Expanded versions of the speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the inaugural session of the Global Languages Meet – January 7th 2012 at the Sir Sayoji Rao Auditorium, Vadodara, India.

I am most grateful to the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, and the other organizations involved in this conference, for inviting me to this momentous occasion. It was an honour to be present at the launch of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, and I must congratulate Dr Ganesh Devy, your founder, on so successfully pushing through this initiative, a landmark venture after the pioneering work of Grierson nearly a century ago. The ready collaboration you have received from the Sahitya Academy and the Central Institute of Indian Languages is a reflection of the deep commitment of your country, and its official and unofficial academic institutions, to expanding the boundaries of learning.

I am sorry that we are not so advanced in Sri Lanka. Indeed it was sad that my collection of short stories, written originally in English and Sinhala and Tamil by Sri Lankans, appeared not in Sri Lanka, for we have no similar public service oriented publishing house, but in India. I am grateful to the National Book Trust for taking on the book, and now getting ready a companion volume of poetry. In one sense however I should be thankful that the book had originally to appear in India in English, for this meant that it would be translated into all your national languages. And hence the deep satisfaction yesterday at being able to present Dr Devy, at the Chotro Conference yesterday on ‘Imagining the Intantible: Language, Literature and the Arts of the Indigenous’ with the Gujerati version of those Sri Lankan stories. I look forward now to the Tamil version, whereas in Sri Lanka, where we do not have enough translators, such an initiative would not have been easy.

What I like to think of as that trilingual publication, for the material was originally in three languages though I published English versions initially, is in line with recent policy developments in Sri Lanka. These have been laid out, I hope inspiringly, in our President’s budget speech last year. He dwells at length there on the trilingualism that he hopes to introduce into Sri Lanka, in a programme that will be launched on January 21st. That initiative will I hope fast forward, if not trilingualism in general, at least bilingualism in a significant mass of our people, to break free from the monolingual straitjacket in which absurd policies on the part of successive governments has confined us.

It is difficult for you in India, where anyone with claims to be educated is at least bilingual, to understand quite how rigid were the limits we imposed upon ourselves. Given the general quality of our basic education system, which compares very favourably with yours, in terms of access and literacy and female participation, it is shocking that we should have fallen short with regard to linguistic and technical competencies for the vast majority of those who get such a good basic education. In particular the absurdity of the decision, made in the forties, to force Tamil children to study in Tamil and Sinhalese in Sinhala, ensured that generations of youngsters grew up with no possibility of communicating with each other.

In one sense perhaps we can understand those provisions, as a reaction against what seemed the colonial conditioning we had had before. As had happened after Macaulay’s famous minute in India in the previous century, Sri Lanka had seen English medium schools established to produce faithful adherents of the empire. This was a relatively exclusive system, run in the nineteenth century mainly by Christian foundations, and it did not benefit the vast majority in the country. But around the turn of the century Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims too began their own schools, which were soon producing bright and learned students who were able to use an English education to challenge imperial dogma.

In short, instead of attacking good institutions in the name of equity, we instead replicated them so that their benefits would reach a wider mass, a strategy that was later abandoned in the process of equalizing downwards that we thought, inspired by the politics of envy, was the only way of promoting social justice. So, similarly, in the thirties, our first Minister of Education, who took office in the fairly extensive steps towards self-government we were permitted on an experimental basis – the first non-white colony to be benefited thus, I suppose because we were too small to present any threat, unlike India – introduced a system of Central Schools which opened up knowledge to students in the regions.

But, just as that initiative was bearing fruit, another aspect of nationalism struck, and Sinhala or Tamil became compulsorily the medium of education, at primary level in the forties and then at secondary level in the fifties. Though English was supposed to be a compulsory second language, it was so only in the strange sense of the word compulsory which Sri Lanka has invented, meaning there are no sanctions if the ostensible requirement is not fulfilled. There was no serious attempt either to make Sinhalese students learn Tamil or Tamil students Sinhalese. And so the stage was set for generations to grow up unable to communicate, except for those in the charmed circle of Colombo, whose English of course continued excellent.

And to make matters worse, in 1956 we made Sinhala the only official language, having shut off a quarter of our citizens from learning it. So they were deprived of jobs in the government sector, which contributed to deep and wholly understandable resentment. Sadly, instead of resolving these political problems, we had in the early eighties strong arm tactics on the part of the state that led to terrorism, which became more and more intransigent as well as brutal. But now, having finally rid our country of this, we need to overcome those earlier understandable resentments, and in particular ensure a sane and practicable language policy that provides maximum opportunities to all our citizens.

We began to move in this direction when Tamil too became an official language in 1987, but we took few measures to enforce this. In the nineties however we began to promote bilingualism through ensuring that students learnt the other official language, though unfortunately we have come nowhere near producing enough teachers for this. And then, in 2001, we also introduced the possibility of English medium education. This had been frowned upon previously, in terms of dogmas about the necessity of mother tongue education, though the elite had found a way round the statutory provisions, and ensured good English for their children.

In this regard the comment by Mr Agnihotri, who spoke just before me, about the absurdity in a multilingual society of enforcing mother tongue as a medium was most instructive, for as he indicated, we need to promote better understanding of more languages so as to encourage better communication all round. Schools with mixed populations also encourage this, and we need therefore to promote children learning together, and interacting in all spheres.

I would be wary then of the suggestion in the keynote address yesterday at the Chotro Conference that we should welcome the existence of monolinguals since they ensure that usage of their own languages continues. The argument that language is like money, and when some countries use two currencies and others just one, the currency of the latter will triumph, is not I think convincing. There are other reasons for the dollar to do so well, which have to do with confidence that we should promote with regard to our own currencies, whilst also encouraging free trade. I believe this applies to education too, where artificial restrictions will only contribute to disaster. We need to maximize choice, in the confidence that parents will push for what is best for their children, and those children will use the opportunities granted to them well, to promote their own interests as well as their country.

Given the dogmas that have been drilled to us, in reacting to the impositions of colonialism, such decisions will be difficult. But we need to trust in the decision making power of parents and the capacities of our youngsters to learn. While certainly the right to education in the mother tongue must be upheld, the right to choose what may be more advantageous should also be promoted. Indeed, though we in Sri Lanka are lucky, in that both languages used as mother tongue can easily be used as mediums of instruction, in India you have difficulties given the plethora of languages spoken in small communities. Whilst certainly those languages must be recorded and preserved, as your admirable linguistic survey will ensure, arguing that they must all be available as mediums of instruction is impractical and will not serve the interests of children, who must be also given command of another language that they can use widely for self advancement.

At this gathering then that celebrates the diversity of language, we should also ensure diversity as to usage, and ensure empowerment through education to the widest possible extent. Language, we must remember, is a tool, and it should not be treated as an end in itself. This may be difficult for linguists who appreciate the beauty and the character of the various languages they study, but always at the centre of any vision we wish to advance should be people, and it is their interests we should consider in formulating policy.

Daily News 9 January 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/01/09/fea01.asp