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Sri Lanka’s trilingual vision and the Canadian experience

November 21, 2011, 6:44 pm - 

By Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

(The author is attached to the National Research Council of Canada and the Universite de Montreal. E-mail:

Sri Lanka is to launch a ten-year Plan for achieving Trilingualism in 2012-2022. Most people see it as a laudable vision. Surely, what is better than learning each other’s language for mutual understanding and reconciliation? Countries like Canada with powerful minorities and separatist struggles fuelled by language have long opted for multilingualism and multiculturalism. In contrast, the United States, in spite of some 17% Hispanics in traditional homelands of California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona etc., enforces ‘English Only’. The ‘Indian model has also adopted state-based unilingualism. Thus Tamil Nadu, with some Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada minorities officially allows ‘Tamil Only’.

Lanka’s trilingualism project is led by a popular and highly-experienced minister. It is partly fuelled by the belief that the ‘Sinhala only’ bill of 1956 seeded the separatist strife. However, serious observers doubt this. The drive for separation began with the opposition of the land-owning upper-caste Tamils to the liberal policies introduced by the Donoughmore commission, and by the Colombo Government even before independence. In 1949, the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi spoke of driving out the ‘invaders’ from the ‘historic homelands’. Language was an excellent casus belli and hardly the root cause. Thus, although the Muslims spoke Tamil, they were early targets of ethnic cleansing by the Tamil Eelamists.

The rise of the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front) occurred at a time when Canada was governed mainly by Francophone politicians who opposed separatism. The French: English ratio at the time may have been 2:3, while the electoral weight of Quebec was even stronger. Steps were taken by the Trudeau government to bring more francophones to the public service, while militarily suppressing the FLQ which carried out two political assassinations. Bilingual programs in the schools, in the public service, together with bonuses for competency became the norm. I believe that this money was well spent; nevertheless, at the end of some four decades of effort, Canada is still 80% monolingual English. The Francophones are 45% bilingual. Is this 45% because of Canada’s language policy, or because everyone needs English? If English Canada were governed in French, and the French in English, Canada would become bilingual very rapidly, but no Canadian party has the power to enforce such a legislated ‘need to learn’ the other’s language!

Most people learn a language only if they need it. If Canada after four decades of spending billions of dollars has remained 80% unilingual, Sri Lanka at the end of the ten-year plan for trilingualism cannot hope for much. Sri Lanka’s school system is ignored by parents who use after-school private tuition in the subjects that matter - that includes English, but not the other ethnic language. And then, how many University Professors, or Parliamentarians of Sri Lanka are trilingual?

Nevertheless, the vision of trilingualism is grand. Its future lies not in reaching impossible targets of (even moderate) trilingual knowledge, but in providing trilingual communication. We have argued elsewhere that this is a political problem with a technological solution. To begin with, all cell-phone (‘mobile’) conversations in Tamil or Sinhala can be heard by a respondent in his own language, since a micro-processor can instantly translate into the desired language. More details of this are given in our article now available at the website maintained by Prof. Roberts

(’trilingual-competence’-without-learning-languages/) or at our website (, entitled "Switching on trilingual competence without learning new languages. This aims at every-day business and social communication; it costs very little and achievable in a short time. The author has also presented this scheme at a technical seminar at ICTA (Information and Communication technology Agency) sometime ago, in Colombo.

That then is the way to go, if the trilingual vision is to be something more than a very laudable ten-year political good-will project.


Forcing the Sinhalese to learn Tamil

The Tamils being in the minority will learn Sinhalese because they know it could benefit them but the Sinhalese will not learn Tamil. They will consider it an imposition. In the end all government jobs which are permanent and pensionable will go to the Tamils the same as it was during the colonial regime because the Sinhalese were excluded. 

If I am a parent I will tell my children enough ......  so that they will not learn it even if they originally wished. I will encourage my children to learn Pali which will be of use to them in reading Buddhist scriptures. What bloody use is Tamil for any Sinhalese let alone me  or my children? 

These are the ideas of a stupid politician who does not know the difference between his front side and his backside. Men of this caliber can  generate so much of unnecessary anti Tamil feeling among the Sinhalese.

With two languages with similar cultural connections it has failed in Canada. How can it ever succeed when the Sinhalese are aware that the Tamils with whom they have nothing in common are the invaders and later were imported as indented labour? 

In Denmark all university students know English and in addition German. That is the world of education for the Danes because a small country like Denmark cannot translate all available books in Science, Engineering, Medicine etc. etc. into Danish and besides that is the only way to communicate with countries worth communicating. What have we got in common to communicate with Tamil Nadu?. What education can we get from Tamil? Absolute Zero.   

L. Jayasooriya,




No diaper can stop deadly diarrhoea: Rethinking trilingual dilemma

By Dr. Edward Perera

The idea of teaching all three languages to Sri Lankan children is nothing other than a simple myth. This is not a new concept as President or anybody thinks but exactly what the bankrupt Marxists in Sri Lanka dreamt in the past. It is something like old wine in new bottles.

