other words, passive models of education tend to produce passive behaviour and an inability to connect classroom learning with everyday life.

Free Education

Perhaps it is also time to re-consider the principle of ‘free education’.  This is clearly a policy that, for all of its undisputed value at the time it was  conceived, formulated and put into practice, is today   a misnomer.  The education currently  imparted free to some of our children is sadly and tragically inadequate.  It makes a mockery of the hard work, far-sightedness and the dedication with which C.W.W. Kannangara and his colleagues put into effect this ‘pearl of great price’.  Even though the public impression is that education inSri Lankais free, the facts argue to the contrary.  The Open University, the external examinations departments of all of Sri Lanka’s universities, the private Degree Awarding Institutes (The Royal Institute, The Brighton Institute, Institute of Technological Studies, The American College of Higher Education, The American National College and other such Institutes)-  all of which charge fees-  enroll more students than Sri Lanka’s ‘free’ conventional universities do.  The higher secondary education costs are not insignificant, and virtually every school child I know receives tuition at least in a subject or two.  A university contemporary of mine, now a senior don at theUniversityofKelaniyawho resides in Kadawata, told me the other day, that he brings his daughter all the way to Nugegoda for a tuition class in a particular subject she is weak in.  Moreover only two percent of the 20-25 age cohort receive ‘free’ university education anyway.  In an educational system characterized by severe financial limitations, it seems to me that the government should concentrate its financial aid to students from families who cannot afford to pay reasonable fees.

As Ralph Pieris has pointed out (see his Universities, Politics and Public Opinion in Ceylon) ‘free education’ had its genesis in the populist politics of the 1930s.  The advent of universal suffrage under the Donoughmore Constitution, implemented in the Thirties, made those aspiring for membership in the State Council ‘woo their electorates with promises of indefinite extension of educational opportunities, without any reference to the employment prospects for educated youths’.  This was perhaps one of the earliest examples of political meddling in university affairs inSri Lanka. Today such pressures external to the university, determine the development of higher education in a manner that is commonplace in our country. Election posters of the Thirties, presumably not dissimilar to those that ruin our landscape today, advertised political candidates as ‘ friends of the poor’,  for the majority of the needy poor of the day had  a vote.  Through the three Officers of State appointed to the State Council by the Governor- -The Chief Secretary (defence, external affairs and public services), the Financial Secretary(finance) and the Legal Secretary (justice, i.e., legal matters and the conduct of elections)- – the colonial government of Ceylon kept a stranglehold on political power.  The democratically elected Ceylonese members of the legislature who were hostile to the Secretaries not infrequently sought to act as a permanent opposition. They considered  it their role to embarrass the colonial rulers, especially the Finance Secretary, in order to secure as many  benefits from them as possible. Thus was born the system of central schools, at first, and later, in 1945, the Free Education Scheme to provide education from kindergarten to university free of charge.

J.E. Jayasuriya’s views on free education with which I agree entirely( see his  Education in the Third World Some Reflections , pp. 86-87) are worthy of quotation in full:

The immediate consequence of the principle of free education  accepted in 1945 was to give a bonanza to the well-to-do by making   available to them without  payment  the good education that had hitherto been paid for by them. The masses continued to receive free the poor quality education  that had all along been free to them. The Central School idea represented a genuine attempt to extend the benefits of a good quality education, but the establishment  of  Central Schools could proceed only at snail’s pace as the lion’s share  of the finances of the Government was taken up by grants of great liberality to the few prestigious schools which had been earlier fee-levying but now had become free.  TheJuniorSchool came

as a half way measure in the government sector between the old, bad, free school for the masses and the new and better Central School for a few of them, but even Junior Schools were not established in sufficient number. Such small mercies as did come their way placated the masses, and they were too inarticulate to ask for full scale justice. For its part officialdom was content to programme changes at the minimum rate of disturbance to its own lethargy and complacency. The policy that had been accepted  was

free education from the kindergarten to university. Education became indeed free for all, but what was free was a good education for the few and a bad education for the many. In other words, from the point of view of quality, free education was more a mirage than a reality in so far as the masses were concerned (emphasis mine).

However flawed or insincere it may have been in conception, ‘Free Education’ has had its benefits. A significant number of Sri Lankans from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds have aspired to and secured a place in the sun (in the civil service, in the universities, and  in  the schools of Sri Lanka)  thanks to the opportunities provided for them under ‘  Free Education’. But with the disappearance of the sizeable sterling balances accumulated during the war, the maintenance of funds to sustain the lofty ideal of free education proved a challenge that could not be overcome. Free education as originally conceived   by its founding fathers has today all but disappeared. What remains of that lofty ideal is now a shell, and only those who are today’s  Hobsons   choose it. A   serious lack of intellectual and material resources have made the continuation of it worthless,   but for reasons of political expediency no one is willing to acknowledge   its  demise.

