29 May, 2022


Towards A Language Revolution For Reconciliation & Development

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

A ‘revolution’ is any combination of events which produces a radical shift in consciousness or behaviour over a relatively short period of time.” – David Crystal

The matters of ethnic reconciliation and economic development in Sri Lanka are closely intertwined. It is largely accepted today that erroneous language policies in the past have had a considerable negative impact on both ethnic reconciliation and economic development in the country. Although one of the key causes for the dual predicament is therefore identified, the country is far from implementing a correct policy in respect of language. Let me give a very simple example.

The 1978 Constitution made Tamil a national language, along with Sinhala, while keeping Sinhala as the ‘only’ official language. This was changed in the 13th Amendment in 1987 in a positive direction, but what was stated was “Tamil shall also be an official language.” This is like saying, this is my wife and this is also my wife! It was a clear insult with hesitation to accord equal status. This hesitation particularly came in the implementation of the official language policy amply analysed by A. Theva Rajan (‘Tamil as Official Language,’ 1995) and Ketheswaran Loganathan (‘Sri Lanka: Lost Opportunities,’1996) among others.

Colvin’s Diagnosis

A diagnosis of the problem (Samudaya) came from Colvin R. de Silva six decades ago in 1956 as follows, also with a prognosis.

Do you want two languages and one nation, or one language two nations? Parity, Mr. Speaker, we believe is the road to the freedom of our nation and the unity of its components. Otherwise two torn little bleeding states may arise of one little state, which has compelled a large section of itself to treason, ready for the imperialists to mop up that which imperialism only recently disgorged”. (Hansard, Vol 24, Col 1917, 1956)

What he meant by ‘parity’ is basically making both Sinhala and Tamil official languages in 1956. This came from his/their socialist thinking or Sama Samaja (equal society) principles. But the unfortunate fact was that he himself abandoned this principle when it came to the drafting of the 1972 Constitution. Therefore, it was not only SWRD Bandaranaike’s ‘one language’ policy that later made ‘two bleeding nations,’ but also Colvin’s own constitution in 1972. As Loganathan has correctly commented, it was a terrible lost opportunity.

This is a dreadful predicament of many politicians and intellectuals. They say one thing, and do quite the opposite later or at the same time. It is not just a revision or improvement of their views, but opportunistic political summersaults altogether. Look at what GL Peiris say and do today. He was the main architect of the August 2000 new constitutional draft. Now he is talking against a new constitution. He was also the main peace negotiator and one of the key drafters of the Norwegian brokered Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE in 2001, which virtually separated the country. Now he is talking against any concession to the Tamils on the pretext that it would divide the country.

When Colvin talked about parity of status, he also correctly spoke about “unity of its components.” What he meant was ‘our nation,’ to mean the Sri Lankan political or the civic nation, comprising of different cultural nations or communities (Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims) that should be united by recognizing their ‘cultural and language rights.’ This is multiculturalism and in accordance with the most enlightened views of human rights today. However, it is doubtful whether the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) or its leaders like Tissa Vitarana subscribes to these views any longer by aligning with the Joint Opposition (JO) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The 13th Amendment

It is not correct to consider that the 13th Amendment was or is a panacea. That is one reason why we need a new constitution. I am only focusing on the language policy in this article. The 13A declared, “English language shall be the link language.” But what does it mean? Does it mean the link between the two languages? Or the link between the two language speakers, the Sinhalese on the one hand and the Tamils and Muslims on the other? The second proposition is more plausible, and a good one, if opportunities and facilities are made available throughout the country. It also can be a link to the external world at large.

English has its own merits as an international language. It was the official language before 1956, and the major lapse was its discriminatory character against the Sinhala and the Tamil speakers. This had to be changed, but not by completely dethroning its use in education or administration. The major blunder in 1956, as highlighted by Colvin was to make Sinhala the only official language, discriminating against Tamil speakers. The whole incident also revealed a major defect in Sri Lankan politics in general. When a defect wanted to be rectified, the tendency is to go to the other extreme even negating what is positive in a given situation.

