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.   

". . your educational Structure is divided into two types of educational institutions; some institutions giving instruction through the mother tongue, and the other institutions giving instruction through English. This particular defect has created to my mind, two different nations; one nation learning Sinhalese and Tamil and speaking in Sinhalese and Tamil, and the other speaking and learning English”.

How did all this happen? The rot started with the second measure introduced to overcome what was felt to be the unfair position English enjoyed in Sri Lanka. The negative feelings this generated can be summed up in a statement of J R Jayewardene, perhaps the most preposterous he made in a career marked by blunders, when he introduced a bill to make education in the mother tongue compulsory. He claimed then that “. . your educational Structure is divided into two types of educational institutions; some institutions giving instruction through the mother tongue, and the other institutions giving instruction through English. This particular defect has created to my mind, two different nations; one nation learning Sinhalese and Tamil and speaking in Sinhalese and Tamil, and the other speaking and learning English”.

C. W. W. Kannangara (1884-1969) Sri Lanka's first Minister of Education

Amongst the many ironies of this measure was that it had already been addressed by a more practical visionary. Our first Minister of Education, C W W Kannangara, had understood the inequity of only a small minority being able to function in the language of privilege and power, but instead of leveling downward, he had sought to increase opportunities for others. He had accordingly begun Central Schools in all parts of the country where bright children could learn in English and develop capacities in tune with their intelligence to take their places as equal partners in society.

Sometimes I wonder indeed if Jayawardene were not just stupid, but positively evil, in introducing his bill which in effect destroyed this egalitarian innovation Kannangara had made just a few years earlier. By insisting that children learn compulsorily in Sinhala or Tamil, he ensured that rural youngsters were once more deprived of English.

It is more likely however that this was simply unthinking populism rather than destructive strategy. Fresh from his bye-election triumph at Kelaniya, when he had used religion as a tool to defeat his opponent E W Perera, he moved to strengthen his chauvinistic credentials by moving that Sinhala be the only compulsory medium of instruction. Horrified by this denigration of Tamil, senior members of the party suggested that Tamil too should be included, which he accepted. The original motion was also watered down, in that Sinhala and Tamil were only made compulsory as mediums of instruction at primary level, and choice was allowed later. But the principle had been established, and in the early fifties, when  Eddie Nugawela was Minister of Education, he made Sinhala and Tamil compulsory at secondary level too, by means of regulations.

In theory English continued as a compulsory second language, with no requirement that Sinhalese students should learn Tamil and Tamil students Sinhala. Doubtless decision makers such as Jayewardene thought that the different communities could communicate with each other in English. But, given the hostility to English, given the absence as he knew well of competent English speakers to become teachers, given the failure to make it compulsory to pass in English at any public examination, English was naturally neglected in many schools. The elite of course continued to practice English, and in fact science could be done in English for a few years more, which meant that major schools teaching science continued to use the language actively, in contrast to the many rural schools which hardly had science teachers, let alone science teachers who could function in English.

So inevitably Jayewardene’s claim continued to be valid, with a small class continuing to function in English and reaping the benefits of this, while the majority were stuck in monolingualism. And of course what he does not seem to have even thought of occurred, a solid barrier to communication between Sinhalese speakers and Tamil speakers.

".. Ranil Wickremesinghe who seemed determined to stamp out English medium again"

For over half a century this divisive and ineglaitarian situation has continued. In the nineties measures were taken to make Tamil compulsory for Sinhalese students and Tamil for Sinhalese students, but no effective steps were taken to produce enough teachers for the purpose. Then, in 2001, the Ministry of Education allowed English medium education to be started at secondary level, but the plans that had been developed to produce good materials and train enough teachers were stymied by the change of government. Not entirely surprisingly, it was Jayewardene’s nephew Ranil Wickremesinghe who seemed determined to stamp out English medium again, though the commitment of his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku and the support given by the President, enabled it to survive. Sadly, in spite of the continuing support of the current President, the stratagem of limiting English in the rural sector has reared its head again, with the withdrawal of permission to teach History in English. Thus English will once again be the preserve of schools that teach science, and the vast majority who do arts subjects will have no incentive to try to learn in English.

One argument for restricting English medium with regard to history is that it must be taught in the mother tongue so as to preserve our national culture. This is preposterous, because it suggests that science and mathematics are nothing to do with culture. Rather, the argument is in line with the mindset that seemed determined to keep our youngsters in ignorance of the world around them. The National Institute of Education managed for instance during one memorable period to avoid mention of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution in the entire grade span of secondary school. Sadly these so-called professional educationists do not seem to understand that with knowledge comes power, not deracination.