Instead, thanks to political expediency and to the obvious attractiveness of this concept,   ‘Free Education’   has over the years acquired the status of a sacred cow. To re-examine the concept with contemporary insights in the spirit of seeking to make a good thing better is not to be anti-egalitarian or non-progressive, as purblind defenders of the status quo would have it. Far from it. I am not advocating the discontinuation of free education.  All I wish to suggest here is that (a) we modify   this time-honoured but  hoary concept so that  the state could afford to continue it into the future  and (b) we offer it to those who are most deserving and in need of it. I am not for a moment suggesting that, to borrow the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Reverened  Dr.Rowan Williams, everyone should stand on their own two feet and turn into reliable ‘independent’ consumers and contributors to the GNP. Rather,  to quote further from the  2009 Christmas sermon of the good Archbishop delivered at the Canterbury Cathedral, I suggest that we help each other, receive from each other, and learn how to depend on the generosity of those who love and stand alongside us.  Those   of us who are able to pay for the education of our children and to contribute tangibly towards the education of those less fortunate, should do so. Such action on our part would enable the government to focus its meagre resources more equitably and concentrate them on the truly needy to ensure the continuance of free education with excellence as we were able to do at the inception of the idea many years ago.

Language Policy

Another priority for nation building is the revaluation of the language policy in education. In what language ought a child in post-colonial Sri Lanka be educated?

In the twilight years of the British colonial period here, some members of our political and academic elite began to decry the use of English and to advocate instead the use of the mother tongue of a child as the medium of instruction in  Ceylon’s primary and secondary schools. Pressures for the replacement of English as the official language by Sinhala and Tamil began in the 1920s. In 1943-44 the State Council of Ceylon decided that, within a reasonable time, Sinhala and Tamil should become national languages.

As in most other things at this juncture in our British colonial period, in the instance of agitating for the dethronement of   English we were following the lead set by India. The swabasha   movement   as it came to be called, arose as a protest against the dominance of the majority by the English-educated minority.

Adding to the social divisions based on caste, ethnicity and religion in the   Ceylonof the British period, there arose two other significant socially divisive tendencies which had their origin in British rule and cut across caste, ethnic and religious distinctions. One was the class distinction, a product of the emerging capitalist economy and the social order that the British helped to bring about;   the other, closely related to,   and interwoven with,   the concept of class was the English language. Ceylonese society came to be, and continues to be,  divided into two clear-cut groups on the basis of English: its English-speakers  and the swabasha or indigenous language speakers. The former segment is made up of those belonging to the western-oriented middle class of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, with a good percentage of Christians, especially of the Protestant persuasion being in this group. British rule produced an English-educated class of about 6 or 7 per cent of the island’s population, and, not surprisingly, this small coterie effectively monopolized the best jobs in the government and the mercantile or private sectors ofCeylon, apart from dominating the professions. Although its numbers today have dropped significantly as a result of the migration of a sizeable segment of this class to greener pastures (theUnited Kingdom,Australia, theUnited States andCanada), the English-speaking class remains dominant.

The swabasha (mother tongue)-speaking segment was and is the rural Buddhist Sinhalese and the predominantly Hindu Tamil masses.  Also in this category of non-elites are the Indian Tamil plantation workers.

By 1935 the agitation for swabasha was quite vigorous, and closely related to the movement for educational reform that had begun in earnest.  In the same year, the Ceylon National Congress published a memorandum calling for educational reform, and  one of the striking features of this strident call was its demand for the introduction of   Sinhala and Tamil as media of instruction. Those behind this call for the switch from English to the indigenous languages were some of the notable Ceylonese school teachers in certain prestigious English secondary schools in the island. With the passage of time they were to become household names, as they eventually achieved high public office: C. W. W. Kannangara (Minister of Education, 1936 – 1947), W.Dahanayake (Cabinet Minister, 1956 – 1959, 1965 – 1970, Minister of Education, 1956 – 1959 and briefly Caretaker Prime Minister, 1959 – 1960), P. de .S Kularatne, and T.B. Jayah, a Malay, who was a member of the first post-independence government. Their counterparts inJaffna went one step further when they led a boycott of elections to the first State Council. This group of nationalists among our then secondary school teachers believed that a system of education based on our social and cultural values was  absolutely necessary to mobilize the masses in the struggle for national independence, and that a change in the medium of instruction was vital to bridging the gap between the  socially elite English-speaking minority and  the rest of the population.

