Language Split
Language Split [Illustration by Anup Singh]
November 18: The English language is believed to have caused one of Sri Lanka’s leading political parties to split. How? Well, the party’s leader, being a member of the upper class, spoke in English during press conferences, a language his local language-speaking cadre or party members could not fathom. This double talk of the politician caused the party members to do a double take and they went ahead and split into two.

Does this sound like doublespeak to you? Like most former colonies of Britain after independence, Sri Lanka too took the decision to discard English and adopt the local language as the language of communication. English, in these countries became restricted to the elitist class that studied in expensive private schools.

But today, as the world adopts English as a universal common language to cross linguistic barriers, these countries are waking up to the necessity of teaching English to the masses.

Winds of change are blowing in Sri Lanka. The ‘Asian Age’ reports that bowing to growing public demand, especially from the business community, the present Sri Lankan government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, is going English, with a vengeance.

Sri Lanka is bringing back English language instruction after 45 years. Ms Kumaratunga has said that the government would first make English the medium of instruction in all government schools for students in the higher classes. This would be followed with English language instruction from grade six, by the year 2002. And by 2003, extend English teaching to all grades.

Of course, there are dissenting voices at the government’s move. Critics are saying that the scheme would result in amendments or changes to the country’s Constitution.

But R.P. Gunawardene, a top educational official pooh-pooh this idea. He says that “bringing back English as a medium of instruction is not a violation of the Constitution. By reintroducing English, the government feels it is giving students an optional medium to study, besides Sinhala and Tamil (the local languages in Sri Lanka).”

“English is a world language. You need it to continue higher studies in many areas like software….where employment opportunities are now growing,” he adds.

Some have gone so far as to blame Sri Lanka’s 20-year-old conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese to this decision to do away with English, taken way back in 1965.

Not having a third language to fall back upon during their dealings with each other, they feel, must have led to miscommunication and rancour. Critics of the policy to abolish English may be referring to this phenomenon though it is not known in what tongue they voice such opinions.