By Manel Fonseka –
We have just learnt that the NMSJ’s “proposal on language is to declare Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and to recognise English as the link language.”
On Colombo Telegraph, the first response to this was from Sri Krish: “Why not declare Sinhala, Tamil and English as Official Languages?” to which I replied: “Why not?”
A Sinhala scholar (plus Sanskrit, Pali, Latin, Greek, English, etc.), my father was dead against the “Sinhala Only” Act, anticipating many problems to which it would give rise. Extremely pessimistic, despite the fact that his own professional life had always been in Sinhala. From 1942, he had broadcast a regular Sinhala “letter” from the BBC in London, and later founded the Sandesaya program, which he ran until 1955. He then returned here, to the country he had left “for ever” 23 years earlier, to take up the job of Deputy Editor on the Sinhala Encyclopaedia, which is what he was working on when the Sinhala Only Act was passed.
Unfortunately, I fell foul of the act as I struggled with a language I was hearing and seeing for the first time, even more daunting in its “duality” – having spoken and written forms. Even Sinhala classmates (one of them now a well-known, confirmed and vocal nationalist), used to tell me how difficult it was for them to master the written language. Unable to obtain a Sinhala O-Level pass, despite nine O-levels (incl. Latin and French), I was not eligible to enter university here. We lived on the Peradeniya campus at the time and knew of certain undergrads, born and bred in SL, who had managed to deal with language requisite by “influence”. Alas, despite having friends in high places, my father was never one to ask for favours.
So, traumatised when torn away from England in 1955, I had scarcely recovered when another wrench came a few years later. I had to return to London, leaving my family and the place and people I had come to love. No option. It was decided that I join a grammar school in England and prepare for the A-Level exam there.
However, yet another obstacle was planted in my way. The Sri Lankan government ruled against my parents sending money to support me abroad. Why? Because I wanted to study English for my degree, and English was a subject available in the university here! Crazy!
So my mother decided to take all four children back to England, put us in school, find a job to support us until I had sat the A-Level exam and been accepted by a university. She would then return to SL with the younger children.
Soon after arriving in England, we discovered that though I was still a British citizen, entitled to a university grant in Britain, three years’ continuous residence again were necessary to qualify. So I had to get a job to support myself, meanwhile. Birkbeck College in London offered part-time degree courses for working people. Lectures from 6pm till 9pm. I was just 19 when I began working full-time at the British Council and attending lectures after work. The academic year began in September, autumn. After several winter months working, studying and arriving home late at night, by tube, I gave up. It was only years later, at the urging of a SL friend, with an honours degree in English from an English university, that I re-applied to university. The friend coached me for the interviews and I was accepted by my first choice and obtained a grant. Not enough to support me totally, of course, so vacation jobs were necessary.
I can’t resist sharing, all these years later, my answer to the first question at the interview: “Why have you chosen this College first?” (Out of six choices.) I lived in Hampstead at the time, right by the Heath, and a bus started near the bottom of my road, going straight to the college. (Every morning I sat upstairs a few rows behind the Labour MP, Michael Foot, who always beat me to the front seats.) So, without stopping to think of an answer that would impress the panel with my great intelligence, I replied: “Because you’re on the 24 Bus route from home!”
Upon graduating, amazingly, after all this trouble, provoked, in a way, by unyielding, short-sighted language policies, I actually decided to return to the “source”. Once again, my parents were not allowed to buy me a ticket to come back, so I had to work again, at the BC, to earn a sea passage. However, too many problems faced me back in Ceylon and, despite being offered an assistant lectureship at Colombo University, I returned once again to England where I studied librarianship and worked for a few more years.
By the mid ‘70s I had become certain that Sri Lanka, despite so many drawbacks, was where I would settle down, and returned overland with three friends in a VW Beetle, taking in all sorts of extraordinary places on the way – five months – including climbing to the top of the great Bamiyan Buddha. Once here, I was urgently in need of a job and was offered one as the librarian in the regional office of an international organization. But! Of course, there is always a “but”. The post counted as “local staff”, so one had to be a Ceylon (still) citizen and I was only a Brit. Further, dual nationality/citizenship was still not permitted here. So – to be or not to be? That was the question. Commit or keep a loophole? After over 30 years of the privileges of a British passport?
What to do?
I decided to commit to this country, and so renounced Brit. Cit. in a ceremony at the High Commission — even had to pay a fee for doing so. I became a Ceylon Citizen. And that is all I am to this day.
To get back to what I started out to say (!) — I sincerely hope that serious attention be given to bring back English as an official language, with sufficient resources to train competent teachers. I think that Prof. Laksiri Fernando has somewhat spoken for me in his: “Just ‘recognition of English as the link language’ does not make any difference and sense. However, recognition…as an official language would be simple and effective. Making it the language of higher education and teaching English as a language in schools in addition to Sinhala and/or Tamil can revolutionize the country both in terms of education, development, and reconciliation.”
However, I also defer to the immense experience of Sinhala man in this regard & realize my opinion here is very subjective.