The Hindu Board of Education, which controlled the Hindu schools in the north, took a far-sighted and enlightened position when they decided to introduce Sinhala as a compulsory subject in all their schools.  In 1938 the Jaffna Youth Congress moved that ‘the teaching of Sinhalese and Tamil be made compulsory in all schools in Ceylon’. The true nationalists of the time believed that bilingualism would be an ideal force for national unity and a most effective launching pad for the quest of independence from colonial bondage. As in 1905, when Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Ananda Coomaraswamy spearheaded the movement for a national  university, in the late 1930s too,  there were  positive signs that Ceyloncould achieve such welcome unity of national purpose. Yet the  lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Sinhalese to learn Tamil led to Ceylon’s foregoing a crucial  ingredient  necessary for the formation of a nation state as opposed to a ‘state nation’ . Consequently, while the agitation for swabasha continued, no thought was given to building a link language between the Sinhala and Tamil speakers once English was dethroned. If the Sinhalese did not learn Tamil and vice versa,   in what language would the one communicate with the other, once English ceased to be? In their monumental and tragic ignorance the ultra-nationalists of the time ignored the sensible advice of Robert Marrs, the British expatriate and  first Principal of the Ceylon University College. He had presciently alerted the Ceylonese to the danger of the triumph of swabasha. If at that timeCeylon was divided on the basis of English into two nations, the removal of English would in turn lead to the more dangerous division of the nation on the basis of Sinhala, the language of the majority, and Tamil, the language of the minority.

The above factors notwithstanding, the Executive Committee on Education in the State Council under the Donoughmore Constitution began from 1939 onwards a concentrated effort to reform education with special emphasis on the medium of instruction. After prolonged deliberations, the Executive Committee on Education produced a landmark report in 1943 on education inSri Lanka. Among the significant recommendations contained in the report was that on language: the replacement of English by the mother tongue of the student as the medium of instruction in schools in Ceylon.

Definition of the Mother Tongue

As a part-time university teacher and education administrator for almost 35 years now, I have considerable reservations about the definition of the mother tongue that is in use. Is the language of one’s parents  one’s mother tongue? What if the parents are from two different ethnic backgrounds? Even if the parents  happen to be from the same ethnic background, would it necessarily be the case that their offspring should use the language of their parents as their mother tongue? Even at the risk of being autobiographical, let me take my predicament as an example to illustrate the point I seek to make here.

My father and mother are ‘Sinhalese’, if one is able to accept this label as valid for a moment. My father came from a non-anglicised, semi-urban background while my mother is from an anglicized and urban one. My father was extremely fluent in English and Sinhala and, as all public servants of his day, had a smattering of Tamil. While English was my mother’s linguistic forte, she could get by in Sinhala and Tamil. As with the rest of my siblings, I am proficient in English and Sinhala. Yet, I am far more fluent in and comfortable with using English to express myself. It is the language  I am at home in, so to speak. It is the language in which I can be spontaneous. Hence although technically, by virtue of my parentage my mother tongue ought to be Sinhala,  for all practical purposes it is English.

On the basis of the above reasoning, I am opposed to the definition given by some educationists and the officialdom ofSri Lankain regard to the mother tongue of a Sri Lankan child. In my view, the official stance is erroneous and extremely damaging. While I agree with the dominant pedagogical view that a child learns best in his or her mother tongue, I am in total   disagreement   with the restrictive Sri Lankan definition of what the mother tongue   of a Sri Lankan student actually is. Indeed I would argue that a child born to Sinhalese parents, if brought up in a Tamil-speaking household, would express him/herself best in Tamil. The language in which that child would function most effectively   would then be Tamil and not Sinhala. Ergo that child’s ‘mother tongue’ would be Tamil.

Let me illustrate by further personal experience. I began my primary and  secondary  education,  as did most children of my parental background,  in Sinhala.  By the time I reached the upper forms, from age thirteen upwards, as a student of biological science, my medium of instruction became English. Except,  of course, for Sinhala, Religion and Civics, I studied all my other subjects – – English, Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Mathematics – –   through the medium of English.  As it turned out when I sat my GCE ‘O’ Level Examination, I opted to answer both my Religion and Civics papers in English although I had followed classes in these subjects in Sinhala. Having failed to secure  all of the five credits necessary then to go on  with my studies in  biological science, I decided to change horses in mid-stream,  as it were,  and switched to study subjects in the field of arts and the humanities. My new subjects were English Literature, Greek and Roman Civilization, Buddhist Civilization and Political Science. I was compelled by the prevailing regulations to follow the two latter subjects in the  Sinhala medium  as Sinhalese citizens had no choice but to follow all arts and the humanities  subjects as secondary school students  in Sinhala.

Given my greater fluency in English, that being the language in which I had followed my biological science- related subjects, I failed the two subjects I studied in Sinhala when I sat my GCE ‘A’ Level Examination. As there were no stringent rules to bar  a private student( i.e., a student  with no formal school affiliation) from sitting the examination in the English medium, on my subsequent attempt I sat my ‘A’ Level examination in English and passed it with ease, securing very good grades in the two subjects – -Political Science and Buddhist Civilization—that I had failed earlier.

While I do not contest the notion that the mother tongue  should be the language of instruction in our schools, I would argue strenuously that the definition of the ‘mother tongue’ should be an inclusive rather than an exclusive one. I am also in favour of giving parents and students the freedom to choose the medium of instruction of the young in school. For such sensible flexibility to prevail, we need to allow for competent  English medium instruction, and therefore we must make possible the recruitment  of good teachers with a sound knowledge of English. We must also provide for regular in-service training of teachers to ensure the updating of skills.

