(Post)Colonial Language: English, Sinhala, and Tamil in Sri Lanka

Barton M. Saunders ã2007

1.1 Introduction: Decolonization and Language in Sri Lanka

            Over 19.4 million people call Sri Lanka home,[1] but they do not all do so in the same language. A rich mixture of Moors/Muslims, Burghers/Eurasians, Veddahs,[2] and Malays live on the island, in addition to its two main peoples—the Sinhalese majority, who speak Sinhala, and the Tamil minority, who speaks Tamil.[3] Although both these languages currently hold official status in the country, English has often served as the lingua franca on the island and is typically the language of choice in contemporary governmental policies and practices (McArthur 329). As is the case for other former British colonial subjects, however, the use of English for Sri Lankans is far from uncomplicated.

            Leading up to the country’s independence in February of 1948, the high standing afforded English came increasingly under attack as Sri Lankans gained political voice and asserted that the colonial language excluded many native peoples from social opportunities and advancement and, moreover, was inadequate for the project of nation building (Perera 66; 22). The indigenous languages of the country’s majority and minority populations, Sinhala and Tamil respectively, were reintroduced as official languages, but after the country’s independence, these policies altered further, most notably with the 1956 Language Act that established Sinhala Only as the nation’s official language. Sinhala held this position until 1978 when a legislative amendment reversed the 1956 Act and once again acknowledged Tamil as an official language. In the 1990s when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) established a de facto state in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, it too declared an official language policy, this one of Tamil Only. To be sure, both acts participate in a process of decolonization, specifically through the active opposition to colonial language and the reassertion of native languages in planning and policy as part of the project to establish independent national identities. But they also strike against each other, aiming to deny parity—legally and socially—between the country’s residents of differing ethnicities and social positions. In striking against the colonizer, then, each makes an exclusive ethnic assertion to independent national identity.

1.2 Postcolonial English(es)

Simultaneously, the globalization of commerce and culture along with the competing assertions of political rights by the country’s ethnic communities increasingly insist English—along with Sinhala and Tamil—play a prominent role in the country. Exactly what role English—and indeed what English—will play, however, remains under debate. J. B. Disanayaka, for instance, has classified four linguistic varieties currently in use: Standard English, Sri Lankan English, Sinenglish, and Singirisi. Jennifer Jenkins makes passing reference to one of these, Sri Lankan English, as playing a “wide range of local functions both public and private,” but concedes that the government has recently been promoting English in its standard form as a neutral link language between the island’s ethnic groups (40). In 2002 Michael Mayler presented his intentions to codify Sri Lankan English in a dictionary; however, such a work has yet to be published. The most thorough study of Sinenglish—Sinenglish: A De-hegemonized Variety of English in Sri Lanka by Wimal Wickramasinghe—is self-published.

            While efforts move forward to establish, legitimize, and codify various Englishes in the country, the socio-political and economic opportunities that Standard English provides are not lost to the Sinhalese or Tamils. In fact, the target English appears to remain its standard form for a majority of the country’s residents. With the private sector economy expanding exponentially since opening to foreign investment in 1977, English superseded university degrees to become the prime qualification for financially attractive positions. Consequently, first language speakers of English and those who received private English education secured privileged positions in multinational corporations and banks, for instance. For all its users and uses, then, English in Sri Lanka is incredibly politically charged. Unable to remove its colonial past, present domestic political tensions, or international pressures, the use of English in Sri Lanka is far from straightforward. This article aims to unpack these complicated interrelations by rehearsing the colonial heritage of English in Sri Lanka before detailing policies and practices concerning vernacular[4] languages and English in postcolonial Sri Lanka.

2.1 Colonial English in Sri Lanka

As a site of colonization, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the English, Sri Lanka has had successive involvement with three European nations. The English language, however, has had an unparalleled impact on the island because previous colonial powers were uninterested in disseminating their culture beyond proselytization to the native population. Under the Treaty of Amiens, a British civil administration succeeded Dutch control of the island and Ceylon[5] was declared a British Crown colony in 1802. In yoking what had previously been three separate kingdoms together into this colony, the British also established English as a language of high status and rule on the island.

