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Stop forcing Sinhalese and Tamils to learn each other’s language

It Cannot Solve Anything.

By Thomas Johnpulle

(June 29, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is very popular in Sri Lanka to say Sinhalese should Tamil and Tamils should learn Sinhalese. Those pundits promoting this unthoughtful “solution” are incapable of appreciating what it entails although they may find it easier to understand 1956. In short they are trying multiple 1956s. Sinhala is a national language and the fluency of it should be sufficient for all individuals who use it. Similarly Tamil is a national language and the fluency of it should be sufficient for all individuals who use it. About 65% of the population do not speak Tamil and about 10% do not speak Sinhala. Over 75% of the population will be thoroughly inconvenienced if they were forced to learn each other’s language and also English. Most people struggle even to learn a second language let alone a third language!

Then comes the problem of communicating with each other. It must be appreciated that two people do not communicate with each other in three (3) languages! It is ridiculous. They use one language. Given the circumstances, they use the most appropriate language.

A significant volume of business activities take place in English and English fluency is increasing. Teaching everyone English has multiple benefits and it must be done.

Then there is the problem of a Tamil and a Sinhalese, both lacking English fluency, talking to each other. This has to be sort out voluntarily, not by forcing. There are many options available. The use of interpreters and translators is not very popular in Sri Lanka although it is very popular in other countries even where there is only one national language. The emergence of a professional interpreter service is actually an encouragement to learn both Sinhala and Tamil in detail for those who want to pursue a career in it. For the information of disbelievers, Australia used to award additional incentives to both Sinhala and Tamil translators (into English) in its immigration process. Government offices will benefit enormously by having translators.

However, at times it is mandatory or sensible to talk to each other directly. If the communicators are not fluent in English, there is another option. They can voluntarily learn each other’s language as required. Obviously you don’t need to master the other’s language. What is required is a reasonable fluency. This works on a case by case basis as per the requirement. It has worked well so far and it has always been purely voluntary.

However, teaching English to all must be a priority. Eventually it can resolve the communication gap both internally and externally. The time, money, facilities, etc. that would be used to teach a Tamil, Sinhala and a Sinhalese, Tamil would be used much more productively to teach both groups English! The government must be commended for making 2009 the Year of English and IT. It is a step in the right direction. English must become the medium of study at schools.

English classes for adults must be popularised aggressively. Teaching government servants English should be another priority. Taxi drivers realise the career change that awaits them if they are a little bit fluent in English. With the wide expectation of a booming tourism industry, it makes perfect sense to kick start English teaching. Contrary to popular view, these sections are showing increasing signs of English fluency and a great liking to learn it and master it. Call Centres is a very lucrative industry that is very labour intensive yet requires a low capital outlay than all other export industries. Sri Lanka with a more liberal economy than India and a much higher Human Development Index (Sri Lanka ranks 93rd in the world compared to India at 125) stands to gain immensely from the Call Centre and outsourcing industries.

Also important are Chinese, French, Japanese, German, Arabic, etc. Proficiency of these languages on a requirement basis must be promoted as it opens up an array of new business opportunities.

The ethnic problem of Sri Lanka does not have any connection to languages except in 1956. Forcing Sinhalese to learn Tamil and Tamils to learn Sinhala is a worse act than 1956. While Tamil Eelam was initiated in 1922 by Sir Arunachalam, Mr Velupillai Chelvanayagam’s Tamil Arasu Katchi that promotes a Tamil Nation came into being in December 1949. These events happened way before Bandaranaike’s Sinhala-Only in 1956.

The problem is more about the presence of mono-ethnic Tamil only areas in the North-East than anything else. While Sinhala-only legislation is discriminatory (although many other democratic countries have adopted the majority’s language as their only national language) the resistance to Sinhala-only was not entirely local. Resistance to Sinhala-only closely followed identical resistance campaigns in Tamil Nadu against the Hindi-only move starting from 1938. Even Tamil Nadu is very aggressively pursuing a strategy of promoting English.

Sri Lanka should use its scant resources and learning capabilities to enable communication locally and globally through better English fluency, automatically expanding its openness to business at the same time. Killing two birds with one stone! This is the integrated approach that should be followed to overcome all connected problems not just one.

Suggesting superficial ‘solutions’ that look fanciful on paper without analysing the connected issues landed this country in enough trouble many a time. It is time to shed old-fashioned thinking approaches to take on new challenges facing the nation.
-Sri Lanka Guardian


Yogananthan B said...

I agree with the writer. You can learn English as easily as you can learn Sinhala. Sinhala is a good language but it is better for everyone if learn English.

I must admit that I cannot speak or write in Sinhala but you can hear what I say because I'm fluent in English. That gave me a job too.

I like to tell the writer to include a system to teach English to school drop-outs too. There are lot of them. They like to learn.

There is no point arguing Sinhala-Tamil. We have no problem with Sinhala-Tamil. Everyone wants jobs and better jobs. They can't be studying languages all the time. If more people have better jobs, no one will fight or argue Sinhalam-Tamil.

Sri Lanka has a lot of catching up to do with Tamil Nadu and Singapore.

Stewart Sloan said...

With all due respect to Mr. Pulle perhaps he should have his work edited before sending it for publication.

JS Hong Kong

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