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Implementing the Language Policy in Sri Lanka’s Administrative Service ; An Option for Winning Recon

12 March 2015 04:37 am - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Language as a fundamental tool for communication provides a means for ethnic integration and participation if a society adheres to multilingual approaches.  Sri Lanka’s Language Policy has a long history spanning six decades. Some of the vital laws of the Language Policy were the 1956 Sinhala Only Act that considered Sinhala as the official language, the 1958 Tamil Language Act which provided a special provision to consider Tamil as a medium of instruction and administration correspondence, the 1972 ‘language rights’ in the constitution, chapter IV of the 1978 constitution on linguistic rights, the 13th amendment to consider Tamil as a official language and the 16th amendment to consider Sinhala and Tamil as an official languages for administration and legislation islandwide.  This article highlights some of the vital aspects on how the administrative service in Sri Lanka can contribute to practising the language policy for integration and reconciliation.  

A senior official in the administrative service once said that public officers are considered as the first point of contact within an administrative division. Therefore they are responsible to be competent in bi-lingual skills. This reveals how both linguistic skills i.e., the ability to work in more than one language and the language mind-set preference to receive and respond to a language other than the officer’s mother tongue is a positive contribution. This will naturally uphold the obligations of the Official Languages Policy (OLP) that protects and promotes ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ as the official languages and ‘English’ as the link language.  However, a monolingual culture is yet prominent at the Divisional level. This is caused due to a low level of physical assets and poor linguistic skills of officers. Also, most Divisional Secretaries work in one language. In such places the officers’ bi-lingual and multi-lingual skills are significantly low.  




The bi-lingual enforcement and Administrative Service 
The Sri Lanka Administrative Service is the permanent executive decision-making body for various administrative functions. According to Professor Vishva Warnapala, the administrator’s main duty is to satisfy citizens and empower the service to achieve government development goals. Therefore an administrator’s role in social reconciliation becomes very important. The Lessons Learnt and the Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) for post–war reconciliation has claimed ‘language rights’ as an essential step towards social reconciliation. The full implementation of the OLP to protect and promote ‘language rights’ therefore becomes crucial. The bilingual administration and the language proficiency of Sinhala and Tamil within five years after recruitment has become obligatory in the efficiency bar examination. Moreover the Gazette notice in 2012 has established 41 Divisional Secretariats carrying ‘bi-lingual positions’ and this was increased to 71 Divisional Secretariats in 2013. This shows how far the government has come for language policy implementation through civil administration.    




Promoting English 
As mentioned earlier, the 13th Amendment recognizes Sinhala and Tamil as official languages while recognizing English as the ‘link language’. Then ‘English’ has been promoted widely among categories of learners, i.e., education, State and non-state sector employment which can benefit the country’s economic gains in the global environment.  Also the use of a link language has provided a choice for the monolinguals to learn a second language that will impact social reconciliation in the long-run. The use of English as the medium of communication in administration has become popular in the Administrative Service too. This has showed in language audits and various other surveys on language skills.  




Language Trainings for SLAS recruits      
The government should ensure a public service that is either proficient in bi-lingual skills or which is given adequate training for second language proficiency after recruitment. One circular advocated ‘national ethnic proportions’, at the provincial level with the provincial ethnic proportions and at the district level with the district ethnic proportions at public sector recruitment. The recruitment of SLAS grade III is twofold. One is the ‘open competitive examination’. And second is for the ‘limited competitive examination’ for those who have been in the government services for more than 5 years. As a special provision the previous government in 2012 has recruited a North and Eastern batch known as the ‘special batch’ consisting of 109 officers based on ethnicity. If the Administrative Service is to better deliver services, one can argue the need for second language and link-language competency of officers as imperative, specially focusing on the Tamil and English languages.        




The Real Need 
In reality administrative officers’ language skills need further improvement. Yet, there is only an insignificant amount of complaints recorded against language rights violations in the Administrative Service.  The reality shows those citizens who often come to offices are either Sinhalese, or Tamils who are fluent in Sinhala (the North and East excluded). The reasons for the disagreement are that offices in certain areas serve only monolingual citizens, that English is considered the alternative language and being monolingual as a choice of the employees. Yet, those among the majority who agree with the effective policy implementation say the Service must adhere to plurilingual approaches, and be based on non-discriminative principles. As a whole these arguments show consideration for the ‘mother tongue’ i.e., Sinhala and Tamil as the first choice with ‘English’ as the de-facto second language. 




Availability of Linguistic Boards 
In addition, another positive contribution in the Administrative Service is the availability of linguistic friendly artefacts. Despite this, there is still a gap in implementing a wide approach for direction boards, signboards and name-boards to be in all three languages in all divisional secretariats divisions. It is important to monitor and correct errors in spelling and grammar in names already available in boards.  Also there is an essential need for improvement of ‘auxiliary services’ lined to linguistic requirements such as the availability of translation facilities and instrumental resources. Even if bi-lingual software applications can effectively contribute to language translations, the everyday use of translation software remains insignificant. 




Policy Implications 
The study indicates a positive ideological change from offices for a plurilingual work-culture. As to reconciliation theories what is most important is a change in mindset among officers. Simultaneously a service like this will be more stable and continuous in the change if policy provisions are well established and officers’ skills are well utilized. Therefore, with reference to language training, the proposed five-year period for acquiring a ‘reasonable knowledge and skills’ in the second official language is a valid proposition. However appropriate training and other support must be provided during the five years which is crucial for realistic achievements to create linguistically competent administrators. Also re-evaluating the skills within the five years incorporated with institutional commendation for those better performances should be encouraged. According to observations the functioning of the ‘bi-lingual’ position needs to be strictly attended as those areas consist of multi-ethnic communities. Therefore a study focus for existing systems and procedures available for language policy implementation and regulating them for enabling a better service through Administrative Service is undoubtedly important and obligatory for the country’s reconciliation endeavours.    

 
The writer is a consultant at the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA). The views expressed are based on independent judgment and examining data gathered from research.
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  Comments - 2

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  • Wasantha Deshapriya Friday, 13 March 2015 05:02 PM

    While appreciating the efforts of write for looking at policy requirements for implementing OLP, I wish to propose that it should be made mandatory for all Sinhala speaking SLAS officers to work in Tamil speaking areas for two years and vice versa.

    Menik Wakkumbura Friday, 13 March 2015 09:16 PM

    Learning a lanugue includes cultural symbolic affirmation , association of communities of those mother tongue speakers which would bring frightful results. Senior administrators like Mr. Deshapriya`s well tought out comment shows a way forward to deal with the language policy.


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