by Lucien Rajakarunanayake
If the Address to the Nation by President Mahinda Rajapaksa last Friday gave a strong message on the need for national unity, and common cause across ethnic divides in the tasks of development, what preceded his swearing in was a clear demonstration of this commitment to unity through the most moving symbol of language.
It was seen in the proclamations and announcements read out in Sinhala, Tamil and English by the Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga. Time was when senior Tamil public servants, such as the late Mr. K. Alvapillai, read out the Tamil translations of the proclamation at such events.
This had also been done by official translators, and regrettably there were times when the use of Tamil was completely forgotten or ignored.
The trilingual reading of these proclamations by the Secretary to the President himself, done with perfect command of all three languages and impeccable diction, was a practical example of how national unity could be forged through giving due recognition to the languages of the people.
His performance that day was a goal that every public servant should seek to achieve, in a tri-lingual society.
Language issues have been a divisive factor since before independence. Language policies introduced in the post 1956 era, jointly supported by the ruling SLFP dominated MEP led by the late SWRD Bandaranaike and the UNP, played a major role in the emergence of the ethnic crisis that in turn led to the thirty year long armed conflict with the forces of separatism and terrorism.
Although the position and use of Sinhala and Tamil have been the most spoken of, and at times a highly politically charged issue in the debates on language policy, English has also played a very significant role, being a force of division from the time of its introduction. There always remained a huge majority, among the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who had no access to English, thus leading to the demand for the national languages to replace English in both education and administration.
The more politically popular response to this, of Sinhala Only - did not solve the major problem, although it gave a greater opportunity to the Sinhalese, to a limited scale.
It led to the marginalization of the Tamil people on the one hand, and helped the continued dominance of the English educated on the other.
It also kept out the vast majority in the country without a language for access to the world and the knowledge that keeps growing outside Sri Lanka, as well as losing in employment opportunities at home and abroad.
It is to the end these divisions that President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched the Year of English and IT in February 2009, where he visualized the policy of a tri-lingual Sri Lanka, with the knowledge of English being rapidly expanded as a “Life Skill” - essential for employment and economic advancement of individuals and society.
Launching the Year of English and IT in February 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said: “English, on the other hand, will be our language to reach out to the world and access the global pool of knowledge and technology.
As the national initiative on English gathers momentum and achieves desired results, I visualize, in fact, a tri-lingual Sri Lankan society in the long run.
To the people of my country, Sinhala and Tamil are not mere tools of communication.
They encapsulate our values and world-views, give expression to our inner feelings and define our cultural categories. They embody the soul of our people. They confer to us our distinct identity.
Therefore, the Presidential Task Force on English and IT will ensure that the national initiative should be designed in such a way that English is delivered purely as a ‘Life Skill’ that is desired for its utility value, as a vital tool of communication with the outside world of knowledge, and a skill that is required for employment.
We will ensure that there will be a complete break with the past, where in our country English was rolled out as a vehicle for creating disaffection towards our national cultures, national ethos and national identity, for alienating our people from their roots and for creating social and cultural divisions among them.
The declaration of the Year of English and IT today is thus a benchmark which coincides with the end of terrorism and the clearing of the political space for the expression of the resolve of the Sri Lankan people to march together as one proud people towards a future of peace and prosperity.
In the global environment of today, English and IT are two essential tools for the achievement of our goal” In presenting the Budget for 2011, President Rajapaksa gave special emphasis to the progress towards a trilingual society. He said: “English as a Life Skill” initiative that was commenced in 2009 will be formally expanded in 2011 by the Ministry of Education. For this, I propose an allocation of Rs. 750 million in 2011.”
He then said: I propose to launch a “Trilingual Sri Lanka” initiative in 2011 under a ten year action plan.
This plan is designed to ensure the rights of every citizen to liaise with any government institution in Sinhala, Tamil or English. It will evolve an integrated society with a skilled workforce that is capable of employment in any part of Sri Lanka.” Rs. 100 million was allocated in 2011 to support programs under the relevant line ministries for this initiative. The President has clearly underscored the importance of language in national unity, in our relations with the world outside, as well as its contribution to national development.
He has broken away from the insular and divisive thinking of the past. The task now moves on to Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a known champion of genuine language rights, and key players in the education and public sectors to give full meaning to this pledge and move rapidly towards the goal of a trilingual Sri Lanka.