22 January, 2021

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The Lowly Sinhala Language In An Era Of Misguided Nationalism 

By Lasantha Pethiyagoda

Prof. Lasantha Pethiyagoda

I write this after a relatively new brand of nationalism called “Sinhala-Buddhist” has not just taken the nation by storm in recent months, but ensured vast political success and unparalleled divisions among communities in the multi-cultural land we once knew as Sri Lanka.

Once the almost exclusive domain of career politicians whose backgrounds were in law, economics or the general arts, it is now full of “personalities” from bogus religious and shady business backgrounds lending their voices and secreting their veiled and often dubious agendas for public consumption under the rubric of “politics”.

If one watches with any regularity, a televised musical competition or listens to some “trendy” radio programs, one will be bombarded by speakers who had never set foot outside the shores of the island, adopting all sorts of queer Western accents, most notably a pseudo-American variety when they try to speak in English.

Sinhalese are perhaps the only ethnic group in the world who are ashamed of their mother tongue. My reference here is only about the minority of the Sinhalese who are highly urbanized and highly Westernized, mostly residing in the suburbs of Colombo with a smattering in major towns. Most citizens do not get an adequate education in English and rarely use it in public as almost all official transactions in most of the country are conducted in Sinhala only.

Tragically, those children of betel chewing Sinhalese who become very rich, like specialist doctors, manufacturers or supermarket owners etc. send their own children to “international” schools where one of the promised outcomes is school-leavers who can attend any foreign (read English-speaking Western) country for further education.

For these highly urbanized and Westernized or pretentious Sinhalese, “Sinhala“, their native language is something very lowly. A “Lowly language” only their maids and drivers would know and speak, but not them. However, the newly-rich referred to above, try to speak their broken English to their “sophisticated” children who in turn are ashamed of their parents’ poor performance. They are so ashamed of Sinhala, that they love to boast either that they do not understand Sinhala or they find it very difficult to talk in Sinhala. Some of them go to the extent of having an accent when they do speak “Sinhala”. Most of these Sinhalese are the products of Sinhalese ancestors who had for generations before, lived in villages as simple peasants.

Sinhala has been the medium of instruction in all schools in Sri Lanka including Colombo and suburbs, before the so called “International Schools” sprang up in Sri Lanka a couple of decades earlier.

Much before that, “well to do Sri Lankans” had the privilege of studying in the English medium before the official language acts in Sri Lanka scrapped the English medium from schools altogether, except in a few Christian missionary schools. Therefore, most of the urban men and women in Sri Lanka now in their 70s and 80s had their entire education in the English medium, if they were the products of schools which taught in the English medium and not the vernacular or nominally bilingual ones.

It is to be noted that there were Central Schools which taught only in Sinhala. Such ladies and gentlemen who studied in the English medium, can definitely boast that that they have difficulty in either understanding or speaking in “Sinhala”, if they want to. BUT they wouldn’t. Those ladies and gentlemen of that era did not have any inferiority complexes and could well manage both English and Sinhala or Tamil.

Thus one finds that teachers of urban private or elitist schools are often told by the parents of year one students, that their child could speak and understand only a few words of “Sinhala” thanks to the maids at home. The few words the child could speak were in fact broken Sinhala, and the parents were so proud that their child could speak only very fluent English. A similar conversation could have been heard among motor mechanics’ families in migrant receiving countries like Australia where parents were entirely mono-lingual but their children grew up in an exclusively English-speaking cultural environment.

Some people in Sri Lanka believe that it is not necessary to know Sinhala at all other than to communicate with their domestic aid. They pretend that they only know English and that they find it very difficult to communicate in Sinhala. These are people who have studied at least for 12 years in Sinhala in their respective schools whether they were in prestigious private or public schools. These are the men and women who teach their children not to speak in Sinhala, and to treat Sinhala as a lowly language fit enough only for the domestic aid.

While the French, the German, the Italians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russians for example are proud of their own language and only speak their native language, this minority of the “Sinhalese” believe that they should only speak in English. Although they hardly understand why, it is the colonial subservience foisted by the British that has seeped into Sri Lankan culture. Sri Lanka has remained weak and vulnerable to exploitation for centuries and reflects this mentality.

