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Trilingual Sri Lanka necessary for better reconciliation

Trilingual Sri Lanka necessary for better reconciliation

2011 Feb 06

The need to convert Sri Lanka into a trilingual country to promote better reconciliation was stressed by Coordinator to the Presidential Task Force on English and IT, Sunimal Fernando when he testifying before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

Citing the findings of a survey titled ‘Socio-linguistic Survey of Sri Lanka’ conducted for the Public Survey and Research Unit of the Presidential Secretariat by an Independent Research Institute in August 2010, he said within the next 10 years Sri Lanka needs to be a trilingual country.

According to the finding, 76 percent of Sinhala people living in majority Sinhala-speaking provinces, 88 percent of Sinhala people living in majority Tamil-speaking provinces, 89 percent of Tamil people living in majority Sinhala speaking provinces, 94 percent of Tamil people living in majority Tamil-speaking provinces, 92 percent of Muslim people living in majority Sinhala speaking provinces and 96 percent of Muslim people living in majority Tamil-speaking provinces were strongly of the view that their children should be proficient in the other national languages as well.

As for the reasons for wanting their children to be proficient in the other national language, 88 - 92 percent of all respondents said it was to facilitate national integration, 75 - 93 percent said it was to enable the exchange of ideas across linguistic communities, and 73 - 96 percent said it was to enhance access to job opportunities.

As for the reasons for wanting their children to be proficient in English, 91 - 97 percent of all respondents said it was to enhance access to job opportunities, 96 - 98 percent said it was to enable better access to higher education, and 75 - 86 percent said it was for social status and prestige.

It is therefore an empirical fact supported by recent survey data contained in a comprehensive report containing 224 tables (submitted to the Commission) that a majority of people living in both majority Sinhala- speaking and majority Tamil-speaking areas and belonging to the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities are strongly urging for a trilingual Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, according to the same report, people cross ethnic and linguistic divides have stated emphatically that in addition to other benefits a trilingual Sri Lanka will promote national harmony and communication across the borders of language and ethnicity.

Against this depressing background of the failure of the State to respond to the language aspirations of the people as they find expression in the Socio-linguistic Survey of 2010, the only policy statement on a trilingual Sri Lanka in recent years was made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on February 14, 2009 when he launched the Year of English and IT. He stated as follows:

“When marching forward into the future as a single people, it is my view that the Sinhala and Tamil speaking people should engage with one another in each other’s language.

I therefore visualise for the future a bilingual Sri Lankan society.

Individual programs in this direction are already being implemented in the Ministries of Public Administration and Education with the facilitation of the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration”.

Though the President referred on that occasion to programs being implemented by the Ministries of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration (now known as the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration), Public Administration and Education, a closer look at these programs shows they have been largely inefficient, ineffective, lacking in drive and hence grossly disappointing in their impact on the country and the people. However, in pursuance of the undertaking he gave on that occasion, the President has directed the preparation of a 10-Year National Master Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka which he hopes to launch during the course of ten year.
The vision for a trilingual Sri Lanka

Within the next 10 years, Sri Lanka should progress into a trilingual nation, with the State consistently providing its citizens the education, infrastructure and resources to acquire skills in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to foster a society where a profound sense of assimilation and belongingness will take shape in people’s consciousness while experiencing a spirit of camaraderie and acceptance in the company of linguistically different groups in the entirety of the country with Sinhala, Tamil and English languages tearing down the fences of seclusion and remoteness, restored by solidarity and shared aims through a process of mass mobilisation, together with an expansion in prevailing knowledge in Sinhala, Tamil and English; infuse efficiency in employment and administration through the institution of a trilingual workforce in all sectors of the country to provide services effectively to the public, with emphasis on the development of Sinhala and Tamil as languages of intellectual discourse, debate, perception and discussion within the country on all subjects and the promotion of the English language as a life skill to access knowledge developed outside the country and increase employment opportunities among people of all ages, gender and social categories in the country, with the long-term objective of steering Sri Lanka towards economic development.

The Ten Year National Master Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka should provide equal opportunity to all Sri Lankans to acquire skills in Sinhala and Tamil as languages of discourse, debate and discussion with English as a life skill at levels appropriate for individual needs and aspirations by progressively developing state-of-the-art institutions and teaching methodologies and user-friendly learning material and curricula through partnerships, innovation and creativity with competent and trained resource persons and adequate wherewithal to realise the objectives of the national initiative, the success of which, will be evaluated against a set of indicators in order that sustainability could be ensured by means of modification, adoption and official sanctioning with the intention that the program will remain resilient and uninterrupted under consecutive administrations.