For those who might contend that this may lead to the creation anew of a privileged coterie of citizens, I would point out that my proposal for making available English medium instruction in our schools would go hand in hand with the strongest possible recommendation for   an expanded and clearly thought out English Language Teaching programme for  all school children in Sri Lanka. Such instruction in English would not only ensure,  to the extent humanly possible, equality of opportunity for all students but would also ensure that we  not revert to the bad old days when only a minority of social elites had access to English. As we know, the idea that English education fosters elitism has been an influential one. But the way to deal with this is not by restricting the number of English-speakers even more. It is by widening its reach and democratizing it. The elite has the means to ensure access to English, come what may. Locking the underprivileged would be tantamount to reinforcing their lack of privilege. My advocacy of English as a second language forSri Lankais premised on another important reason: if a second language is to be learned, the choice should fall on the language that is the greatest linguistic force in the world of today. Admittedly the ideal methods of teaching English to Sri Lankan children have yet  to be worked out on the basis of research and experiment, but some guidance may be had from the writings of those who have taught English to non-English speaking children inJapan,China,MalaysiaandIndia.

Once a child acquires competence in a second language, the psychological argument for the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction ceases. The example of the significant number of our citizens who have successfully completed undergraduate and post-graduate degree programmes  inRussia,Germany,JapanandChinais a good counter to the nationalist argument that the mother tongue medium should continue  throughout a student’s career.  So is the lack of Sinhala and Tamil textbooks and journals. Such a lack has crippled generations of university products   who have been left to the tender mercies of incompetent instructors who regurgitate the notes they had picked up from their teachers   decades earlier. No independent reading is possible as publications in the mother tongue are not available and  such as are available in English are beyond the grasp of those competent  in their mother tongue.


The proposition that efficient bi-lingualism is not beyond the capacity of the majority of men and women is implied in most discussions of language policy   and explicitly stated in a few of them. The experience of other countries suggests that it is a reasonable proposition to accept. In parts of Europe (notably  Switzerland) it is not unusual to find  an efficient tri-lingualism  possessed by the common man. In India, even illiterate men and women converse readily in two languages and it is possible  that if educational facilities had existed they would have achieved an efficient bilingualism, using the word ‘efficient’ to mean that a person can not only converse in a language but also can read and write it. An efficient bilingualism  is therefore not an unreasonable goal to set ourselves inSri Lanka.

On the basis of arguments proffered and reasons adduced in the course of the foregoing discussion, I would earnestly recommend the following be taken into  serious consideration in any revaluation ofSri Lanka’s language policy in education:

a)      theory and orthodoxy should not be the bases on which  we define the mother tongue of a Sri Lankan student of the 21st Century; and

b)      efficient bilingualism, if not trilingualism, should be the goal we set for all Sri Lankans.

Proposals for Curriculum Reform

In so far as our curriculum goes, my suggestion is for a major overhaul of it   both at school and undergraduate levels. The History syllabus in our education system in particular needs significant revision as it is one of the biggest impediments to the fostering of national unity and harmony . Instead of  forging mutual understanding and reconciliation, the history taught in our country, according to the moderate view, tends to foster a mood of recrimination rather than a mood of renewal. It causes men and women to look back in anger rather than to look forward in hope and confidence.  The education system of our country, on the whole, has not merely tended to keep the Sinhala , Tamil and Muslim students apart but actually instilled in them ethnic feelings. There are inSri Lankaseveral Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim Maha Vidyalayas, separate schools for the different ethnic groups, thereby virtually institutionalizing ethnic segregation!  Although detrimental to nation building, no politician or political entity wishes to re-consider changing this horrendous state of affairs for reasons of political expediency.  This is the reason   why   I began by saying that  building a nation out of the different  ethnic groups that peopleSri Lankawill require Herculean energy!

A study   of school text books and communal (ethnic) relations conducted by the Council for Communal and National Harmony in the early 1980s found that the Sinhala readers produced by the state have endeavoured to instill feelings of ethnic superiority among the Sinhala children. The unprecedented outbreak of ethnic violence in the same decade at the University of Peradeniya- –  it must be remembered that on all previous occasions of ethnic rioting in the country at large Peradeniya was able to rise above this human depravity- – which caused grievous physical and mental hurt to the Tamil students (see ‘Ethnic Disturbances’, A report Commissioned by The Council of the University authored by the late Kenneth M. de Lanerolle for details) may well be ascribed to this type of indoctrination of students by the flawed education system of Sri Lanka.  This is, sadly and tragically, a characteristic common to most of South Asia. As Kudlip Nayar points out in an article (‘A doomed region’, The Island, 31 December, 2009, p.8) in schools of certain states ofIndia,  songs that exalt the regional idea have been introduced into text books. History books taught in lower classes have disclosed a marked tendency to exaggerate the past   achievements of  the dominant linguistic groups.