2.2 Colonial English Education Practices and Objectives

            Attempting to anglicize the indigenous population, Christian missionaries established English language schools. While these missionaries believed instruction in English would help “civilize” the population, they also recognized the importance of disseminating English for administrative purposes and as a language of enlightenment ideals. Furthermore, they believed promotion of the language would further strengthen English interests in the colony by cultivating a bilingual elite capable of serving as intermediaries between the British and native population. In his 1803 Account of the Island of Ceylon, British missionary Robert Percival wrote that a “zealous effort on the part of our government to introduce our learning and religion among the natives is the surest means of improving and consolidating our empire in the island” (qtd. in Dharmasadasa 28). While Portuguese initially remained in use, particularly in the maritime trading provinces,[6] educational and governmental policies worked to secure English’s position as the state language in the colony, displacing Dutch and the vernaculars of Sinhala and Tamil.

            Missionaries retained control of most English educational institutions in the country until 1831. These schools conducted instruction bilingually, while a few private schools for the social elite providing instruction solely in English. The succession of missionary control of these schools to localized government powers occurred following proposals made by the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission. Although the commission’s purpose was ostensibly focused on economic reforms, its recommendations extended to language planning as well. According to the report, government administration should be centralized in the colony and English ought to be used as its official working language. Additionally, the report recommended that English be the primary medium of education in secondary school and university and that government positions be open to indigenous people who had received such education and could demonstrated proficiency in English.

            With the objective of cultivating a native class fluent in English and instilled with western culture, new English schools were established in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle. The pedagogical practices of these institutions were highly influential in other secondary schools and universities. When acclaimed writer Ediriwira Sarachchandra attended school in the early 1900s, for instance, he reports that students would receive a monetary fine for speaking Tamil or Sinhala in class. At Royal College, the premier government school he later attended, all awards of recognition were based on traditionally western scholarship: the Governor-General’s Prize for Western Classics, the Stubbs’ Prize for Latin Prose, the Shakespeare Prize, and the Prize for the English Essay (Goonetilleke 338).

2.3 Advantages of Colonial English for Sri Lankans

            Sri Lankans had great incentive to use English. Prior to the colonial period, one’s occupation was determined by his caste and changing social position was tremendously difficult.[7] But the economy changed with the opening up of plantations, and non-traditional employment became more common with the “establishment of a modern bureaucracy together with the expansion of secular education” (Fernando, “English” 190). Along with these changes, English became the language of government administration, law, advanced secular education, and commerce. The use of Sinhala or Tamil in these domains was frowned upon, even if it occurred between native speakers of the language (Perera 57).

            The study of English, therefore, offered considerable material advantages for Sri Lankans. Since speaking it allowed them to move away from hereditary caste-based systems and to establish themselves in more prestigious occupations based on education, non-Europeans of the island’s multiracial population began adopting it in addition to their first languages. English was a passport to high paying, privileged careers, and soon a localized professional class emerged through the English education system. For a relatively small, anglicized upper class, English was used from infancy onward for most purposes. For them, Sinhala and Tamil were reserved for communicating with elders, servants, monks, and others whose language learning and use was restricted to a vernacular. In contrast, lower-middle to lower class Sri Lankans would not learn English until later, if at all, and most commonly used a vernacular. Speakers of either Sinhala or Tamil exclusively found themselves excluded from social mobility.

2.4 Restricting Access to Colonial English

            Yet as D. Goonetilleke notes, it would be a fallacious assumption to take English’s privileged position during colonial rule in Sri Lanka to mean that English education was either democratic or comprehensive, particularly in rural areas. “The colonial education system,” he states, “was neither a mass system of education nor was it egalitarian; it was meant to provide the colonial masters with native personnel to man the intermediate rungs in the ladder of employment both in government and in private enterprises undertaken by Europeans, the superior posts being reserved for the ruling race” (340). Local language schools established under Dutch colonial rulers were maintained and expanded by the British. The primary difference in the curricula of these schools was the use of a vernacular language rather than English as the mode of instruction.