While it is acknowledged and accepted that English is a must as it is essential to engage in commerce, technology and knowledge transfer and routine professional activities, it is woeful that Sinhala has been so down-graded by the so called exceptional categories in society. There is also now a class of “professionals” who did not benefit from teachers of good English who also strive to marginalise others who have a superior command of English purely on the basis of their inferiority complex and jealousy.

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  • 6
    1

    The Sinhalese are not in bad company.
    There is another group that lives next to them which is even more at ease with English.
    *
    If you go to a supermarket in Colombo you will find imported items with English labels carrying a sticker with text in Sinhala to identify the product. Why? Many a buyer is at home with Sinhala. To the Tamil it is fine as long as the label carries English.
    *
    Your complaint concerns a new rich class, which thinks that the way forward is via English.
    There are many Tamil intellectuals contemptuous of education in Tamil, reason being that will not help to find a job abroad.
    Among South Asian diaspora communities the Bengalis, Panjabis and Malayalis among others predominantly speak in their mother tongue to the children. Tamils increasingly tend to speak in an alien language, but piously send the children to weekend classes in Tamil, Karnatic music and Bharathanatyam. By the time the children grow up they forget what they learned during their lost weekends.
    *
    I am sorry to say that we are locked in a colonial mindset. I have touched a raw nerve or two by saying this earlier; but that seems to be the case.

    • 8
      0

      Dear SJ,
      .
      “I am sorry to say that we are locked in a colonial mindset. I have touched a raw nerve or two by saying this earlier; but that seems to be the case”

      This is exactly the truth also with some africans that speak French and English. I go tto know those who speak English in Africa are more privieldged that those speak French. Sometimes, also within a country. So it is not typical to srilanka and some provinces in India.

      And deterioration of srilanken society is not only because of colonical mind set, but more because of jathaka stories based buddhagama and its mythos. Today, as notimes in the past, youth would want to read and learn. Information technology may have affected the youth making them spoiled.

      And politicians and biased media to be blamed for filthy sinhala lanaguage style. I did not know ” elakiri”, ” patta” , “malkadadnawa” or the like.. because these terms were not even in vernacular SL in 80ties.
      .
      However, new rich class in SL is not even – 1 mio in size (that means 4.5% of sl population)

      • 2
        0

        LM,
        Slang is part of any language
        I don’t think “elakiri” etc. are bad if they are understood by the listeners. All languages, even English, change over time. You might be interested in what the word “gay” meant in 1940 and what it means now. Or what “computer” meant in 1960!

        • 1
          0

          OC,
          I did not mean, that I would disagree with such terms.But these terms were ” no go” in 80ties. TV presenters were decent and qualified personalities then compared to the jokers seen on today s TV screens. Btw, I am well aware of slangs, and accents of several langs in Europe and America. I have no idea if you lived out of srilanka.
          :
          True not only English but also German and Dutch have new words being taken from other languages. That is common , I would say, to all langauges on this planet. Germans use more English and French words today than two decades ago.
          .
          What I meant is the style of presenting news and information through some moderators – mostly those moderators of TV channels sound to know nothing about they are focusing on. This is also common to all moderators in todays TV channels in the country. Also in SOCIAL MEDIA channels, such as Chamuditha Smarawikrama, dont care much about FACTs, but he behaves like a swode both sides being sharpened. He sits with stupid men that promote racism, in the same time, he holds daily interviews on topics that the viewers would at first glance become clear, that the guy has not the least knowledge. However their targets are COMMERCIAL gains, even if their lovely ones would have been raped and guned down, selfishness seem to have abused them.

    • 0
      0

      Born 1963 and studied in Tamil all the way to the A/L?? had amazing choices in subjects/great free text books by our GOSL for every student/Curriculum and standards of the subject matters were great too included social studies/art work/handy craft/loom and textiles….

      Had the best teachers in the world who were well trained by the Teachers training Colleges and so dedicated to their work/service/duty/responsibility. This was at the village level to city level in Jaffna??

