Notes from the Field

In Post-Conflict Sri Lanka, Language is Essential for Reconciliation

January 16, 2013

As a Canadian of Sri Lankan heritage, I am part of the growing diaspora living in the West who grew up speaking English as my first language. Since arriving in Sri Lanka as a LankaCorps Fellow, I have been able to explore my “mother tongue,” taking lessons in both Tamil and Sinhala. In Sri Lanka, a nation embattled by decades of violent ethnic conflict, I have found that one’s identity is inextricably linked to language.

Tamil Language Training at In-service Institute

Language remains a strong dividing force among Sri Lanka’s population, comprised of 75 percent Sinhalese and 24 percent Tamil. Above, a police officer attends a Tamil-language training, supported by The Asia Foundation, in Vavuniya in the North. Photo/Karl Grobl

Sri Lanka’s population is comprised of 75 percent Sinhalese and 24 percent Tamil speakers (11% Sri Lankan Tamils, 9% Moors, and 4% Indian Tamils), with smaller communities of Malays, Burghers, and others. The Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009, was triggered in part by the introduction of language policies that created divisions along ethnic and linguistic lines. In 1956, the Official Language Act No. 33 declared Sinhala as the only official language, replacing English which had been imposed under British colonial rule. In 1958, in response to the grievances of the Tamil-speaking people, the government passed the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act, in which Tamil was declared an official language in the Tamil-majority North and East. The 13th Amendment in 1987 to Article 18 of the 1978 Constitution stated that “the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala” while “Tamil shall also be an official language,” with English as a “link language.” While this recognized both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, the wording was still contentious, as some perceived it as referring to Tamil in a secondary sense. In response, in 1988, the 16th Amendment to the constitution corrected the position by stating, “Sinhala and Tamil shall be the languages of administration throughout Sri Lanka.”

The integral role of language in the post-conflict reconciliation process was acknowledged in the 2011 report produced by the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), appointed by the Sri Lankan Government. The report, which itself was initially released in English and only became available in Sinhala and Tamil languages in August 2012, includes these recommendations:

  • The learning of each other’s languages should be made a compulsory part of the school curriculum. This would be a primary tool to ensure attitudinal changes amongst the two communities. Teaching Tamil to Sinhala children and Sinhala to Tamil children will result in greater understanding of each other’s cultures.
  • The proper implementation of the language policy and ensuring trilingual (Sinhala, Tamil, and English) fluency of future generations becomes vitally important. A trilingual education will allow children from very young days to get to understand each other.

In fact, some action has been taken to achieve the goals of the LLRC report. The government has implemented a number of institutional mechanisms, including the creation of the Department of Official Languages, the Official Languages Commission, and the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, which leads official language implementation at the national level. The Ministry in turn has introduced island-wide language training and incentive programs for government offices to learn the official languages, intensified language training programs, and appointed several hundred officers at district and local levels to coordinate implementation  of the official language policy. The National Languages Project supports translator training programs and increased citizen access to services in their national language of choice, and is developing smaller-scale language policy implementation models at selected government institutes which interact with the public. Meanwhile, local and international NGOs are supporting the language policy through community awareness building and education, lobbying and monitoring, and other smaller-scale language projects.

While these initiatives demonstrate commitment to LLRC recommendations, language remains a strong dividing force in the country. Technically, government services are required to be available in each of the official languages; however, a common complaint is that forms are often only available in a single language and that translators are often unavailable. To achieve trilingualism, it is necessary to provide high-quality language instruction in English, Sinhala, and Tamil. However, not only is this expensive, Sri Lanka also lacks enough qualified instructors to do so. Civil society participation in the large-scale implementation of the national language policy needs to be strengthened, as do the monitoring and follow-up activities being carried out to improve the effectiveness of the government’s programs.

Through my experience as a LankaCorps Fellow with the National Water Supply & Drainage Board (NWS&DB), I’ve seen how valuable multilingualism can be. While the large majority of workplace operations are completed in Sinhala, as a national body, the NWS&DB is also responsible for providing services to Tamil-speaking areas, making it necessary to be able to communicate in Tamil. In addition, because many projects are funded or completed in partnership with international governments or aid organizations, the ability to communicate in English is also required.

A common theory in Sri Lanka is that the key to unifying the country as well as making sure that students are able to compete in a globalized economy is to introduce English as the sole, universal language of instruction, rather than the current separate streams for Sinhala, Tamil, and English instruction. While knowledge of English is a definite asset, it is also important that the next generation of Sri Lankans grow up learning to speak the two national languages. For example, in my discussions with local NGOs about community development, I have heard Tamil and Sinhala conversations peppered with English words such as “capacity building,” “sustainability,” and “livelihoods.”  This shows that already some concepts are being carried forward in English rather than the native Sri Lankan languages, affecting the transfer of ideas between native speakers.

The LLRC recommendation for trilingualism is a lofty goal, but a worthwhile one. Language is a tool for cultivating a culture of trust and understanding, and the ability to communicate with someone in their mother tongue is an invaluable step toward healing ethnic divides to achieve lasting peace.

Read more about The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps program.

Sabina Martyn is a 2012 LankaCorps Fellow, working with the National Water Supply and Drainage Board on water supply projects. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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