Notes from the Field

Sri Lanka Launches Plan to Become Trilingual Nation

March 28, 2012

Three years after the end of decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka, there are new government-sponsored efforts afoot to encourage people to speak both national languages – Sinhala and Tamil – and to promote English as a common link language. Toward that goal, President Mahinda Rajapakse has named 2012 the “Year of Trilingualism,” kicking off a 10-year plan to make Sri Lanka a nation of three official languages: Sinhala, Tamil, and English.

A student in Sri Lanka

Over the last decade, learning English has become a key part of Sri Lanka’s pitch toward economic growth and stability. Photo by Karl Grobl.

The move is an attempt to shed ethnic tensions stemming partly from language barriers. The privilege given to the Sinhala language and the gradual phasing out of English, which served as the link language  between Sinhalese and Tamil speakers, in the 1950s and 1960s further exacerbated the ethnic tensions that led to the bloody, 30-year civil conflict that ended in 2009. Some mistakes of the past have been reversed, but it takes a long time to make up lost ground.

Presidential Advisor Sunimal Fernando,who is tasked with implementing the president’s trilingual vision, is cautiously optimistic and extremely passionate. “The trilingual initiative is really a turning point,” he said. The element of the three-pronged strategy that is perhaps the most popular is the renewed drive to teach and learn English. While ethno-linguistic divisions in Sri Lanka receive the most attention in the international press, class-based divisions between those who can speak English and those who cannot are just as potent.

In 2009, the president tasked Fernando with changing the way English was taught in Sri Lanka in order to improve English-language skills across the country. Under the banner of the “Year of English and IT,” his team set off on an ambitious program to retrain 22,000 English teachers to help Sri Lanka realize the concept of  “English as a Life Skill” across the nation.

Over the last decade, learning English has become a key part of Sri Lanka’s pitch toward economic growth and stability. “English is a vehicle of power,” Fernando said, but it is only recently that Sri Lankans are embracing the language as a practical, life-long skill.

English is certainly not a new subject in Sri Lanka, having been a British colony until 1948. However, the difference now, Fernando explained, is in the less rigid way it is taught and spoken. For years, English was seen and taught as a subject to be recited and memorized, either correctly or incorrectly, for one hour, five days a week in school. Yet when it came to practical applications for speaking English, only a small percentage of the population could speak it fluently enough to be eligible for employment in the growing private sector.

As the job landscape in Sri Lanka changes rapidly from the public to the private sector, speaking English, widely considered the language of business and commerce, is essential. English is now taught in Sri Lanka with less emphasis placed on elocution and memorization and more on conversation and communication. More emphasis is also placed on continuing English learning and practice outside the classroom. For instance, facilities such as libraries and English activity centers have become increasingly prevalent across Sri Lanka. “That is where [The Asia Foundation's Books for Asia program] came in with quite an ambitious program,” said Fernando, “Libraries – thanks to The Asia Foundation and other organizations – started appearing in increasing numbers of schools around the country, and that made an enormous difference.”

In addition to keeping up with the growing interest of people to learn English, in order to accomplish the president’s vision of a trilingual nation, Sinhalese and Tamils are also encouraged to learn each other’s languages. Fernando says the task may not be as difficult or be met with as much resistance as one may expect, given the decades of division these communities have experienced. Pointing to a recent survey that the government conducted with the help of the Central Institute of Indian Languages and administered by an independent research organization, he said most Tamils and Sinhalese – across all socio economic backgrounds and ages – wish to speak to each other in both Tamil and Sinhala. However, the incentives for Sinhalese to learn Tamil are not as great as for Tamils to learn Sinhala, and most Tamils who live outside the North and East, and even many who do, already speak Sinhala. The economic and social incentives to learn English are much greater all around.

Read more about The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program in Sri Lanka.

Molly Mueller is The Asia Foundation’s production specialist in San Francisco, and recently returned from a visit to the Foundation’s Sri Lanka office. She can be reached at mmueller@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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