History should be so taught in Sri Lankaas to bring  to the forefront the rich diversity of our society in order to encourage our essential oneness. Religion and history should be subjects that  bring us together, not separate us. Religious Studies,   should incorporate into its syllabus the basic philosophies of all the major religions practiced in the country.   I wish to adapt and echo here and now the exemplary thoughts and words,  reflecting  the core values/shared values assertion made  above, of former United States Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm(  The Christian Science Monitor, 18 February, 1984, p.23) expressed in a different context which are as relevant to us inSri Lanka today:

We have a chance to become someday a nation in which all ethnic stocks and classes can exist in their own selfhoods, but meet on the basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically. We can become a dynamic equilibrium, a harmony of many different elements, in which the whole will be greater than all its parts and greater than any society the world has seen before. It can still happen.

A Minimum Required Programme (MRP) of Study

To make a solid beginning to reach that exalted and blessed status of ‘a harmony of many different elements’, we desperately need   to re-structure our curriculum. Such a re-structured curriculum should be broad enough to impart a sound education and at the same time be able to catch the imagination of a student.  The ideal would be a curriculum that is inter-disciplinary and avoids over-specialization at too early a  stage. The rigid compartmentalization of the curriculum that forces students at an early age into science, arts and commerce streams  must be avoided.  A comingling of the three would immeasurably strengthen   the curriculum by preventing early academic over-specialization and will thereby help convert learning into an exciting adventure as opposed to a burdensome exercise as it is at present. A curriculum concerned merely with loading factual knowledge on a student and conveying loads of information to her will be both unwholesome and grossly inadequate.  A minimum required programme of  study(MRP)  that should be both sweet and useful (dulce et utile) for  a student is our urgent need:  useful in that the MRP is challenging and stimulating  while at the same time it is aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable(‘sweet’).

Making the MRP attractive   is only half the battle; the other half is to provide quality teachers–  teachers who can draw out the knowledge that lies dormant in each student to lead him/her to   the Promised Land made up of methods, processes, and the various paths that pave the way for understanding and judgement  that  are the hallmarks of all meaningful study. As suggested by the authors  of  Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report To The Academic Community (1990), nine experiences are essential  to the kind of education we are talking about in this essay. Some of these might  be  thought of as skills, others as ‘ways of growing and understanding,’ but all  nine experiences are crucial to a coherent and wholesome education. They are  Inquiry,  Literacy,   Understanding numerical data, Historical consciousness, Science,  Values,  Art,  International and multicultural experiences, and Study in depth.

  1. The MRP should focus on making students think for themselves through critical analysis of subject matter where the teacher acts as a facilitator,  one who shows the way, a margopadeshakakya. Our tuition-oriented curriculum of today does not stimulate thinking. It only leads to rote learning, which in turn produces mostly pliant and subservient students who cannot think independently and freely. A teacher today is a figure of authority, one armed with facts   who then seeks to fill the empty vessel that is the student with information and knowledge,   not wisdom. He is miles away from the guide, philosopher and friend, in other words the margopadeshakaya,  that he is meant to be.  Children possess immense inherent capacities to inquire, analyze and think for themselves.  But stimulating and imaginative teachers are necessary to draw out and refine the untutored genius that resides within every child.
  2. The  word ‘literacy’ lends itself to varied meanings. It is used here to denote the fluency in writing,   reading, speaking,  and  listening  that a decent curriculum should achieve. Writing in this context means the mastery of language to express how   we ‘think, feel and judge’.  The avoidance of meaningless ambiguity, the reliance on simplicity in the exploration of complex thought so that whatever is written about is understood by the average reader, and the ability to enlist wit and humour as when occasion demands them, are attributes  of a properly educated,  literate student.

3.Readingmay be for pleasure, for information, for dispassionate inquiry and analysis, for discriminating between right and wrong, good and bad, and the genuine and the spurious.  One effective way of  countering some students’  over-reliance on lecture notes is to encourage greater reading: ‘those structured invitations to contemplation and self-education that characterizes memorable undergraduate courses …’(Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to theAcademic Community, p.16).

4. Two other crucial aspects of literacy are speaking and listening.  A good communicator is usually also a good listener, for it is imperative  to listen to multiple points of view before agreeing or disagreeing with issues. As in writing, so in speaking, directness, clarity and simplicity are   invaluable. Some of us, confusing learning and intelligence with ponderousness,  tend to speak like encyclopaedias, a confusion that a truly educated person avoids at all times. Consequently educated school children and graduates are those who can read, write and speak in such a manner as to stand apart from the generality of students.