            Because Sri Lanka’s economic development during the colonial period depended heavily on a large agrarian labor force—88% of its population at the time was agrarian (Brutt-Griffler 214)—many colonial administrators believed that access to the social mobility English education afforded must be restricted. A 1906 colonial education commission argued that providing English education was neither suitable nor desirable for all Sri Lankans since it would lead them to desire a life other than that of agrarian labor. A year earlier, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo claimed that teaching English in small towns was disruptive, leading students to challenge their social position and rebuke their paternal trade. Such positions were not new. The governor of Sri Lanka had roundly dismissed comprehensive English education in 1889, stating that it would create “a generation of half-educated idlers who deem that a little pigeon-English places them above honest work” (qtd. in Brutt-Griffler 214). For rural youths, even rudimentary English education would have disastrous effects, colonial administrators reasoned, because it would lead to expectations of employment in areas other than manual labor. If English education provided social mobility for some, colonial administrators made sure to structure educational language policy so that it would not do so for all.

            By the late nineteenth century, most Sri Lankan students were taught in vernacular schools that exclusively used either Sinhala or Tamil. While approximately 4000 vernacular schools were in operation during the colonial period, at its largest number only 255 English schools existed (Brutt-Griffler 216). Instruction in English came to be reserved for advanced secondary and tertiary schools, whereas primary education was conducted in vernaculars. According to Doric de Souza, the result was that only a small minority of school children was ever taught in English schools:

[I]n 1914, at the height of the colonial era, only 37,500 pupils attended English schools, while 347,500 were registered in ‘vernacular schools.’ In 1931, when universal franchise came in, there were 84,000 pupils in English schools while 476,000 went to vernacular schools. On the eve of independence, some 180,000 pupils were found in English schools, while 720,000 attended vernacular schools. (qtd. in Goonetilleke 340)

The disparity in attendance is due, in part, to limited resources. With only a limited number of qualified teachers, positions teaching English tended to be located in urban centers. More frequently, economic resources limited potential students. Whereas vernacular education was provided for free, English school required tuition most could not afford.

2.5 Education Standards and Language Planning in English and Vernacular Schools

            The difference between these schools was not only one of language. The curriculum of English schools included standards and examinations for every grade level through high school, but vernacular school standards stopped at the fifth level. Janina Brutt-Griffler estimates that 80 to 90% of students attended vernacular schools over the last fifty to sixty years of the colonial period, speculating that most did not even complete fifth year examinations. One might assume 10 to 20% of school-aged children[8] conversely attended English schools. As Brutt-Griffler notes, however, such a conclusion is unwarranted, for a majority of school-aged children were not enrolled in schools at all. In fact, overall attendance figures never exceeded 50% and were substantially less in rural areas. In 1904, for instance, the eastern rural province of Uva had only 11.5% of its school-aged children under instruction in comparison to 63.8% in the western province where Colombo is located (Brutt-Griffler 216-17). Thus, education—in English or a vernacular—was not equally available to all Sri Lankans. By establishing an educational system that divided Sri Lankans by language and along urban and rural lines, colonial administrators hoped to maintain a large manual labor class for colonial plantation production.

            As Sri Lankans gained political voice in the 1930s, a policy of bilingualism in education became official. This policy is somewhat deceptive, however, as bilingualism in this context differs from bilingual education systems in which languages equally participate in a shared curriculum. Instead, this system tended to work in one of two ways. Either full instruction would take place in a vernacular with English treated as a single subject taught through that vernacular, or, more frequently, vernaculars continued to be used as singular mediums of instruction in primary school (with each being employed separately) and the teaching of English often remained reserved for upper grades, typically eighth and higher. Furthermore, schoolmasters held discretion in how English would be introduced and were mandated to hold subject matter as more important than the medium of instruction. Consequently, Sinhala and Tamil education created distinctly separate tracks.[9] For instance, economic and social pressures for those living in rural areas, especially Tamils as previously noted, meant that they seldom remained in school long enough to begin instruction in English. The divergence is a striking one of which Sri Lankans along with their government were quite aware, as this excerpt from Primary and Secondary Education, section (b) attests:

                        Applications are still being made by parents of Tamil children in Sinhalese areas and by the parents of both Sinhalese and Tamil children who have adopted English as their mother-tongue, for permission for their children to join the English classes in schools. The chief grounds for these applications are that parents should have a free choice in the matter and that this “freedom” is enjoyed by sections of the community […] Although it is difficult not to sympathize with such applications, code rules are clear and do not permit exceptions. (qtd. in Perera 63)

Language planning in the schools, then, continued to ensure differing privileges not only for different language speakers and their respective ethnicities but also for differing classes and differing regions.

3.1 Language and Nationalism

            In postcolonial countries, the equation between language, identity, and nation is particularly striking. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the colonial English tongue was synonymous with Western imperialism and, thus, the repression of indigenous expressions of identity. Given the series of colonial entities that exercised power in the country since the sixteenth century, it is not surprising that Sri Lankans have taken up language as a core factor in the negotiation of their relatively nascent nationalism. The issue is further complicated in Sri Lanka by its connections to ethnicity in the country, which, according to Ranmalee Perera, has come to use “language as its prime identifier. Therefore, language identity is the basis by which ethnic identity and primordial loyalties are determined” (12). The ongoing ethnic civil war, then, might better be described as an ethno-linguistic conflict, one rife with exclusionary language policies that have historically denied parity—legally and socially—between the country’s residents of differing ethnicities and social positions.

            As John Joseph notes in his study Language and Identity, the importance of language in national identity has recently become a prevalent theme in scholarly work. While several prominent histories and sociologists have figured national language as the foundation of nationalist ideologies, others have noted the work of linguistic historians and countered that nationalist languages are themselves constructed in the ideological work of nationalism. Beginning with Dante Alighieri’s quest for an appropriate language in which to compose Divina Commedia, Joseph’s study traces several attempts to imagine nations through language, arguing that both concepts—nation and language—hold an imagined constitutive force. Nationalist languages and identities, he concludes, arise imaginatively and in tandem through complex, ever shifting processes (124). This is not to say that there is no “realness” to such claims. When a sufficient number of people subscribe to an imagined identity through language, nation, ethnicity, or so on, the critical mass reifies the concept, that is to say, it becomes “as real as any signified can be, given that they are concepts or categories rather than actual physical objects” (Joseph 106). These theories take on particular resonance in Sri Lanka’s postcolonial context, wherein interventionist constructions of national identity through language compete against each other as well as in direct opposition to the former imaginations of identity colonial powers foisted upon the colony.

3.2 Rise of Nationalism and Local Governance

            In the late nineteenth century, interest in the country’s ancient civilization surged when ancient Buddhists texts were rediscovered. Archeological excavations began at sites such as the sacred city of Anuradhapura, whose palaces and monuments had lain hidden beneath dense jungle. Finds such as these contributed to a resurgence of nationalism, and reformers began to call for constitutional reform in the closing years of that century. Sri Lankans petitioned to gain representation on the colonial Executive Council and expanded representation in the Legislative council. In 1910, the British met their petition with “a modest experiment” that permitted a local electorate to send one of its members to the Legislative Council (“Sri Lanka”). This successful bid for increased local governance lead to more political reforms over the next twenty years, culminating in the adoption of the Donoughmore Constitution in 1931.