Given the massive impact the world has on all of us now, to propagate ignorance is culpable. But the question arises whether this should be forgiven because it also springs from ignorance, an incapacity to read and know current trends in historical studies, so that we continue to see history as a collection of facts that are repeated and learnt by heart, not a discipline that encourages comparing and contrasting and understanding of the different compulsions that led countries in different directions during different periods. In short, the idea that history like science should be about thinking, with discriminating knowledge of the subject to make it applicable to one’s current situation, is beyond our educationists. Despite this many able youngsters manage to explore and produce innovative ideas. But if we could permit them to do this without one hand tied as it were behind their backs, we would develop much more quickly.

The second reason given for not doing more to promote English medium education, and allow even schools concentrating on arts subjects to encourage their students to do more in English, is that there are not enough teachers. This springs from the fact that the teacher training programmes begun in 2002 were stopped, and instead the NIE went back to the old traditional systems that have led to even teachers of English as a subject not being able to fulfil their responsibilities satisfactorily. They concentrate on theory rather than practicing the language, they see their role as ensuring rote learning rather than discussion and understanding.

In this regard, as with other areas in which the education system keeps children in rural areas deprived through teacher shortages, it is necessary to think outside the box. If the state system has failed over several decades to produce enough teachers, and to ensure that they are deployed in the areas that need them most, clearly it is necessary to look at a different methodology. The President advanced in his 2005 manifesto the idea of school based recruitment of teachers, and he has mentioned this again recently, but the Ministry of Education, along with Provincial Ministries of Education, will not permit this, not least because the power they have will be reduced.

Without that I believe we will never solve the problem of shortages in rural areas that contribute to increasing disparities. I hope therefore that the Ministry of Social Integration will promote change, drawing attention to the manner in which unequal opportunities led to much social unrest in the last half century.

In this regard another measure that seems desirable is the facilitation of private sector teacher training, in particular in science and mathematics and languages, not just English but also Sinhala for Tamil students and Tamil for Sinhala students. There are no sensible arguments against this, what is often heard being the claim that the private sector is interested only in money and therefore cannot be counted on to maintain good standards. The obvious answer to that is to require accreditation by the state, if necessary by introducing a state examination as is done with regard to the professions for those who qualify in other countries and in institutions within Sri Lanka that are not run by the state.

A school in the resettled area of Kiranchy in Kilinochchi

In addition to providing a pool of teachers who could be used in areas which now get few teachers in essential subjects – and teachers who could be employed specifically for a single school, to ensure that they will not get themselves transferred out the minute they have confirmed employment – private teacher training institutes could also help us regain the position we once held of being a source of good teachers for the region. In the old days our teachers were hired in Malaysia and Africa and the Middle East, but unfortunately this practice is in abeyance except for the few who are competent in English. If the state system cannot provide the training that will allow our youngsters to take advantage of the opportunities available for good teachers, it is churlish to prevent private institutions fulfilling this need.

One of the corollaries of better language education nationwide, and extending opportunities for English medium, is the possibility of developing student exchanges. We need to do much more of this, not just in sports, but also in cultural activities that allow joint performance, and also in learning together and exchanging ideas. I still recall the workshop Trinity College conducted shortly after English medium commenced, for students from Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna and Batticaloa, and also for students from two state schools in the region that had taken on the challenge of providing English medium classes for their students who otherwise would never have had opportunities to practice the language.  There should have been much more of this, but with the blight that the Wickremesinghe regime cast over English medium, no efforts were made to add value to the programme.

One aim indeed of the programme initially had been to encourage working together, if possible by schools running joint classes. For instance the shortage of teachers in English medium at Advanced Level could have been addressed by a few schools working together, with students of different communities coming together for particular classes. Indeed this concept could be taken further, as suggested to me by three principals of relatively small schools in Mutur. At the height of the conflict, in which indeed Mutur had suffered badly, they suggested that their three schools could be combined into one English medium school. Instead of each school having a cadre of twenty odd teachers, with the actual number on roll being much less, a combined school would have the same cadre which would then be complete in actuality. And if it was argued that no English medium teachers were available, clearly the existing teachers could be trained through an intensive course that would cost less in the long run than having to find and pay for a much larger cadre.

Unfortunately I see no effort at the Ministry of Education or in Provincial Ministries to bring students of different communities together into a single school. Such an initiative would help considerably with the current appalling shortages of teachers in the plantation sector for instance, and in much of the Eastern Province. This would do much for social integration and also increase skills in a manner that would help considerably with economic development. But unfortunately we continue to think of education as being a theoretical construct, without considering its impact of the social and economic needs of the country.

I have dwelt much on this topic which might have seemed outside my brief, given that there is another session scheduled on Language and Education and Social Integration. But I hope my argument, which has addressed all the questions cited with regard to my topic, as well as some raised with regard to other topics, has made clear the centrality of a saner and more productive education and teacher training system if we are to achieve the goals of economic development and social integration we aspire to, and which our youngsters who have suffered so much now deserve.