Daily Mirror - Print Edition

Language: A Catalyst to foster National Unity - EDITORIAL

19 Feb 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Sri Lanka is described as a multilingual country but this definition could perhaps be deceptive when reflecting on the past and present. One may be quick to point fingers at various state policies that were implemented which made one language superior to the rest. However, language is an integral part of communication and is a key marker of identity. Sri Lanka witnessed a time when minority groups faced linguistic discrimination which in fact was a political recipe for disaster. As the world prepares to celebrate International Mother Language Day on February 21, it would be timely to reflect on the ‘mistakes’ that dragged Sri Lanka towards ethnic separatism. 

During colonial rule, a largely non-English speaking population was governed by a small group of English-speaking elite. From the end of the 18th Century until Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, English was the dominant language in government. Therefore, those who could speak English had better access to jobs and a higher standard of living. It was in this backdrop that the “Swabasha” Movement began, even before Sri Lanka gained independence as Sri Lankans felt oppressed under the privilege and elitism of the English-speaking community. This movement served as the public cry to make Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of Sri Lanka. 

The British gradually included Sinhalese and Tamils in decision-making positions. But as more Tamil-speaking people assumed key positions in government service, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party advocated for the official language to be Sinhala, only. In 1956, when Oxford educated S.W.R.D Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, he decided to bring in the Official Language Policy of 1956, popularly known as the ‘Sinhala Only Act’. The Act stated that ‘The Sinhala language will be the one official language of Ceylon’. Many cite this Act as the root cause of the 30-year ethnic war. 

Even though the current Constitution recognizes Sinhala and Tamil as official languages and English as the link language, the damage is irreversible. But contrary to a time when Tamil-speaking people in the country were discouraged from entering public service as a result of the Sinhala Only Act, public officers are now being paid an allowance if they are proficient in more than one language.  

The International Mother Language Day, first proclaimed by UNESCO and later adopted by the UN General Assembly, underscores the role of languages in promoting inclusion and achieving Sustainable Development Goals. Multilingual education policies, highlighted in the 2024 theme ‘Multilingual Education – A Pillar of Learning and Intergenerational Learning’, are crucial for inclusive education and the preservation of indigenous languages. Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way.

Contrary to Sri Lanka, the European Parliament for instance has adopted a full multilingual language policy, meaning that all EU languages are equally important. All parliamentary documents are translated into all the official languages and every Member of the European Parliament has the right to speak in the language of his or her choice. The European Education system ensures that children are proficient in at least two foreign languages.

The system of the European Schools is a multilingual environment. Pupils in European Schools should acquire the ‘linguistic repertoire’ which is recommended to any European citizen by the end of his/her secondary studies. A pupil from a family where the parents share the same dominant language can usually speak a standard national language, often accompanied by a regional or minority variety, and at least two foreign languages at a later stage.
Perhaps, if history could be reversed and if a multilingual language policy was introduced back in 1956 in place of a short-sighted act with vested interests, there wouldn’t have been a 30-year ethnic war, a mass exodus of the Tamil-speaking community at the time, and people of all ethnicities would have had equal opportunities within the boundaries of their homeland. There wouldn’t have been any space left for discrimination. Matter-of-factly, Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and National Unity would have been established long years ago.