      The problem was not about anything lacking in our Nation but too much of it with all wanted to be in the University instead of diversifying??

      The reason all Jaffna was full of tuition centres is because all can afford this luxury and the historical demand to be University educated…not fishing and agriculture, no masonry, art work, pottery and all other standard/diverse/must have and healthy economical activities??

      This is when the FP /TC was loosing the electorates in 1970 ?? then we lost the Nation to the thuggery by this lot??

  • 8
    0

    The issues exists with the Tamil dialect in Tamil Nadu as well. Tamil words and English words are mixed randomly in conversation.

    The explosion of big multinational IT companies in Chennai is one contributing factor. Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Team and private VPNs enable meetings with international participants that are held in English.

    My Indian friends from Chennai tell me that Sri Lankan Tamils speak high quality Tamil. Very much so in Jaffna and during the LTTE time. The LTTE Radio station broadcast in very high quality Tamil.

    However in Sri Lanka there is no IT parks and concertation of big IT multinationals or other big outsourced operations.

    The pollution of the Sinhala language with English is due to the kids of “new rich” of the Rajapaksa era. These kids of the new rich from rural areas want to show off. Go to any 5star hotel/bar/restaurant/ you can see this breed in action. Very revolting. They speak broken English/Sinhala and they don’t how to conduct themselves.

    They are corrupt rich of Rajapaksas and thing they can demand anything.

    Mind you even in my student days 60s and 70s even Royalist and Thomians & other colombo school kids prefer to speak in broken English and not in their native mother tongue.

    • 10
      2

      The main problem in our monolingual education system is the cultural bias it gives the recipients. A Sinhala only educated person generally believes that this country hosted one of the world’s greatest civilizations, and most get offended when they are told it was only peripheral to India. A much touted myth is that Europeans were living in trees when we were building stupas. There is a very narrow world-view among these people. A school principal once asked me why the Sinhala kings didn’t generate hydro- electricity!
      The education these people receive has to be more liberal and broadbased, shedding all the myths and prejudices now included. But the present setup suits the needs of some people, so this may be asking for too much.

      • 6
        2

        OC,
        .
        may I ask you something ? I miss SM … is he keeping well ? Hope not SM is caught by COVID infection.

        :
        I am bit worried of health of any good souls. Take good care of you.. now it is becoming clear there is no other option but vaccines.

      • 7
        2

        OC
        True, there is a narrow world view among those not exposed to the outside world.
        That applies to Tamils and Sinhalese equally.
        What about the White man’s view of the world?
        Was it any liberated when the mission was said to be civilizing darker skinned people?
        What was the basis of European contempt for all oriental cultures and religions?
        *
        It was not race, language or religion that decided social advancement. The leap from feudal to capitalist society enabled it in Europe.
        Japanese transition was free of colonial domination; and blended traditional values with modern capitalist practice.
        The rest of the world went though suffering for Europe to thrive.
        We cannot live in our past, but we cannot forget the past and accept that civilization is European legacy.

        • 3
          0

          SJ,
          “Japanese transition was free of colonial domination; and blended traditional values with modern capitalist practice.”
          You have a very good example there. The Japanese adopted many of the good parts of Western culture early on. They didn’t object to Western dress, industry, got rid of feudalism, and eventually gave the West a good run for its money in war and peace within a hundred years. We, on the other hand have been doting on 2000 year old agricultural technology for 80 years now. This mindless worship of the past prevents us seeing that other countries with less rainfall produce far more than us.
          The Sinhalese have been victims of backward-looking charlatans like Anagarika Dharmapala for far too long.

          • 3
            0

            SJ,
            “It was not race, language or religion that decided social advancement. The leap from feudal to capitalist society enabled it in Europe.”
            Not race, but religion had a lot to do with it. For a long time there wasn’t much progress because the Catholic Church had a firm grip on everything.
            They decided what you could say, think, or do. The Reformation changed all that. It is no secret that the Protestant countries did a lot better than the Catholics. Our Reformation is still to come.