I didn’t borrow my proposition ‘language revolution’ from any other. However, after using it for some time, I have found the book by David Crystal titled ‘The Language Revolution’ (Polity Press, 2004). This book discusses three major trends in the international scene together: (1) the emergence of English as an international lingua franca (2) the crisis facing number of languages currently endangered and (3) the radical change and possibilities of promoting languages under internet technology. All the propositions are relevant to Sri Lanka in creating a language revolution for reconciliation and economic/social development.

Before the 13th Amendment, while Sinhala remained the official language, Tamil was declared a national language along with Sinhala. That was a progress from the 1972 Constitution which allowed only some special provisions. Recognition of Sinhala and Tamil as national languages still remains and should continue to be so with provisions to ‘preserve and promote the two languages and their literature.’ That could be the meaning of ‘national languages’ without allowing them to be submerged or neglected. The national languages primarily mean, the languages indigenous and ‘sacred’ to the people.

However, that recognition should not preclude making English (also) an official language along with Sinhala and Tamil.

A Pragmatic Approach to English

The approach to English should be completely pragmatic. It should not be considered as a superior language which was an attitude developed during the colonial and post-colonial times. We are now not ‘post-colonial,’ but independent. That should be the attitude and determination whatever the hangovers remaining in some people’s crooked minds. English as a link language does not make much sense except for those who are already conversant with that language. But by making English (also) as an official language, its progress could be rapid even as a ‘link language.’
English is already the business language particularly in urban Sri Lanka. Promoting it throughout the country could make the links between the leading businesses and the emerging businesses in rural/provincial towns. It should be promoted not as a must, or a burden, but as a vehicle of pragmatic progress. There won’t be much resistance from the people, except perhaps from some politicians.

English particularly important in university education. There can be better Sinhala and Tamil language promotion for those who study languages, literature and culture, if the other studies could be conducted purely in English. This is already the case in natural sciences, particularly in medicine and engineering. For lawyers or law students, all three languages are important. A major drawback for arts or social science students in employment and social progress is their insufficient English language proficiency. This cannot be changed unless all teaching moves to English medium in all universities.

My university experience since 1964 (first as a student) tells me that social science students had inhibitions on English medium studies earlier on, influenced largely by narrow nationalism or prevailing circumstances. However, this has changed considerably. New generations are quite willing to learn English and ‘learn in English,’ but major obstacles come from the lack of teachers to teach in English. This has been going on continuously as a vicious cycle, as new teachers are usually recruited from Sinhala or Tamil medium streams.


A language revolution should entail complete move to English as the sole language in university education, except in language studies of Sinhala or Tamil, and the recognition of English also as an official language in public administration. The second move also means that any citizen or resident could communicate with any government institution in English, other than Sinhala or Tamil. Its primary meaning however is the necessary competence of all administrative officers in English, other than Sinhala and/or Tamil. This is trilingualism.

There are two ongoing dynamics in the current economic development scenario. Firs is the anticipated partnership between the public sector and the private sector (PPP). If the partnership is going to be fruitful, the public officers need to have sufficient competence in English. Second is the projected foreign investments and partnership in some important economic sectors in the country. The anticipated foreign participation could of course come from different countries. However, the common language would mostly be English. If our public officers are not adequately competent in English, bargaining and working together could be difficult and at the disadvantage to Sri Lanka.

There can be valid concerns that the move towards English as ‘the language of university education’ and ‘a language of public administration’ would disadvantage the indigenous languages of Sinhala and Tamil. This should not be the case. It is an accepted fact that competence in one language could easily be extended to other languages. What should be discouraged is any superiority complex attached to English use. The language competence and use are mutually reinforcing. There were times in ancient Sri Lanka that the language policy being not just trilingual, but hexalingual (shad basha).

UNESCO since 1980s has promoted a policy of trilingualism to include (1) the mother-tongue (2) the ‘neighbours-tongue’ and (3) an international language. This is a minimum policy of promoting increased human interaction for knowledge, education, peace, social harmony and sustainable development, within a multilingual and a multicultural framework. In the Sri Lankan context, the ‘neighbours-tongue’ means Tamil to the Sinhalese and Sinhala to the Tamils. The best international language for Sri Lanka obviously is English. However, a language revolution could entail the promotion of competence in many more international/foreign languages like Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, French and Russian.