Sri Lanka was deviating from rational politics since independence. That doesn’t say that the British did better. The theory of putting the blame on the other had solid grounds in domestic politics as most of the politicians had no vision to introduce reforms or to implement effective plans to uplift living conditions of the masses. They were very capable of breaking the previous system and using the same substance to make another object as if they have invented something new. The language issue too played a permanent role in Sri Lankan politics in the form of paradoxical theory.


It has become a political fashion in Sri Lanka to identify the language problem as a root cause of the so-called ethnic conflict as these pundits had no brains to go beyond that irrational thought. The following excerpts that appeared in a World Bank report tell us how such information could mislead people whoever make attempts to understand what really took place in Sri Lanka in the post-independence period.


“By independence, Tamils accounted for over 30% of government services admissions, a share larger than their proportion in the general population—i.e., Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils have never totalled more than 25%. By 1956, it is estimated that Tamils constituted 50% of the clerical personnel of the railway, postal and customs services, 60% of all doctors, engineers and lawyers, and 40% of other labour forces”…….” Tamil representation in the science-based disciplines fell from 35% in 1970 to 19% in 1975, while Sinhalese representation in all disciplines increased quite dramatically….”



Anybody who takes a glance at above figures may feel that there was an apparent discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka. But it seems no one is interested in shedding light to the “unknown” past how the Sinhalese majority were deprived of their access to better education or lucrative jobs under colonial rule. After going through the statistics, the immediate impression of a student of this subject may be a negative one. In order to avoid this bias, one should examine the facts within a social milieu in which the real obstacles could be identified. If we start analysing the problem since independence, the figures may show a big discrepancy in university admission and in job recruitment amongst Sinhalese and Tamils. The mistake is the wrong approach made by non-professionals in the subject to attribute sentimental interpretations to this natural process of social change. Why cannot people understand that the Sinhalese majority were not a group of ignorant people before the first European arrived in this land? Only their inspirations were suppressed in the years of foreign rule. Any nation would fight for their lost heritage. If the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka were highly motivated to achieve their lost status within a period of few decades in the post-independence period, the Sinhalese majority would react in the same manner with a centuries long past on their own soil. Just accepting facts should not be interpreted as nationalism.


Language issue was a delicate topic for the brainless politicians to exploit the ethnic sentiments of innocent people enabling the ruling class to remain in power as long as they can. Except for late C.W.W. Kannangara, I hardly know a single minister who administered the education system in Sri Lanka had better vision to give qualitative and meaningful education for the children in the country. If the state can help the parents to overcome their feeling of insecurity concerning the future of their children, there is no need to force children to decide through which medium they should continue their studies.

All the governments since independence have poured more fuel to the burning issues than resolving problems. The members of younger generation of Tamils who have migrated to Western countries during the war learnt the languages of respective host countries without being subjugated by the aspirations of their parents on language sentiments that were rather cultural than political for them but for the racist politicians it was political than cultural. What the LTTE did with this new generation of Tamils had nothing to do with liberation for Tamils but using them as an instrument to achieve their coward and disguised criminal objectives. Neither the GoSL nor the historians touched the decisive fact related to the unethical role played by the local and international Church in the process of terrorism as they might have thought that it could give them “unnecessary” problems. It is convenient for the cowards to admit that the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority are also partly responsible for this biggest tragedy in the history of Sri Lanka.


The terrorists started the war pretending that they had to take weapons to fight against discrimination and thereby the whole World could print a permanent etiquette to quote Sri Lanka’s problem as an ethnic conflict. Our local pundits were mad on looking for political solutions for a so-called ethnic problem. Some ignorant politicians as well as advisors forgot the simple fact that the LTTE was never a political movement and it didn’t represent the Tamils in Sri Lanka to bring solutions to the “grievances” of the Tamils in that country. They were not fighting for the parity of languages but for a specific area of land. If the objectives of the terrorists were clear, why should the GoSL worry about a political solution to the problem?


If the educationists in the country were given the opportunity to plan the system of education, they would have definitely dropped the idea of placing more emphasis on vernacular languages. Education at home or at Sunday schools could play an effective role in shaping language ability of a child than forcing him to learn another language in addition to his mother tongue. Just to support the artificially created ethnic harmony, the politicians may take every step to feed children with unnecessary stuff. On the other hand the state cannot give any assurance to college leavers to find jobs depending on language ability unless these children were given job oriented education supported by natural science disciplines.


For this, children must have considerable knowledge in English or similar international languages. For example; to meet the growing demand in the tourist industry, our children should essentially have a good command of international languages. In the cyber context too, the knowledge in international languages will be an asset and it would open limitless access to information gathered and saved in freely available data bases.


Politicians know nothing except for exchanging verbal arguments and in extreme cases; they even use guns to eradicate their political or personal opponents. Foul apple is physically a pre-condition for worms to feel safe and comfortable inside the fruit.

Our education system cannot enjoy its own immune system as long as the total social system is affected. Character that pertains to limited horizons seems to be an added qualification for the Sri Lankan politicians to join the legislature. Can people expect them to enact the laws of a country or to work for better future?


Returning to language issue and relating its link to the cause of terrorism can only manifest a kind of bankruptcy in the prevailing system. Time has come to end sentimental talks on the language issue as it could ignite the fire of the terrorist greed once again in this country.





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