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Whither teaching in mother tongue?

“All problems that were associated with the change over to the mother tongue media in Sri Lanka have now been remedied and fifty years of swabasha teaching in schools has rendered these languages suitable and adequate for even tertiary education including science and technological disciplines. While generations of teachers educated and trained in the swabasha media teaching in the mother tongue Sinhala and Tamil are currently in service and performing a marvellous task of teaching the extension of mother tongue teaching to the tertiary level has successfully achieved.”

by Prof. Ranjit Ruberu

(March 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Farsighted patriotic national leaders of yesteryear who recognized the value of using the mother tongue for education made Sinhala and Tamil the media of teaching in schools over fifty years ago. They were inspired and convinced by the universally accepted principle "the mother tongue of a child is the medium most appropriate for a child to learn effectively". Having recognized the educational, psychological, social and cultural value in using the mother tongue in education they endeavoured to implement a swabasha medium education policy in making the languages Sinhala for Sinhala children and Tamil for Tamil children the media for teaching long before the country gained independence. Accordingly the change over to swabasha teaching at national level commenced from the year 1944. No government ever since made any attempt to change this policy. Yet the current proposal coming from some politicians to teach all subjects in the English medium is not only a short-sighted policy but also an unrealistic policy. The change could benefit only the children of the privileged classes who most use English at home. Such action appears to be irreconcilable with the legacy of the swabasha teaching policy adopted in 1944.

The Report

The Report of the Special Committee on Education (Sessional Paper -24 of 1943) popularly known as the Kannangara Report, that laid the foundation for a national system of education in the country is an authoritative document justifying the advantages and the benefits of using the mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools. Verbatim extracts taken from this report and presented below deserve the attention of those in responsible positions who are now advocating a return to English medium in schools.

" ...the English language has for many years been the principal medium of instruction for all forms of education. It was allotted this position not of choice but of necessity as it was not only the language of administration but also that of outside commerce of the Island....it has also been adopted as the home language in number of Sinhalese and Tamil homes where the indigenous languages are used only in conversation with servants. With the advent of British rule the adoption of English as one of the media of instruction even by the Sinhalese and Tamils became necessary in the circumstances of the period. Nevertheless it was a wrong choice from the national point of view.

"Apart from our historical association with the United Kingdom and, the fact that as far as higher education is concerned .. Sinhalese and Tamil have yet to be perfected as competent instruments for requiring modern knowledge we cannot see any reason why English should be retained as a medium of instruction at any stage in the educational process, except for those who have (legal) adoption of it as their mother tongue". This refers to the minority Burgher community. "We consider that the mother tongue is the natural medium of education and the genius of a nation finds full expression only through its own language and literature. We are therefore of opinion that the ideal should be the mother tongue medium at all stages of education".

Educational legislation

The subsequent educational legislation enacted in the country was based on these recommendations which later became the law of the land. The use of the mother tongue accordingly became educational legislation and has remained so for all these years. The more recent National Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka confer the same provision in Article 21(1) of the Constitution according to which " a person shall be entitled to be educated through the medium of either of the national languages" and according to Article 19 of the Constitution "the national languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamils. As it has been pointed out recently by some other authorities elsewhere, " the government cannot introduce English medium in schools unless relevant amendments are made to Article 19 and for Article 21(1) of the Constitution".

The national policy of making the mother tongue of the child the medium of teaching implemented in 1944 at the primary level was progressively extended year after year and by 1955 the swabasha media entered the Senior School Certificate (GCE O Level) class to be followed by the change over in the H.S.C. (GCE Advanced) class in 1959. A complete change-over to swabasha was achieved in mid 1960s with Sinhala and Tamil becoming the media of teaching in the university. The introduction of the mother tongue based swabasha media in the primary school in 1944 happened to be the" beginning of the end of English as a medium of instruction as well as the end of privilege in the sphere of education " in the country.