5. Statistics scream at us today from  all sides. Figures, tables, and averages of births and death rates, costs of living and such other vital statistics abound, and we are often  confused and confounded by them. Politicians use such numerical  data to dupe us as do commercial advertisers to seduce. The satisfactory interpretation  of this data require from us a capacity for discrimination. A sound education should equip us with the tools to distinguish fact from fiction and the sincere persuader from  the calculating manipulator. The suggestion here is not for a compulsory course in Statistics, but for  an education that ensures that the educated are made broadly aware of the importance of balancing  the quantitative and qualitative aspects of knowledge.

6. Historical Consciousness is a most useful attribute for a good education. The reality of multiple choices available, the presence of ambiguity and paradox in our lives and the significance of human curiosity, among other things, make recognition of complexity a vital need for us. An understanding of the historical background enables us to deepen our understanding of human nature at any given time. Citing an example or two from the study of English Literature, we can say that our reading of Chaucer and George Eliot would make us familiar with life and society of Mediaeval and Victorian England. It is also likely that if we are familiar with an outline of the history of these two epochs, we can understand Chaucer’s  The Canterbury Tales and Eliot’s Middlemarch better. Situating a work of art against its socio-economic and cultural background yields rich dividends and deepens our understanding of that work of art. Likewise   we will be in a position to appreciate better the stupendous scientific discoveries of ages past– today  taken for granted– if we look at them in their historical context.

7. The furious pace of contemporary change has rendered contemporary existence increasingly complex, and  nothing contributes more to this pace of change than Science and Technology.  Science and technology, made possible our going to the moon, enabled  us to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made us  see the dangers of accelerated climate change, placed  computers on most of our desks, and make instant communication possible. In other words, science and technology have revolutionized our lives – – and yet most of us continue to live in societies where compartmentalized knowledge keeps us ignorant of scientific know-how   and where many of us carry the enormous intellectual handicap of no knowledge of science whatsoever. A familiarity with science and  the scientific method , with their  strengths and limitations( for we know there are questions that science neither asks nor answers), will serve to de-mystify  the world of knowledge available to us through the sciences. Too many of us familiar only with the arts and the humanities continue in our ignorance to believe that the human condition is explained best by literature and philosophy. An inter-disciplinary curriculum that combines arts, science and commerce-based subjects will pave the way for a student to receive a more rounded education, in which each discipline enriches the other. At theUniversityofCeylonin Peradeniya in the early 1970s there was an admirable effort  to diversify the undergraduate curriculum in the arts and the humanities.  Undergraduates in the latter disciplines were made to follow a course of foundation lectures through   which they were introduced to   significant themes and issues of science. There was also an excellent forum for the discussion and exploration of inter-disciplinary subject matter at the “Popular Science Gossip” held regularly at the Faculty of Science, addressed and attended by members of all faculties at the University.  With the passage of time and given the vagaries of Sri Lanka’s  zero-sum politics, these  useful  initiatives were unfortunately abandoned as time went by.

8. To attempt to make sense of the world around us, to search  for proper answers to questions that the ambiguities and paradoxes of our existence force upon us, to satisfy our insatiable curiosity  and to help us make wise and civilized choices from the welter of choice available to us, we need right values.  In the beginning, every educated person studied theology, which was supplanted by moral philosophy in the nineteenth century and was in   turn supplanted   by the ‘value free’ social sciences and objective sciences. In our part of the world, too, education in the past had a religio-ethical dimension to it as education was closely associated   with the temple and clergymen. While I am not blind to such benefits as do exist in a ‘value free’ education in the furtherance of secularism, on balance it is my conviction that a value-based education is the more desirable model. Values help us make moral judgements and however wary we may be of final answers, we will ignore only at our peril the task of  inculcating humanistic values in our students.  The arrogance of a Creon, the tragic single-mindedness of an Antigone, the  calculated  judgement  of a Maname Queen or the  fraught determination of a Sinhabahu remind us  of the challenges and opportunities of choice and the role that  values ( or the lack of them) play in the making of choices. Is majoritarianism  right?  Should  the war inIraq have occurred regardless of the absence of weapons of mass destruction? Is the war inAfghanistan justifiable?  Were the summary executions Rohana Wijeweera and Velupillai Prabhakaran  called for? These are questions for  which there are no clear-cut answers. Both human subjectivity and objectivity need to be employed in the search for meaningful answers to these imponderables of life. Hence the indispensability of a value-based approach to education.

9. An appreciation of the aesthetic aspects of life contributes immeasurably to  the making of an educated citizen. Music, poetry, drama, dance, painting, pottery and sculpture are essential in this regard. Art encourages creativity and enriches our spirit, imagination and feeling.  Art enables us to explore life from a multiplicity of angles and dimensions and, through such imaginative exploration, to apprehend  what it is to be human.

Without an awareness  and experience of the fine arts  and the performing arts, we will be like horses tied to a carriage. We will succeed in reaching point B from point A, but  we will surely have missed seeing the beautiful waterfalls, sunsets, the flora and fauna on either side of the road. And our sensibilities will be the poorer for the narrowness of an education minus an intimate connection to the arts.

