By 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.