Colombo Telegraph

Letter To Our President

By J. B. Disanayaka

Prof. J. B. Disanayaka

His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapakse,

The President Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka,

Office of the President,

Temple Trees,

150 Galle Road,

Colombo 3,

Sri Lanka.


Dear President Rajapaksa,

During the early 60s, barely two decades after the birth of the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya based on the Cambridge model, it was the custom to send young local academic recruits to Britain for their post-graduate education.  Those recruits to the Faculty of Arts, in particular, were sent to The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London.

I joined the Department of Sinhala after graduation.  My predecessors in the Department had duly proceeded to London for higher study.  I myself was nursing thoughts of going to London in 1963.  Destiny, however, intervened.  My advisers urged me to proceed to the United States for my higher studies in the field of Linguistics.  Awarded a Fulbright-Smith Mundt scholarship, I was affiliated to the University of California, Berkeley, at that time one of the most prestigious of the many American universities that had around nine Nobel laureates on campus.

The two years I spent at Berkeley not only helped me earn a Master’s degree in Linguistics but also taught me how to become a university don.  The education I received and the experience I gained at Berkeley certainly constituted a significant turning point in my career.  Four factors contributed to enrich my life in the United States and I wish to elaborate on these.

Firstly, the orientation programme each Fulbright scholar had to participate in made a difference. My fellow-Fulbright recipients and I had our two-week orientation programme at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.  The very first thing I learnt was to read at a speed faster than I had ever read at home.  I was advised to make an analytical study of the Department of Linguistics at Berkeley and write a critical review of a book or article published by an academic staff member of this Department.

I chose to focus on Professor Emaneau, perhaps the most-senior member of the Department, who was an authority on Indo-European and Dravidian Linguistics.  His learned article on India as a Linguistic Area gave me plenty of food for thought.  When I met him personally at Berkley on eventually getting to California, I could not only discuss matters with him with ease but also add some further relevant facts from Sinhala, my own language, to substantiate his hypothesis.  Prof. Emaneau was highly pleased.  Thanks to my orientation experience at Yale, I was able to begin my Fulbright sojourn on a sound note which in turn helped make my life at Berkeley all the more comfortable and memorable.

Secondly, my graduate adviser at Berkeley, Professor Wallace Chafe, helped make my academic experience productive and meaningful.  Having studied my background and credentials I possessed at that time, Professor Chafe advised me to follow certain introductory courses in Sanskrit, Latin and Cultural Anthropology.  My exposure to the latter subject brought me into contact with Professor Dell Hymes, a most distinguished authority in the field.  He and the course he taught enabled me to acquire new insights into culture which inspired me later on to make several comparative studies on Sinhalese culture.

Thirdly, the summer courses I took at campuses outside of Berkeley deepened my understanding of the field of Linguistics and thereby widened my horizons.  In the process, I was also able to meet and get to know several other specialists – both American and British – in Linguistics.  The first of the summer courses of mine was at the Bloomington Campus of Indiana University and the second at the Austin Campus of the University of Texas.

At Bloomington I had the privilege and rare opportunity of meeting Professor Michael Halliday, famed British linguist and the pioneer of the new school of British Linguistics that came to be known as `Functional Linguistics’.  I was so attracted to Halliday’s theory that I wanted to study it further under his guidance on completion of my Fulbright scholarship.  As a result of my meeting Prof. Halliday at Bloomington, I received the good fortune of spending an year at the Department of Linguistics of the University College of the University of London benefitting from Prof. Halliday’s wisdom. Austin, Texas, also gave me the opportunity to meet another giant in the field of Linguistics, Professor William Labov.

Fourthly, the American `host families’ that I interacted with enriched my life.  The weekends I spent with them and the festive occasions – Easter and Christmas among others – I shared with them are among my cherished memories of my stay in the United States.  I yet remember vividly Dick Hemenways who hosted me at New Haven, Connecticut.  Writing to the Nutmeg Pioneer in 1963 Dick observed that `the visitors have brought us a knowledge of other lands and other cultures, and a feeling that we now have friends in distant places’. I share these sentiments.

I truly am happy that I had the opportunity to do my post-graduate studies in the United States, for it enabled me not only to deepen my knowledge of the field of my academic specialisation but also to broaden my outlook on life.  That Fulbright experience was essentially the main source of inspiration that has made me who I am today.

I commend the Government of Sri Lanka and the Government of the United States for nurturing the Fulbright programme these past sixty years and hope very much that they will continue to nourish it in the decades to come.

Yours sincerely,

J. B. Disanayaka

*This essay is taken from the book, ‘Letters to Our Presidents’ published by US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission

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