3.3 Universal Franchise and Language Policies

            The Donoughmore Constitution granted universal adult franchise to Sri Lanka. The British continued their control of crucial areas of government such as finance and law enforcements and maintained the power to veto legislation, but the internal government, which comprised a much larger area, was transferred to Sri Lankans. Of the fifty-eight seats in the State Council, Sinhalese members held thirty-eight in 1931, a percentage closely reflecting its proportion of the island’s population. To mobilize the newly franchised adults, these politicians found themselves invoking primordial loyalties as the most reliable political appeal. To this end, they attempted to gain voter support by calling on issues of religion, immigration, and language, the last of which, according to Dharmasadasa, became the most “powerful factor” in mobilizing the voting public, “the symbol of all other ethnic symbols” (245). Over the next twelve years, four language policy enactments were put forth and ratified by the government. The first, which took place in March 1932, opened council debates to be conducted in vernacular languages of Sinhala and Tamil. Four months later, this resolution was complemented by a second that required administrative personnel hired by the government after adult franchise to demonstrate vernacular proficiency. A third resolution in 1936 opened the administration of the justice system, like the council debates, to be carried out in Sinhala or Tamil.

4.1 Toward Sinhala as an Official State Language

            The language policies enactments put forth to this point had attempted to balance the interests of the Sinhalese and Tamils. However, equitable framing between the languages of these two communities shifted with the fourth proposal in 1943. The Sinhalese, K. Dharmasadasa states, were an “uneasy majority” (246). They saw their low economic status, particularly in comparison to non-native Europeans and Tamils, as undermining their relatively high sociohistorical status. Although they invoked a historical right to rule the island as its native majority, they remained aware that their majority was contained by the limits of the island. The adjoining subcontinent of India lingered in their minds as a potential extension of the Tamils’ political power. Furthermore, they were aware that Sinhala was not a language of high prospects for socioeconomic mobility (Dharmasadasa 246). In 1943 a language policy resolution was put forth to begin addressing these concerns by making Sinhala the official state language. Although a concession was later reached that recognized Tamil as well as Sinhala as an official language of the colony, this resolution was unquestionably marked by exclusive ethnolinguistic group interests.

4.2 Toward Sinhala as the Official State Language

            After Sri Lanka’s colonial independence in 1948, concessions between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil receded, as they no longer needed to present a unified front toward independence. The Sinhalese became increasingly wary of securing their position. They began to rehearse the official language debate again, and this debate took on a potent political role in the election of 1956. Dharmasadasa contends that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and his Mahajana Eksath Persmuna party were voted into power in that election because their position on this issue: Sinhala Only. Two months after taking power, the Sinhalese-dominated government led by Bandaranaike began working on instituting this policy in the Official Language Act of 1956. Notably, the Act removed English from official status in the country. Given that language planning and educational policy often aim at direct intervention and re-evaluation of language resources and functions, this decision, at first, appears to be a good one for the development of national identity in a postcolonial context. But as the platform of Sinhala Only that led to this reform suggests, the national identity manifested in this Act excluded Tamil. Speaking in support of the Act during debates, parliament member R. M. P. Rajaratne stated that the Act would restore the Sinhalese as rightful inheritors to what had been taken away from them during colonial rule.

            Arguments in support of the Act tended to center on three main points. The first is common in language debates: the use of a single language for official purposes is more efficient and economic. Since more than two-thirds of the island’s population used it as its first language, they reasoned, Sinhala should be awarded official status as that single official language. The second reason spoke more directly to the country’s nationalism. Whereas Tamil originates in southern India, Sinhala is a language distinct to Sri Lanka. Therefore, Sinhalese parliament members argued that giving equal status to a “foreign” language, whether English or Tamil, would work against the recovery of Sri Lanka’s national identity. Lastly, these same parliament members claimed that permitting Tamil official status could have dire consequences. Despite Tamil being the first language of a relative minority in Sri Lanka, they believed that recognized official status along with its vast number of speakers in neighboring India would enable Tamil to rise in prominence until the language and its users dominated the Sinhalese.

4.3 Sinhala Only Becomes National Policy

            Implicit in these arguments was that language reforms would assist the Sinhalese in the creating an advantageous social position. Tamil protest was repressed by armed forces (Canagarajah, “Dilemmas” 423), and with a groundswell of nationalism, the Act passed by overwhelming majority. Sinhala became the sole official language and began displacing English from prominence in government and, gradually, as a medium of education in secondary schools and universities.[10] Public servants appointed after the Act passed were required to demonstrate proficiency in Sinhala. Standardized Sinhalese tests and district quota systems became part of university admission procedures. Student enrollment among the Sinhalese consequently increased, while the number of Tamil students was cut nearly in half.