            • 2
              1

              “Not race, but religion had a lot to do with it.”
              Agree.
              But capitalism eventually finds its way round the Church.
              Protestantism was all about looking after the interests of an emergent capitalist class. Money lending was a key issue as the Church was harsh on usury.
              That is where the Jews scored. The European Jewish moneylender mastered the art of bending that rule.
              Islam still forbids usury. Islamic banking is trying hard to bridge the gap between the Holy Book and the chequebook. If there was less oil and more fertile land in Arabia, Islam would have yielded sooner and substantially more.
              *
              Of Hinayana Buddhist countries, despite its monarchy and a very religious population, Thailand modernized fastest, perhaps owing to immigrant Chinese businessmen getting assimilated to the Thai society.

          • 5
            0

            OC
            But the Japanese retained their male dominated culture intact. Things relaxed very slowly after WW2.
            They also remain hierarchical. The feudalistic pecking order with a ritualistic show of respect (in family, school and workplace) was there even as late as 1990s. A brilliant and well-to-do Japanese Research student, rather westernized in his habits and very proficient in English, would carry the suitcase of his Japanese Professor when the latter visited London. When I asked why, he said “I am expected to do it”.
            The feudal system of loyalty was exploited in the industry as well. It was also the feudal values that ensured that Japanese trade unions make sure that social disruption is minimal when they go on strike.
            *
            Worshipping the past is not just a Sinhalese folly.We find it all over South Asia. Each community has its own crankiness!
            Anagarika for all his backward-looking was a sharp businessman who attended to Don Carolis’s timber needs.
            The Sinhalese K, D and S castes had a head for business which their G and Tamil V groups seemed to lack.

            • 2
              0

              SJ,
              “The Sinhalese K, D and S castes had a head for business “
              Perhaps because of their mostly unacknowledged origins?

              • 1
                0

                OC
                Do you suggest that the G & V are together in this game?

          • 1
            4

            old codger,
            BS! That is the view created by Sinhala Christian ‘Kalu Suddas’ and anti-Sinahala Buddhist Tamil racists.

            “The Sinhalese have been victims of backward-looking charlatans like Anagarika Dharmapala for far too long.”

            • 2
              0

              Eagle,
              Dharmapala was a liar and a racist. He pretended to be homeless but had plenty of money. The Sinhalese are cursed to have a “national hero” like him.
              If you don’t like Kalu Suddhas, why are you living in a Suddha country?

  • 8
    0

    “Sinhala” as its used in the country today it refers to people who speak the language and the language it self. In my opinion Sinhala as it refers to the language there is no Racism or bogus proudness displayed in it. However, when we use Sinhala or Sinhalese referring to the people who speak then Racism raises its head.
    The reason for Racism to raise its head are due to politicians wanting to divide and rule the population there by get their votes and the other is one community not interacting with the other communities. If all citizens have the opportunity to interact with the other communities then the politicians power to use Racism as a tool to get votes will not stand the test of the day.
    This could only be done by changes in our education system. Its going to be a gradual change even if the education system changes today, but it would be a strong foundation towards a united unified Sri Lanka with no Racism. All schools should have all streams (Sinhalese/Tamil/English) and students should be given a chance to follow their studies in any language they like. There should be no segregation of schools based on religion and no separate religious subjects be taught in schools.

  • 4
    0

    Two points:
    1. I’m someone that went to an international school. Other than a few people from strange households (usually businessmen or mudalali types that recently became wealthy, thinking speaking entirely in English would endear their kids to their peers in school) no one thinks Sinhala was beneath them. Most of us speak in a mix of the two languages among ourselves anyway.
    2. The author contradicts himself when it comes to international schools- the people that work in the kind of places he’s mentioned that affect a “fake” accent aren’t people that went to international schools, for the simple reason that most international school grads either fly abroad and settle down there, or are in private sector jobs that don’t involve public interaction. Most of these people on TV and radio affecting an accent are, wait for it, people that went to government schools trying to look “posh”. International school kids don’t need to fake an accent- they usually have one anyway.
    Blaming international schools for this issue when international school graduates comprise less than 1% of the local workforce tells you how asinine this is. Sure, it’s got nothing to do with anyone in state schools that make up the overwhelming majority- it’s those international school kids with their fake accents and sex manias

