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Keynote Address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha  at the 3rd session of the 9th International Language and Development Conference, Colombo, 19th October 2011

Language policy in Sri Lanka has been a total mess for the last century. Unfortunately, most measures taken to remedy the situation created greater problems. The aim of this paper is to provoke debate on what should be done in trying to promote economic development and social cohesion. In that respect I am perhaps luckier than my peers speaking in other sessions, since the second element in my title suggests a clear goal, whereas in other cases we are simply given abstract terms. We need to argue then about what needs to be achieved with regard to identity, education and the arts, and about these there might be disagreement. But about the need for economic development there can be no dispute, just as there can be no dispute about the need for social cohesion, if we are not, all of us, of all communities in the country as a whole, to suffer again the anguish of the last few decades.

What are the problems we face now because of absurd language policies? With regard to social cohesion, first we have a situation where members of different communities cannot in general communicate with each other, because they are straitjacketed in monoligualism. Second, members of minority communities are at a disadvantage when it comes to employment, in particular in the state sector, because they do not know the principal language of administration. Third, springing from both these factors, members of minority communities cannot readily get responses when dealing with the state sector. Fourth, where there are requirements about documentation etc being available in all languages so that all citizens can gain awareness, there are immense difficulties and delays about translation.

All these contribute to slowing up economic development. But there is another factor that is even more destructive with regard to development, namely the difficulties most of our citizens have in dealing with the world at large. This slows business down considerably, not only with regard to discussions private individuals have but also with regard to authorizations necessary from the state sector. In addition, our officials are at a disadvantage in dealing with officials from other countries. We can be exploited, unjust criticisms pass without challenge, deadlines are not met.    Read the rest of this entry »

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2011
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