Digital Means

For a language revolution, there are great technological advantages at the present juncture. In addition to ‘paper and printing’ or ‘radio and TV,’ the digital means of internet, social media and electronic devices could be utilized creatively. A language revolution should begin at pre-school and at home. It could be fun for children. By the age of five, children could acquire a considerable amount of vocabulary, not limiting to one language. Without any reservation, children should be given a firm grounding in their mother-tongue and the neighbours-tongue, Sinhala and Tamil. Language/s and Maths (simply said, ‘letters and numbers’) are the basics in any knowledge upliftment. There is an excellent SBS TV program in Australia titled ‘Letters and Numbers’ which could easily be adopted. There was one Naween Fernando who won a title in one of the competitions.

There should be language labs in every school equipped with digital means as much as possible. This does not mean the neglect of other subjects, natural or social, and particularly history. But history or religion should be taught in a non-antagonistic manner. If language revolution begins in schools, it would be easy for universities. In the meantime, it could begin at universities with advanced language labs and competent teachers to teach, until the schools fall in line and even thereafter.

The language revolution should encompass the general public, particularly the rural youth. It should not create a divide between any ‘English elite’ and the masses. There can be websites to promote the language awakening and the revolution. The most important would be comprehensive website/s with sound tracks for people to learn, Sinhala, Tamil and English. Easy translation software should also be available crosscutting and linking Sinhala, Tamil and English.

A most important role could be played by teledrama, TV and radio programs making people to acquire trilingualism through education and lively experiences. I should also commend on some initiatives already taken by some teledrama/film directors and producers. What might be pre-requisite for such a language revolution is the changing or stalling of the archaic, parochial and conservative mindsets and attitudes of the politicians and the ‘Brahmins’ in society.

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  • 3

    Dr Laksiri Fernando,

    I almost agree with every word,

    Sinhala, Tamil and English should be made official languages throughour the country in the new constitution.

    I wonder why you have not referred to the 16th Amendment to the Constitution certified on 17 December 1988.

    An amendment passed with the support of all members of parliament except one.

    This amendment had effectively solved the language problem.

    It was well drafted document unlike the 1978 constitution and the 13A.

    The 16A had made Sinhala the language of administration in the seven provinces and Tamil is the Language of Administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
    With a qualifying provision that if in an AGA division, substantial number of minorities are resident (Sinhalese in the North East or Tamils in the other 7 provinces)then that division would be declared as bilingual division .all records and other documents are kept in the Language of administration of that province.

    Then similarly Tamil is the sole Language of courts in the Northern and Eastern provinces with similar provisions for records.

    The minorities living in these provinces are entitled to receive communication in Sinhala, tamil or English.

    Furthermore all laws and subordinate legislations are enacted in Sinhala and Tamil with English translation provided that a the time of enactment Parliament determines which text shall prevail in the event of any inconsistency between the texts.

    Read the original 16 A in full.

    What more you could expect!

    But what is the practice even after nearly 30 years of enacting this legislation.

    If you go to Trincomale or Ampara Kachcheri, You cannot transact any business in Tamil or English.

    You have to go with an interpreter.

    Further always Sinhala only speakers are appointed as Government Agents since time immemorial in Trinco and Ampara.

    All governments are partners in this conspiracy.

    Our present minister Mano Ganesan is also seems to be ignorant of this provision.

    13A and 16 A are not implemented in full.

    Does this means that constitution is only a piece of paper?

    Do you seriously blame the Tamils for being skeptical about the new constitution?

  • 3

    Now you seem to be on the right track. 1972 Colvin was entirely different from 1956 one. But they say a man becomes wiser as he ages. However politicians are excepted from this. They are unreliable and often afflicted with selective amnesia. It is somewhat soothing that people like you are almost consistent in your views.

  • 0

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  • 2

    Dr Laksiri Fernando
    Your reference to English is a timely one; when we are all talking about development of the nation and the skill pool deficit .
    You had said:
    “What might be pre-requisite for such a language revolution is the changing or stalling of the archaic, parochial and conservative mind sets and attitudes of the politicians and the ‘Brahmins’ in society.”

