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On The Road To A Trilingual Sri Lanka

Jul 23, 2011 5:31:10 PM - thesundayleader.lk

By Maryam Azwer

The issue of linguistic discrimination has plagued this country for decades now. It has even been very closely associated with issues that led to the 30 year ethnic conflict. Many have claimed that although the 13th Amendment to the constitution established Tamil as an official language, this right was for the most part enjoyed only on paper.

The Government now says it has plans to make Sri Lanka a trilingual nation by the year 2020, a major part of its plan towards peace and reconciliation. New recruits to the public services are being taught Tamil and English, and more native Tamil speakers are being recruited to the Police force.

But is this enough to turn this country trilingual over the next nine years?

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, expressed optimism on this subject. “We are honestly committed towards this goal,” he said. Explaining what the Government’s aims comprised, he said, “Sinhala, Tamil, and English must be made available to, and be usable by everyone.  All citizens should be well  acquainted with, and be able to speak, read and write all three languages.”

Not all Sri Lankans are as confident of these hopes becoming a reality however, and Balasingham Skanthakumar of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Programme at the Law and Society Trust (LST), explained why.

“In Sri Lanka, not having knowledge of Tamil or the ability to use it, is rarely an issue. This is because Tamil is not a language of power, it is the language of a nominal minority.”

A Tamil speaking person, he said, most often found it necessary to learn the Sinhalese language in order to conduct their business, or get about their lives, particularly outside the North and the East. On the other hand, Skanthakumar pointed out, “There is no reason for a non-Tamil speaker to learn the Tamil language. Most often, the only motivation behind learning the Tamil language is to do it as an act of goodwill.”

He also explained that there was a definite change in attitudes that should not be taken for granted.

“The perception now is why not allow a minority to use their language? I would say that this comes from a certain sense of security in the majority community, resulting in them being more benevolent towards Tamil speakers,” said Skanthakumar.

Despite the increased awareness however, the Official Languages Policy has been known to be violated on several occasions. “There have been difficulties experienced at local government levels. In some cases it would be a lack of forms [in Tamil] particularly at divisional secretariats, in other cases it would be with regard to signs in public places,” said Skanthakumar.

“The argument that Tamil speaking people make is that this country is their birthright too,” he said. “These issues cannot be reduced to the problem of a lack in human resources, or financial resources. We must support steps the Government has taken over the last few years, but the question is, is this change structural?”

For the Official Languages Policy to be implemented to its fullest, explained Skanthakumar, “people in positions of power must take the initiative to influence those lower down in the food chain.”

Meanwhile, Minister Nanayakkara pointed out that steps were indeed being taken to remedy this very issue. “Even at Parliament, Sinhalese MPs have already begun learning Tamil. Most Tamil MPs do know Sinhalese, but if they are interested, they will be given the opportunity to learn too,” he said.

Whether or not these steps will eventually lead to a trilingual nation is something only time can tell.

As Skanthakumar of the LST pointed out, a lot depends on the ultimate willingness and commitment of every Sri Lankan towards learning the other’s language. “An important step taken by the President was to use the Tamil language himself, and in doing so create an understanding and acceptance of the language even at cabinet level,” he said. “But what we see is that sometimes the number of steps in the right direction match the number of steps in the wrong direction. You can’t for instance say Tamil is an official language, and then say you can’t sing the national anthem in Tamil.”