            These changes escalated tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils, and two legislative acts were put forth in 1957 and 1958 that tried to alleviate the situation by affording Tamil regionally limited official status. Although each resolution was passed, neither was fully implemented. To be sure, Bandaranaike did not see parity as a prime concern, at least not between the country’s indigenous languages. “The parity of status for Tamil and Sinhalese,” he claimed, “could not be the solution to Ceylon’s language problem […] The official language is Sinhala all over the country, but Tamil now […], too, is recognized as a regional language of a national minority” (qtd. in Perera 51). Sinhala, in other words, was the country’s language although Bandaranaike will allow for a regional deviation. Such positions have lead some, like Perera, to charge that initial language policies after independence not only served to develop national identity in a nascent postcolonial state but also instituted the neo-colonial mentalities of local elites. Sinhala Only aimed to secure a dominant socioeconomic position for the Sinhalese.

4.4 The Continued Value of English

            Moreover, it proved difficult to dislodge English as the language of commerce, higher education, technology, science, and so on, and so it continued to hold social, cultural, and economic value throughout the period of these language policy enactments. “In this sense,” A. Suresh Canagarajah argues, “English was still the official working language in many institutional domains” (“Dilemmas” 423). Those already of higher social standing, more frequently Sinhalese than Tamil, continued to have access to English education both through higher levels of state and private education, and thereby continued to hold exclusive positions of social prestige. By the time the 1978 constitution brought virtual parity to Tamil, these differences had escalated to violence between the Sinhalese and Tamils.

5.1 Tamil Only Becomes Regional Policy

When the LTTE effectively established a separate state in the northern and eastern provinces of the island in 1990, it declared a Tamil Only language policy with the intention of increasing the socioeconomic status of the monolinguals in the territories. The policy was not only a direct reaction to Sinhala Only legislation; it also took aim at the elite bilingual Tamils. The LTTE claimed they were ineffectual negotiators in parliament who were more concerned with preserving their own privileged positions that advancing the rights of Tamil speakers. Multilingual policies were little better, the LTTE position held, because they too excluded monolingual Tamils from social mobility by effectively preserving the class and caste advantages of bilingual speakers. Perhaps most importantly, adopting a Tamil Only position served as a claim for the LTTE holding a purer Tamil identity than the bilingual Tamil representatives in the parliament. The LTTE’s governance, the policy implicitly suggested, would be more faithful to that identity.

5.2 Enforcing Tamil Only

            Lacking an official statutory body, the LTTE relied on military decrees to enact this policy. The implementation was relatively successful, for as Canagarajah notes of Jaffna, “the most casual pronouncements of the military leaders pass for law” in the provinces (“Dilemmas” 425). Military officials made public declarations in which they argued for the importance of using Tamil publicly and privately. Regional Tamil newspapers printed pronouncements regarding the replacement of loan words in the language. A hotel was now to be referred to as an uNavakam, for example, while factory changed to Lilakam and ice cream to kuLirkaLi (Canagarajah, “Dilemmas” 425). The LTTE was able to promote and enforce this policy through the provinces’ civil institutions and political infrastructure. Law courts, village councils, and the police, for instance, would all decline applications and/or petitions not submitted in what they deemed pure Tamil. Canagarajah provides a particularly striking example of enforcement in a verbal exchange between a pass office representative and a woman applying to travel out of the Tamil-controlled provinces:

Officer: appa koLumpukku een pooriinkaL?

So why are you traveling to Colombo?

Woman: makaLinTai wedding-ikku pooren.

I am going for my daughter’s “wedding.”

Officer: enna? unkaLukku tamiL teriyaataa? England-ilai iruntaa vantaniinkal?

What? Don’t you know Tamil? Have you come here from “England”?

Officer: enkai pooriinkaL?

Where are you going?

woman: cari, cari, kaLiyaaNa viiTTukku pooren, makan.