    The well rehearsed theme of gutter and power politics have been the main stay of the country since independence or even before . Our politicians of all colour, caste, religion, language and political persuasion have been living and preaching all these years not to unite the country but to divide ,so that they could be in power for ever in a divided miserable country.

    “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” In a Sri Lankan narrative, Politics corrupts and absolute power politics corrupts our politicians absolutely.
    GL is supposed to be an intellect and an authority on constitutional affairs. Boy or boy , if you ever want to call any one ” a turncoat” he fits the bill absolutely. It is real shame these experienced politicians change sides as if they are changing their shirts or trouser for a sarong . What is wrong with these fellows. One wonders whether it is case of “senile dementia” or more of “older and stupid”

    For the plantation workers what is the “administrative language” or “official language”? That is the question for Minister Mono Ganasen
    who is supposed to represent the marginalised people in the plantation sector!

  • 0

    I am soooo happy to hear the Yahapalana Professor at least mentioning the word ” English Elite and the masses “..

    He could have gone a bit further and say English Elite & Dalits.

    It is the battle facing the masses going forward under Batalanada’s Yahapalana UNP, which is all about giving a good time to the Elite, Anglicans, Vellalas , and the new addition Diaspora.

    The sad part is Yahapalana Prez is giving a helping hand to the UNP in this history making battle,, by cutting off every assistance the previous Regime gave the Dalits after defeating the Tamil Terrorists.

    • 2

      Are you a Dalit ?

  • 1

    KASmaalam K A Sumanasekera

    “I am soooo happy to hear the Yahapalana Professor at least mentioning the word ” English Elite and the masses “..”

    Are you mad?

    Dr Laksiri Fernando was the one who proposed the motion at the Senate on the 29th of May 2009 to confer honorary doctorates to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the University of Colombo.

    How dare you belittle him as Yahapalana Professor?

    Say sorry to him.

  • 0

    Prof Laksiri Fernando

    May be you are one of the few outspoken intellectuals in a land of IQ 29.

    “When Colvin talked about parity of status, he also correctly spoke about “unity of its components.” What he meant was ‘our nation,’ to mean the Sri Lankan political or the civic nation, comprising of different cultural nations or communities (Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims) that should be united by recognizing their ‘cultural and language rights.’ This is multiculturalism and in accordance with the most enlightened views of human rights today. “

    Why cannot the politicians see their somersault in politics saying one thing in opposition and entirely the opposite after gaining power or vice versa? Is it a curse that these liars do not want to see how they destroy the country by arousing the majority against minorities?

    They go to Singapore for medical treatments and asking for investments but cannot or do not want to see how that tiny country without any resources embrace multiculturalism and multilingualism to promote peace and harmony which produced an average IQ of 120?

  • 0

    What an artistic technique. This is not about “horse is gone, stable being closed”. This simply putting a blockade, on the justice being sought by Tamils, by brings back Old Royal’s Development to table. For 70 years relentlessly Tamils’ wealth are looted and burned. Lands are colonized. Education devastated. Self-respect and culture plundered by rapes, tortures and life time PTA prison. Country’s Loans are beyond their noses for no fault of Tamils. Lost love ones are nowhere to find. 150,000 troops are occupying their lands and sucking out already scarce water, employments, trades, agriculture lands…….Army and Sinhala politicians are plucking out their last left penny selling Alcohol, narcotics and drugs. This article, to pull wool on all eyes” is looking only at Language Policy”!

    The patient came to hospital with complain of chest pain. Cardiologist wants to do urgent artery bypass. Surgeon checked the diabetes condition and telling the leg needs to be removed. The family physician is telling that patient has nothing on the leg but a long history of arthritis and wants gives some Ibuprofen and send her back home. Tamils want separate state. UNHRC has accused 42 criminals on war crime. Now Funny PhDs suggesting to start Lankawe to follow UNECO’s trilingual policy. The senseless, numb PhDs does not know this is no more 1956. Now, even 2016 have passed.

    Notorious, injustice Yahapalanaya Appe Anduwa has successfully blocked again the UNHRC action that is yet to come in March. For long time, Sinhala Politicians has been fooling the Modaya community of turning the country in to another Singapore, South Asia’s Japan, Miracle of Asia…. Blah, blah. But what has been happening is Sinhala Royals families, while crying through nose that they no home to live, eating the country like pigs and excreting back it like earth worms.

