I make no apologies for returning yet again to the question of language rights. As I noted after my last visit to the North, for a series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, this remains one of the principal bones of contention in the Jaffna District. But it need not be, because the principles we should all be acting on are now clear, following the inclusion of Tamil as an official language in the constitutional reforms of 1987, and the fleshing out of those principles in the last couple of decades.

First, under President Kumaratunga, there were more inclusive language learning policies in schools in the nineties and then, most importantly, under this government, Minister D E W Gunasekara introduced language norms for public servants. I was not sure how well this was working so, at the previous meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages, I asked for a report on pass rates. We got this at the February meeting – or rather I did, and I had to point out that questions I raised were asked for the general benefit, not my own, so information should be shared with all my colleagues on the Committee.

I can see this might seem a waste of paper, since almost never do more than a quarter of the 31 members meant to be on the Committee attend, and many of those who do are concerned only with individual problems; but the principle was affirmed, and the Minister will now ensure that information is shared with at least all those who do attend. This is important, for this is something we should all be concerned with, as legislators and contributors to national policy.

Language problems have the potential to cause great resentment, and if we do not solve these, on behalf of all our deprived citizens, not only Tamils trapped in monolingualism who are the recipients of official documents produced by Sinhalese trapped in corresponding monolingualism, we will again be confronted by violence as well as corrosive hostility. But, sadly, the very simple measures required to remedy things are ignored, or rather, they simply do not occur to people who see no reason to think, and produce ideas, as part of their political responsibilities.

Reflecting on the waste of time and resources that the last few years have represented, I was for the first time sad that, when my name had come up with regard to the Ministry of Education some years back, the response was that I was unpopular. That may have been true, but I recall the advice I gave my students when, as Dean, I had run all classes in the first semester in English for all students – except for Sinhala and Tamil classes, both of which were compulsory for all students, at two different levels, since we had found that Sinhalese students had not been taught to write Sinhalese properly at school, and the same was true, the Tamil academics said, for Tamil students.

The Sinhalese students complained, and I told them that they could face great difficulties working in English in the first term, and then have an easy time for the rest of their lives when seeking employment – or they could have a cushy time doing everything in English in their first term, and difficulties for the rest of their lives. They ended up accepting my syllabus, and Sabaragamuwa has since had the best employment rates for arts graduates of all the new universities – or so I was told by a statistician in the UGC some years back, the UGC having failed in the last couple of years to give the Committee on Public Enterprises in Parliament the data we have been seeking recently about employment figures.

Being unpopular then, for doing what is beneficial, does not seem to me a great problem. I still believe, as I told Rupavahini in 2010 when the Parliamentary elections were all but decided, that I thought I could do most in the field of Reconciliation – but at that stage I had no inkling of the incapacity of most of my future colleagues to have ideas and implement them systematically.

Fortunately the current Minister of National Languages does listen and, though I had to convince him that the National Institute of Language Education and Training, which is under his Ministry, also works in English, he has agreed to try to encourage more courses in translation nationwide, and open up the qualifications NILET offers to private applicants. The private sector, and more importantly the non-profit sector as represented by religious organizations anxious to support new educational initiatives, will surely be able to contribute to the production of competent translators, which we so sorely need, though they will need to be encouraged. Unfortunately, there are some elements in government which will on the contrary discourage, on the basis that, if one cannot do enough of a good thing, one’s first duty is to prevent others doing it, and showing up one’s incompetence.

The same is true with regard to Teacher Training, where we have failed for decades to produce enough teachers in the languages – and in Mathematics and Computing, those two other essential languages. And though the Ministry of National Languages has now formally proposed liberalizing teacher training – while reserving for government the grant of qualifications for teaching within the government system – and has also suggested mechanisms of encouraging volunteer teachers, I fear the Ministry of Education is beyond radical reform, and will continue with the status quo.

Meanwhile Public Administration will simply not support National Languages to ensure that all circulars are issued in the required languages, and that care is taken to ensure at least basic translation facilities in all Divisional Secretariats. Until indeed I suggested it, there was no thought of making at least bilingual competence compulsory for the Language Assistants to be appointed to those Secretariats. With such insensitivity, it is no wonder we cannot move forward.

Daily News 8 March 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/03/08/fea03.asp

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