The mother tongue alone could not sometimes be adequate to provide good quality education and the need for an internationally popular second language was recognized from the inception of the mother tongue policy. The teaching of English as a compulsory second language therefore became necessary for many reasons and, the policy of teaching English to all children from grade three in the primary school was accepted and pursued. In all countries where the mother tongue of children has become the medium of instruction at national level, the teaching of one or more other languages as a second language is a well established practice.

In the Indian educational system although three languages viz. the mother tongue, the Federal language Hindi and English are recognized languages taught in schools, there is also the provision for children whose mother tongue is Hindi to learn a modern Indian language other than Hindi. In Bangladesh the national language Bengali replaced English immediately after independence as the medium of instruction and English has become a compulsory second language. Urdu and English are the two languages used in Pakistan. In the Republic of Korea the mother tongue Korean languages as well as French, German, Spanish and Chinese are taught. In Singapore the mother tongue languages Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English are considered to be of equal status as media of instruction. In Malaysia instruction at the first level is provided in one of the three languages Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese or Tamil and in the second level children whose previous languages of instruction were either in Chinese or Tamil have to acquire proficiency in the national language Bahasa Malaysia to proceed further. All these countries while using the mother tongue as the principal medium of instruction at the same time promote the spread of several other second languages as well.


All problems that were associated with the change over to the mother tongue media in Sri Lanka have now been remedied and fifty years of swabasha teaching in schools has rendered these languages suitable and adequate for even tertiary education including science and technological disciplines. While generations of teachers educated and trained in the swabasha media teaching in the mother tongue Sinhala and Tamil are currently in service and performing a marvellous task of teaching the extension of mother tongue teaching to the tertiary level has successfully achieved. There is apparently no need or justification now at this late stage of educational progress in mother tongue teaching, to change the teaching medium to a foreign language English other than to satisfy the whims and fancies of a group of vested interests.

The result of mother tongue teaching is evident in the ability of the swabasha educated to find employment, proceed for higher education including post-graduate research in the respective disciplines including science, medicine, engineering end the more recently introduced subjects like management and computer studies etc. Mother tongue media education is now firmly established in the education system. Many swabasha graduates in particular have been able to find foreign employment when Barer their academic achievements have been outstanding, and have competency in English as a second language.

There is also no substantial proof to support the contrary that a decline in quality and a lowering of standards of education has resulted from the use of swabasha media. Whatever quality decline and lowering of standards if evident is not due to the use of the swabasha media but because of other factors which are preventable only if there is determined effort on the part of education planners, policy makers and administrators.


The architects of the mother tongue policy envisaged a possible decline of standards immediately after the introduction of the mother tongue media for teaching and were wise enough to make alternate proposals to remedy the situation. They recommended the development of an effective national programme of teaching English as a compulsory second language in schools.

To quote the Committee Report referred to earlier,.... "the study of the English language must be retained in the curriculum of Ceylon schools..... it should be universally taught so that apart from other reasons, by becoming a common second language it may cease to be a badge of class distinction and becomes a means of common understanding...... even when the mother tongue becomes a universal medium of education, English will have to be retained in the educational system, for we have no doubt that it will generally enrich education".

These recommendations however fell on deaf ears and the teaching of English as an effective second language has remained neglected chiefly due to the indifferent attitude of the authorities concerned. What is evident today is a total failure in the teaching of English in schools, as a result of which a majority of children remain incapable of using English as a medium of education. Only a small minority of children of affluent families and those attending some of the popular schools could sometimes be able to use English as a medium to study. The underprivileged rural children who form the majority of nearly ninety percent attending school remain incapable of using English for their education, for no fault of theirs but as a result of a lopsided education provided to them.

Any attempt to go back to English medium at this juncture could only adversely affect the majority of children in rural schools coming from the underprivileged section of the population. Such measure will benefit only minority group of child who anyway could afford to get educated in the English medium if they so desire. Going back to English and closing the door to swabasha education that has existed for the last fifty years will raise the issue - whither the mother tongue in Sri Lanka Education.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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