  • 0

    Not, any language act, but it was citizenship act deported Tamils in 1948.
    MMDA is another minority’s religion act was brought only to permanently split Tamils and Muslims.

    1972 constitution brought Buddhism as the foremost religion of the land, which is the Ayatollahs rule.

    1972 Colin’s constitution was triggered only to refuse employments to Tamils, but not to get the country out of any other problems. This is how the Tamil government employees who were out of service was confirmed it was permanent loss for them. That is why Colin embedded Sinhala only into 1972 constitution. The Privy Council Appeal was taken off to contain the Tamils from not taking their cased out the country. We see the same when Ranil doing it on ICC accord too. Minority Protection was removed. English was shut off only to not allow Tamil find an alternate escape route to gain employment even at private sector. One should note that Badiudin Mahmud allowed English Medium students to go through University system with less marks than Tamil. This is because Anura, Old King like dumps of Sinhala Royals not to be stopped by standardization. But that facility was denied to average Tamils.

  • 0

    Lankawe problem is racism, not language issue. If somebody say that Quebec problem can be addressed by attending to Language issues, then that may make sense. In Lankawe the Tamil Language selected only implement racism. If the Tamils have had tails, but spoke Sinhala, the standardization would have been termed “Those who have tails have to earn more marks” instead of terming “the students who sit in Tamil Media has to earn more marks”. The university system told Tamils to take higher makes to enter into them. But they gave out free PhDs to the worst criminals in the world, only because they tortured, humiliated, raped and mercilessly wipe them out. What kind of Language policy measures said in the above article can stopping Lankawe Universities conferring PhDs for those lead in criminal conducts?
    Though the essay including the word “reconciliation”, it has no regard of what the Tamil could think or want to hear. It appears its whole attention is how to channel the war victory to improve development that was scarified to destroy Tamil. The absolutely selfish essay is nowhere suggesting opening up everything from education to production & consumption for free competition, which might have defeated the racism.

    Tamils needs now comprehensive solution, no more ad-hoc cheating like this essay. They want freedom

  • 0

    Dear sir,

    Why is there a need to have a ‘National language’ or ‘Official language’ at all?

    I put to you sir that the inclusion of such terms in the Constitution GIVES SUPPORT to nationalism and racism in Sri Lanka.

    For a public servant can rely on such terms to transmit a notice written in Sinhala (official language) to a person who can only understand Tamil. Such terms would act as a defense in favor of nationalism and racism.

    Far better to OMIT COMPLETELY such sections in the Constitution. Public officials would then seek to communicate AS BEST THEY CAN USING WHATEVER MEANS NECESSARY (Using Braille for the blind for e.g), and if they do not and intentionally seek to obfuscate then they have nothing to fall back on.

    I believe that it should not be the business of the government to COERCE the people into speaking or writing whatever language the government feels is necessary. That is not the mark of a FREE society.

    We have witnessed great economies being created without need for an international language like English or language being mandated by governments in any way. Japan is an example of this. It is not necessary for English to be mandatory. What IS necessary is that the people be FREE to choose what is best for their absolutely unique individual circumstances.

  • 0

    English is synonymous with learning and knowledge. Had we had continued the way we were with English, today, we would not have had to talk about ethnic reconciliation and economic development.

    The Language Policy of SWRD just did not deprive English of its status, it deprived us, all of us, of our progress and prosperity.

    Even now, it is not too late to re-write our destiny. What is required is a leader to chart a national revolution, not merely a Language Revolution.

    Do we have a Buddhist among us who is ready to wear that mantle!

  • 0

    Dr. Laksiri
    Please make arrangement to translate your article publish in a Sinhala News paper so majority of the citizen will understand it.

  • 0

    To the Editor, CT:
    You have published various rules that those who write comments should observe. They are all very commendable and help to maintain a certain civility in our debates.I would recommend that you add an additional rule: Keep you comments coherent and relevant!
    I don’t want to mention any names here but readers can readily see which of the commentators in this forum can use a professional editor.

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