The politics of language, the language of politics

The Education Ministry’s statement that it was planning on providing English medium education to children from Grade One attracted mixed remarks from the public, and what those remarks imply is that most Sri Lankans are not adequately equipped to judiciously assess the role a language plays in a country’s future.

The world is evolving in such a way that it is nearly impossible for a country that aspires to prosper not be a part of it, and the English language, for better or for worse, has become the global language used in most of the international dealings, even though it is not in fact the most spoken language in certain countries including Sri Lanka. In such a context, it would be absurd to think that Sri Lanka, or any country for that matter, can be a part of mainstream global activities without sufficient English knowledge.

Education wise, giving more attention to learning and teaching the English language should not be opposed, for it opens doors for a countless number of sources of education and knowledge that are not locally available. What should be opposed is the decline of the two major national official languages, i.e. the Sinhala and Tamil languages, and merely making available more educational opportunities to learn in English does not necessarily subdue these two languages. It all depends on how we prioritise these languages, how well we design and handle a multi-language educational system, and most importantly how well we identify the role these languages play in the future of the country and the people.

Sri Lanka’s history bears witness to the fact that the failure to comprehend the said aspects of implementing a multi-language education system with more emphasis on the English language, led to nothing but dereliction. It is said that after declaring the Sinhala language as the national official language in 1956, late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike expressed confidence that the Sinhala language would become an international language and that even foreigners would have to learn the Sinhala language to deal with Sri Lankans.

However, what followed after the 1956 decision was a bitter consequence of attempting to blindly employ the development models of countries like Japan and Germany, which held their languages in high regard and also an integral part of their development and economies. Today, Japan, for example, has very little need of the English language because its economy depends on other countries’ economies to a very minimal level. Instead, a large number of other countries depend on Japanese products, technology, and knowledge. What it shows is, like today, back then too, Sri Lankan leaders tended to grasp only a fraction of a mammoth concept and believed that they were doing the right thing by integrating that small fraction in the country’s social and economic development. In the said case, Sri Lanka opted to prioritise the national official languages without understanding the role it plays in a country’s economy and development. Most importantly, Sri Lanka did not understand that the countries that gave the foremost place to their native languages did not abandon the English language or other most spoken languages in their region during the process of promoting their own languages. Instead, they created opportunities to simultaneously promote such lingua francas whenever it was necessary or more beneficial.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Government’s plan to provide education in the English language from Grade One, is essentially an acceptance of the truth that the approach Sri Lanka adopted to promote local languages was flawed and needs to be revisited.

After the Government’s plan was announced last week, many parties came forward in opposition to it, claiming that this could snatch the importance assigned to the two national official languages and local traditions. This mindset is what impedes the country’s materialistic and ideological growth. Promoting a foreign language is not what damages the native languages and traditions associated with those languages, but rather the narrow nationalistic agendas that nurture the “no other language or knowledge can be better than what Sri Lanka has inherited” notion.

Learning a foreign language is not an act that goes against a nation, forgetting a nation’s roots, and standing in the way of the country’s progress is. It is not the same thing. The large number of European Union countries that have not lost the importance assigned to their mother tongues despite English being a foremost language in the region, are good examples.