Among the goals of a 10-Year Master Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka are:The master plan should envisage developing Sinhala and Tamil as languages of discourse, debate and discussion along with English as a life skill and as an instrument of communication within and outside the country while serving broader aspirations of the people of Sri Lanka.

Develop Sinhala and Tamil languages for discourse on all aspects of modern knowledge and technology so as to enable the vast majority of people to participate in national discourse thereby help grow a vibrant, practising democracy.

Facilitate the development of relevant knowledge in all subjects, accessible in all forms of modern methods such as textbooks and other printed material, through the means of radio, television, CDs, DVDs and IT-based systems that will ultimately be useful in achieving social and economic mobility and empowerment.

The main thrust of the Master Plan should be to steer the program in a spirit of equity and neutrality, an absolute deviation from earlier divisive policies and strategies that did not yield anything substantive to be effectively and profitably utilised by successive generations, so that Sinhala, Tamil and English will be common languages used widely in all fora of intellectual discourse, debate and discussion and unreservedly and commonly used in speech and writing in the service and business sectors of the country’s public and private enterprises.

The National Master Plan primed with a broad vision for every citizen of the country, should focus intensely on the school system and the growing generation of children to make a discernible change as adults through proficiency and skill in all three languages, so that they will be the dynamic and influential forces to drive out the exclusiveness that has been erroneously built around different languages, which has trickled down to the very people that speak the particular language, thereby impeding the process of fostering shared values and aspirations as one people for the good of the country.

Current methods of teaching second languages in schools should be systematically altered to usher in a culture of language learning that will be considered in the light of knowledge and accomplishment and not as an onerous task.

The master plan should be implemented in three phases

Phase I: Inception/Pilot (1-3 years)

Phase II: Expansion (4-7 years)

Phase III: Consolidation (8-10 years)
The objectives

Generate a national momentum in the country to encourage the acquisition of trilingual skills and competences by all sections of the country as a major step towards national integration and harmony, accompanied by a drive to dispel language prejudices to establish a culture of language learning.

Revisit all Sinhala, Tamil and English language courses designed and conducted for non-native speakers in all ministries and institutions, including syllabi, curricula, textbooks and teacher guides with a view to restructure them in keeping with cutting edge developments in second language teaching in the South Asian region, especially in neighbouring India, while placing emphasis on the generation of listening and speaking skills, and the progressive incorporation of IT tools and online e-learning tools where appropriate.

The reorganisation and modernisation of language courses will be accompanied by reforms in the system of assessment and examination in the school system and all other institutions established to teach languages to special categories of learners.

Integrate the language training courses conducted by the different Ministries, departments and institutions to warrant coordination and collaboration, prevent duplication and ensure teaching strategies, curricula, syllabi and material used by Government institutions follow a single uniform pattern. All language training courses spearheaded by non-State sector institutions will be streamlined in accordance with the requirements of the trilingual initiative, so that relevant skills and infrastructure developed by the Government will be made available to the non-state sector, enabling trilingual skills to be passed on to the private sector, professional and technical groups and the public.

Modernise the process of language acquisition by accessing expertise from South Asia, especially from neighbouring India to introduce state-of-the-art language teaching techniques, tools and materials including e-learning and IT-based tools and distance learning to teach Sinhala, Tamil and English languages to non-native speakers in the Sri Lankan school system, universities, vocational training institutes, the public service, the private sector and the public at levels appropriate to each of the categories of learners as would be determined through teaching and learning experiences.

Decentralise the implementation of the trilingual initiative to the provinces and regions through provincial and regional language training centres with state-of-the-art language teaching equipment, technology and resource persons.

Build up required infrastructure to develop and produce material that will allow the expansion of the corpus of languages pertaining to varied subjects ranging from the natural sciences to the social sciences and more, in an effort to contribute to the attainment of knowledge in any of the three languages.

Develop an institutional structure, so that there is national momentum for a trilingual Sri Lanka on the one hand, complemented by programs and activities of the different ministries and government institutions to achieve the objectives of the Presidential initiative, which will be implemented, further developed and sustained overtime in a manner in which, the country would not only be self-reliant in the development of second language teaching strategies, methods and tools, but will also be able, hopefully, to make a contribution in such fields to the global fund of knowledge and experience by developing the following institutional structures such as : Language Authority of Sri Lanka, National Authority for Language Research and Training, National Centre for Language Training, Sri Lanka-India Centre for English Language Training, Provincial Centres for Language Training.

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