Okay, okay, I am going to a wedding, son. (426)

The officer is not concerned with the purpose of her application as much as the manner in which it is presented. Knowing her application may be denied because she has not presented herself using Tamil only, the women quickly replaces the word with a Tamil one.

            The LTTE’s ability to police its policy was further assisted by Sinhalese sanctions against Tamil controlled provinces. By cutting off communication from outside the region, the Sinhalese also provided the LTTE regime the means of conducting pervasive media operations in Tamil. In the eastern and northern provinces, Tamil came to function as a symbolic and statutory language, and its use as a working language in other domains continues to grow since the Tamil Only policy took effect. University statutory bodies now conduct meetings in Tamil, as do professional institutions. More and more, interviews and selection tests for jobs are also conducted in Tamil (Canagarajah, “Dilemmas” 426). Such practices provide inhabitants of the provinces with personal and socioeconomic incentive not only to learn but also to maintain Tamil actively.

5.3 The Continued Value of English (Revisited)

            In actual practice, however, these policies have not led to the exclusive use of Tamil in the eastern and northern provinces. When the LTTE established control and declared an official policy of Tamil Only, it created a vacuum in the planning of English education but not the desire for it. Western organizations such as the British Council immediately began influencing the pedagogy of private English instruction in the area, as they traditionally had in Sinhala-dominated areas (Canagarajah, “Dilemmas” 427), and attendance in such private programs has soared. Tamils have actively resisted exclusionary language policies as well by engaging in frequent code switching, using English mostly within a Tamil syntactical frame. Paradoxically, English has become a discourse that evokes “cultural pluralism and internationalism that assumes anti-totalitarian and anti-chauvinistic ideological interests against dominate separatism. English thus helps keep alive multicultural discourses in the periphery and helps resist the monocultural / monolinguistic tendencies of local regimes” (Canagarajah, “Negotiation” 128). Even the LTTE military regime’s language practices are not as inflexible as they might seem. Canagarajah notes, for instance, that the LTTE often screens traditional Western films in English, thinking such movies will develop a fighting spirit in its troops (“Negotiation” 129).

6.1 Re-evaluating English

Vernaculars, then, have not always been equitably adopted in the country as the Sinhalese and Tamils wage competing claims to nationalist identity. At the same time, notions of an autonomous, homogeneous nation-state are more and more difficult to sustain. Along with competing assertions of political rights by the country’s ethnic communities, Sri Lankans find themselves facing the communicative demands of commerce and culture in an age of globalization (Canagarajah, “Dilemmas” 419). Cultural values have shifted on the island, Chitra Fernando asserts, from paradigms of religion and metaphysics to those of science and technology. This switch, she says, is most patent in the value Sri Lankans now ascribed to English. According to Fernando, the majority of Sri Lankans believe that the status of English “as a world language makes it the best vehicle for access to knowledge, as well as the most suitable medium for contributing to international research” (“Ideation” 209).

            The recent government decision to reintroduce English as a medium of instruction (1998) might be seen as an attempt to negotiate the tension between these positions. As a subject, English is now compulsory from the first year of school, and in 1999 it was made a compulsory subject for Advance Level finals which determine where one will be admitted to university or not (Wijesinha). Exactly how this policy will play out, however, remains to be seen. When the first students sat the Advance Level English exam in 2001, the government altered its position, stating that the exam was recommended but not compulsory and students’ performance on it would not determine whether or not they would be granted university admission. This backtracking is a partial acknowledgement that not enough qualified teachers have been trained to teach English well enough for students to pass these exams. Furthermore, since the majority of those who are qualified teach in urban areas, maintaining the exam as an admissions requirement would effectively exclude most rural students. It will take years to train the teachers necessary to offer English instruction to students of all grade levels and in all areas (Lloyd A49). More importantly, the variety of English to be taught remains under debate.