    • 3
      0

      KP92,
      “Blaming international schools for this issue when international school graduates comprise less than 1% of the local workforce tells you how asinine this is.”
      This is not a new problem. If you listen to GFU newsreels from the 50’s you will be struck by the “Oxbridge” accents of even DS Senanayaka. This faded out in the next 20 or so years, becoming a more local accent. But the private radio stations brought on a flood of fake US accents. This has not happened in India, where they are happy with their own accents.
      The problem here is that these few dozen accented radio DJ’s influence thousands of impressionable youngsters.

  • 4
    1

    Dear LP

    Excellent…..one has to say if it was not for the Sinhala only act none of us would have ever learned anything in Tamil nor in Sinhala?

    The 50-50’s, Federals were happy to continue in English just as the Sinhala elite.

    All that you said about Sinhala also equally applies to Tamils too. Except Tamil is spoken in many countries but Sinhalese is only in SL. Therefore the essence is to preserve.

    My only concern was when they go further studies in other languages such as English (even in SL) they will struggle to “master” the technical aspect of the studies because they need to catch up with for example in English terminology etc.

    But with now “all’ learning all three languges throughout their schooling (not sure?) will help this handicap I guess.

    The same issues exists in all other Nations too specially the developing countries as it is a trend with the “youth” just as clothing and hairstyles I guess……….not sure why this applies to the beetle chewers though:)

  • 1
    2

    Chingkallam Hmmm

  • 8
    1

    Every language is good. I read that in Papuan New Guinea there are about 600 languages, each tribe has one.
    It is obvious that Professor Pethiyagoda has benefitted tremendously from his exposure to other cultures, mainly English.

    Is it possible that not only communicate, people are also limited by their language ?

    Everything around us in this country, our Supreme Court, our prisons, our parliament, our police, our public service, our media were created by people who think and talk in Sinhala.

    Are you satisfied ?

    The sarong is good, can we play Cricket in sarong!

    • 1
      0

      D.S,
      “people are also limited by their language ?”
      Sadly yes.

      • 6
        0

        DS
        The sarong is good, can we play Cricket in sarong!
        If you know how to wear it for the occasion, yes. (Also the Sarong can offer a larger surface area to catch a ball.)
        *
        South Indians adapt the clumsier Verti and sari to work like a trouser.

  • 3
    0

    The point is well-taken but it is a broad generalization. Moreover, some fact-checking is required with the following paragraph:
    Much before that, “well to do Sri Lankans” had the privilege of studying in the English medium before the official language acts in Sri Lanka scrapped the English medium from schools altogether, except in a few Christian missionary schools. Therefore, most of the urban men and women in Sri Lanka now in their 70s and 80s had their entire education in the English medium, if they were the products of schools which taught in the English medium and not the vernacular or nominally bilingual ones.
    I believe that after the “Official Languages Act” came to be implemented only Muslims and Burghers were allowed to study in English and that is because of the crazy government formulation of “ethnic mother tongue” or some term like that would not fit them and education in Arabic and Dutch/Portuguese became necessary by that formula. Some say it was to break Muslims away from Tamil. I question the claim that Christian schools did not scrap English medium.
    Also it is the people who did science and are in their 70;s and 80’s now who would have studied in English, and indeed some in their late 60’s.

    • 3
      0

      C,
      Free Education in the mother tongue was introduced before independence by CWW Kannangara. Private schools continued with English until they were taken over in the 60’s.(The remaining private ones were forced to phase out English, until CBK relented. )
      Maybe the idea was to level out inequalities, but it actually produced a common level of mediocrity. Do you not wonder at the mad rush to enter the few remaining missionary schools?

      • 4
        0

        Most of the best scientists and other professionals produced by the university in the late 60s and 70s and even 80s were products of Swabasha education.
        Failures were in not doing enough in S & T to advance scientific knowledge. (All East Asians are ‘swabasha’ products.)
        The benefits of English have always been there, but not central to maintaining good academic standards.
        There were other shortcomings that were not addressed. The urban-rural imbalance remains a big issue.