10. Acquaintance with the world outside  our narrow confines  makes possible  a broader  outlook on life.  The lack of such acquaintance is bound to make us resemble frogs in a well. An education that helps us to ground ourselves firmly in our own ethos whilst immersing ourselves as fully as possible in that of our fellow-human beings outside of our location will make our worldview more wholesome. A curriculum that fosters hybridity and promotes internationalism will serve to underscore our common humanity. It will make us realize that,   despite our different skin colourations, genders, ethnicities, religious and cultural backgrounds  and geographical limitations, we are one.  This profound idea is reflected in the beliefs of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies as expressed in the Theory of Non-duality and Maya and in the Avatamsaka Sutra(The Flower Ornament Scripture) which uphold that nature cannot be reduced to ‘basic building blocks’. The Avatamsaka Sutra, according to Gunapala Dharmasiri, is  a Mahayana Buddhist text,  that was composed inIndia during the first  centuries of the first millennium of the common era. Dharmasiri goes on to say that the sutra ‘deals with the universe in great detail, going to the extent of  giving details of various galactic systems, even naming some’. According to these philosophical constructs the universe is an inter-connected whole in which no part is any more fundamental than the other and every part contains all the others- – ‘all in each and each in all’ in the words of the great seer Sri Aurobindo. This essential oneness of the universe is found not only in Eastern mysticism but also in Western mystical thought as seen in the following lines of William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the  palm of your hand,

And  eternity in an hour.

A study of different languages and literatures, political systems and religions of the world will make us realize our vulnerability and our inter-dependability   as human beings huddled together on an increasingly volatile planet.

A system of educational instruction predicated on the salient  features  delineated above should provide for  the right depth of academic exploration. A superficial dip into the sea of knowledge should prove as detrimental as too deep a dive into it. For we know there are dangers in over-specialization as much as in an education that avoids any  specialization at all. As ever the middle path – deep but not overly deep — is   best.  When we impart information and knowledge to our students in such appropriate depth, they will be able  to   process these two  ingredients  to find the wisdom or the kind of knowledge that goes beyond common understanding.

Works cited and consulted:

K.D. Ariyadasa, ‘Management of educational reforms in Sri Lanka’, Paris, Unesco Press, 1976.

Chandra Richard de Silva, ‘The impact of nationalism on education in Sri Lanka, 1948 – 1976’, in Collective identities, nationalisms and protest in Sri Lanka during the modern era, (ed. ), Michael Roberts, Colombo, Marga Publications, 1979, pp.474-499.

K.M. de Silva, ‘Ethnicity , Language and Politics: The making of Sri Lanka’s Official Language Act No.33 of 1956’, Ethnic Studies Report,  Vol. xl,  No.1, January 1993.

K.M. de Lanerolle, Ethnic Disturbances in 1983 at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, a Report Commissioned by the Council of the Univesity (Suppressed by the Authorities).

Gunapala Dharmasiri,  ‘Some Thoughts on Identity and Difference in the Avatamsaka Sutra(The Flower Ornament Scripture), in Identity and Difference  Essays on Society and Culture in Sri Lanka, edited by John Clifford Holt and P.B. Meegaskumbura, Kandy, Sri Lanka,

Handy Perinbanayagam  A Memorial Volume  The Jaffna Youth Congress and Selections        from His Writngs and Speeches, Handy Perinbanayagam Commemoration Society, Thirumakal  Press, Chunnakam,  Ceylon (Sri Lanka), 1980.

J.E. Jayasuriya, Education in the Third World – Some Reflections,Bombay,  1981.

– – – –Education in Ceylon before and after Independence 1939 to 1968, Associated Educational Publishers,Colombo, 1969.

—- Educational Policies and Progress during British rule in Ceylon 1796 – 1948,Colombo, Associated Educational Publishers (no date)

—- Some issues in Ceylon education, Peradeniya, Associated Educational Publishers, 1964.

Amal  Jayawardane ( ed.) Perspectives on National Intregration in Sri Lanka, National Integration Programme Unit( NIPU), Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and national Integration,  Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2006.

Sir William  Ivor Jennings, ‘Equality of degradation’, Social Justice Annual, 1952, pp.18 – 19.

Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community, Project of Re-defining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees, Association of American Colleges,  1990.

Language Rights in Sri Lanka Enforcing Tamil as an Official Language, (ed.) B. Skanthakumar, Law and Society Trust, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2008.

Wallace R. Meulder,  Schools  for a New Nation  The Development and Administration of the Educational System of Ceylon, K.V. G. de Silva and Sons,Colombo, 1962.

K. Nesiah, ‘From School to University’, Journal of the National Education Society  of  Ceylon, X, (1), March 1961, pp. 18 – 25.

Kamala   Peiris, Tiny sapling, sturdy tree: the inside story of primary education reforms of the 1970s in Sri Lanka,Oslo, Univesitetsforlagt, 1983.

Ralph Pieris, ‘Universities,Politics and Public Opinion in Ceylon,’ in  Minerva, Summer 1964,London, pp.435-454.

Mahinda  Ranaweera  and others, Democratization of education in Sri Lanka by Mahinda  Ranaweera, Sterling Perea,  M.Ameratunga de Silva, J.M. E. Fernando and R.Wijedasa, Colombo, Curriculum Development Centre, 1979.

Nandasena  Ratnapala,   Folklore of Sri Lanka, Colombo, State Printing Corporation, 1991.

C. Shanmuganayagam, An Experiment in Spiritual Inquiry for the Youth, Bhavan’s Book University,  Chennai, India, 1998.

Sinhalese and Tamil as Official Languages. Report of Select committee of the State Council, Sessional Paper XX11, 1946.

Task Force and Working Committee, Higher Education Sector Survey, Draft Report, 1994.

I am grateful to Merlin Peris, Emeritus Professor of Western Classical Culture, Universityof Peradeniya, for refining John Dryden’s translation of  the lines  from Virgil’s  Aenid, Book VI, 126-129).

Tissa Jayatilaka is the Executive Director at U.S-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission

NOTE –  The essay forms a chapter( pp.163 – 190)  in a book titled Nation Building Priorities for Sustainability and Inclusivity edited by Gnana Moonesinghe(2010).

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Nice piece. This is all way too high brow for the likes of the current barbaric Rajapakse regime that has militarized the university and country. I use barbaric in the sense of a regime lacking in culture, morality and education. We need to get back to basics.
    1. There certainly is a need for a group of educators to come together and draw up a comprehensive plan to rescue and develop education in Sri Lanka from the current regime – subject by subject, school by school, UGC and NIE which is full of racist Rajapakse stooges.
    2. This should be done now so that the 6 percent allocation from the budget demanded for the Education sectors by the Dons may be well utilized.
    3. To ensure this happens the current Ministers in charge of education and Higher ed should be forced to resign since they are the biggest impediments to developing a modern, multicultural and student friendly education system.

  • 0

    A good account of the history of education since from before independence.
    English being the portal to knowledge, it should be the medium of instruction,but one other langugage too should be taught.
    The very fact that we are reading this site in english,negates any other notion.
    Sites like http://www.refdesk.com/ with a million bits of information/knowledge will be lost to those who cannot read and understand english.

  • 0

    The writer seems well educated, articulate, and sincere in promoting his world view about an ideal system of education for Sri Lanka.

    However, I feel that his discourse is too lengthy for this kind of forum, where deep academic analyses with bibliography are not what most readers would benefit from.

    Hence the lack of many comments, I believe. Yes, the genre is definitely ‘high brow’ but to what effect? Tissa would do well to keep aside his academic literature style for teaching purposes and adopt a fluid, simple and short style that conveys messages effectively.

    I do hope he pays heed to my remarks, with humility and affords some consideration to them in future.

  • 0

    An excellent analysis , Thank you Dr Tissa for your time and insight. Sri Lanka needs more people like you!

  • 0

    One of the best analysis I read about this subject. Great !

  • 0

    But I wonder this Madamulan clan will understand this.

  • 0

    Raja Poxy sat on throne
    Raja Poxy had a great fall
    All Raja’s advisors and all Raja’s henchmen
    Couldn’t put Raja together again. :)

  • 0

    Sir Ivor Jennings who was Vice Chancellor of the Peradeniya and Colombo Universities gave a definition of what mother tongue is. He said, “Mother tongue is the language you learn at the feet of your mother.”

  • 0

    with apologies to William Blake…
    He see’s the country as his personal fifedom,
    And “MihinAir” as his family airline,
    Hold’s infinite power over the people in the palm of his hand,
    And dream’s of eternal life, hour after hour… :)

  • 0

    I forgot to say:-
    Ask any parent in sri lanka – “If facilities are available,which language do you prefer,to educate your children”?
    The answer will always be “english”. I have asked this myself of villagers, in the north and south, and the answer was the same.
    All of them are aware that the englished educated are the elite, and become leaders,public servants,intellectuals,professionals & even politicians.
    This thrusting of the “mother tongue” on children was the worst crime perpetrated by politicians for their own benefit – starting with SWRD, later by his widow Sirimavo ( who abolished all London U Exams held by the Examinations Department,but sent her children abroad to study ) and later by all others
    Even now, all politicians’ children are studying abroad, or are preparing for same,at “international schools”.
    Universal english literacy would have prevented the tragic ethnic strife. Our country would have advanced on par with others.
    Is it too late now?

  • 0

    Some commentators on Tissa Jayatilaka’s ‘Education for Nation Building’ carried by Colombo Telegraph have mistaken his academic essay to be a journalistic piece. The essay forms a chapter( pp.163 – 190) in a book titled Nation Building Priorities for Sustainability and Inclusivity edited by Gnana Moonesinghe(2010).

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