  • 1
    0

    Dear Professor Pethiyagoda,
    .
    As you’ve said, going hand in hand with respect for the two Swabashas must be an effort to teach English more effectively to those from families who never had English.
    .
    I’ve just come across a number of recent speeches of “World Interest” with accurate English subtitles. Let me link you to Kamala Devi Harris’ victory speech:
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgTReERU7Bw
    .
    Let me see what you, and other readers, think of the popularisation of these. I see many possible benefits.

  • 1
    0

    Correct me if I am wrong but didn’t the English people themselves in England , at a certain point in history, consider it fashionable to speak in Latin and French? and now prevailing over both and more?
    Thinking of Sanskrit that way caused the split of Malayalam from Tamil. people who persist get the last laugh. however short that is.

    • 1
      0

      J
      It was not the people.
      Latin and French were the languages of the Royal Court; and the elite played along.
      French dominated the Russian Royal Court for long.
      Latin dominated the Catholic Church. Pali dominated Buddhism here. Sanskrit dominates Hindu rituals.
      But life has gone on in the languages of the respective people.,

      • 2
        0

        Thank you :)

  • 1
    0

    PART A

    Much that has been written is conjecture, but of wide applicability. I hope that CT will allow in some real Viber correspondence with my daughter in Malaysia; I’ve changed only my granddaughter’s name.
    .
    GambadaIskoleMahattaya hopes to add something later today, authentic, but admittedly idiosyncratic, before comments are cut off. It is 3.00 am.
    .

    Yesterday, at 18.07, I got this:
    .
    “Believe it or not, at year 2, I am struggling to help Kamala with English. Today they were learning coordinating conjunction words (don’t think I even knew the term till Kamala started learning. ) and for the life of me I could not figure out at what point you put a, and when you don’t.”

    .
    On the 11th, this had come through at 17.55, in relation to the video of a story being read out by Kamala from a computer screen.

    .
    “Few spelling mistakes but phonetically correct and no spellcheck on the program she uses. She wrote the 9081 on another paper cause she was getting confused reading it when looking at the screen.”
    .
    Sorry, a power failure delayed posting.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe (NIC 483111444 V) of Bandarawela aka Sinhala_Man

    • 1
      0

      S.M,
      I believe that punctuation and similar things are picked up by copious reading from a young age. If you ask me how I know where to put a comma, I couldn’t tell you for dear life. I just know! Even in school, I was quite hazy on the rules, but I think you’ll agree that I’ve done quite well so far.

  • 1
    0

    PART B
    .

    Yes, the seven-year-old was reading confidently and with expression a story she had written for an on-line school assessment.
    .
    Yesterday, I wrote this back at 20.47:
    .
    If you look at your comments on the 14th, you will find that you have said “Few spelling mistakes” when you should have said, “A few spelling mistakes”. One of the commonest SL grammar mistakes. There’s an important difference in meaning.

    Thaththi
    .
    Jeeves, SJ, and Professor Pethiyagoda,
    .
    There is much that I can say about how some of us Sri Lankans are faring with teaching languages to our children. Try extrapolating from there. If nothing gets done below this, could Lasantha please write another article following on from here? The subject is of immense relevance. Unfortunately, few who comment want to explore seriously.
    .
    When the sun rises, an adult pupil who has had entirely government schooling, will turn up. Her English is good, but she can’t understand what her Sinhalaya husband says. He can understand some Sinhalese, but can’t speak the language, having lived entirely in England.

  • 1
    0

    PART C
    .

    She had spent two weeks with him in England, about fourteen months ago, pre-COVID after a marriage had been arranged. Now she can get her visa to Old Blighty, but she wants to pass the exam that will enable her to work – and obviously, she wants to understand what her man says. I think that he’d understand her – her pronunciation is good; writing, as usual, is the problem. It’s an extreme example, but an interesting and happy one.
    .
    I’m hoping that I can show her these comments and stimulate a response from her.

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