6.2 Evaluating Englishes

            Arjuna Parakrama characterizes de Souza as presenting the conventional argument that advocates a British standard and distinguished between spoken and written forms as early as 1977. “If I am asked what kind of English […] need[s] to be taught,” de Souza writes,

I should answer that it is ‘utilitarian’ English. This includes the idiom of academic exposition and of formal correspondence and a certain amount of colloquial English, also of a formal rather than intimate character. […]

            Here we must distinguish between the standards of written English (of a utilitarian character as defined above) and spoken English. Standards of English in utilitarian written English are uniform and universal—I ignore small variants in orthography, grammar, syntax and vocabulary that occur with American English, because generally speaking, a formal letter or work of academic exposition can be read without difficulty by people anywhere in the English speaking world. We should enforce the standards of written English without permitting any local variants […]. Spoken English is another matter. Our English speaking élite in Sri Lanka have evolved their own pronunciation that differs on one side from the British or American English and from local ‘sub-standard’ English. The distribution of phonemes […], the phonetics and phonology of our pronunciation, unaspirated initial p, t, k, a, clearly variant w etc and features of intonation distinguish standard Ceylon English, and this kind of English pronunciation should be taught in schools. (qtd. in Parakrama 179-80)

Against this position is Parakrama’s own. In De-Hegemonizing Language Standards: Learning from (Post)Colonial Englishes about ‘English,’ he estimates that less than one percent of Sri Lanka’s inhabitants speak only English. The majority of users (approximately 12%), then, is bilingual and uses variant forms of English influenced by its native languages and social circumstances. Consequently, Parakrama aims to create a broader standard for Lankan English that accounts for these variants, particularly among its non-educated native users. Such variations, he argues, are proactive misuses that creatively engage with and open up Standard English (84-85). Disanayaka has classified three linguistic varieties of English currently in use in addition to Standard English: Sri Lankan English, Sinenglish, and Singirisi. Thiru Kandiah has argued that deletion in Lankan English, though not a unique language feature, has particular implications because the specific truncated utterances in it reveal an “explicit or implicit assumption of some kind of abstract underlying structure for each actual ‘reduced’ utterance” (107). Michael Mayler presented his intentions to codify Sri Lankan English in a dictionary at the Sri Lanka English Language Teachers’ Association in 2002. All of these instances attempt to promote varieties on the island as legitimate, de-hegemonized Englishes. At the International Conference on Sri Lanka Studies in 2003, E. A. Gamini Fonseka, dismissed these positions as validations of substandard Englishes and argued instead that the country should adopt a program of Standard English education. As these positions suggest, the standards and models of English in Sri Lanka remain under debate.

            Terms such as Sri Lankan English and Sinenglish, for instance, are recent constructs that must be established before their norms can be codified in dictionaries or grammars. Wickramasinghe explains this process in the introduction to his self-published 2002 study. His goal, firstly, is to define Sinenglish. The study is not a grammar or dictionary but rather an attempt at describing some of the acceptable norms governing what has come to be called good grammar or good English in a Sri Lankan context, one whose variants he qualifies, like de Souza, as chiefly spoken. While he explores the colloquialisms, idioms, various switches, and calques that inflect this variety of English, and thereby de-hegemonize Standard English, he is insistent that his study is original, that nothing has been codified as of yet.

            Fonseka relates a more cynical view of the attempt to codify English varieties in a discussion of his undergraduate experiences at the University of Kelaniya where he was instructed in Sri Lanka English in the early 1980s. He characterizes the instruction as a disconnected enumeration of anomalies rather than a coherent grammar of a separate variety of English. Although certainly shaped to meet his purposes, Fonseka offers the following brief summary of Sri Lankan English’s norms as presented to him at the university:

the use of “no” instead of the question tag; misconceptions such as “bungalow” for a two- or three-storied villa and “hotel” for a restaurant; Sinhala botanical names such as bandakka and wätökolu; Sinhala traditional food names such as päniwalölu and käwum; Sinhala agricultural and geographical names such as deniyö and päälö; Sinhala cultural names such as peröhärö and daagäbö; peculiarities in pronouncing words such as “garage,” “auntie,” and “school”; peculiarities in producing sounds such as /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/, /ð/, and /q/; and the use of hackneyed idioms such as “it is raining cats and dogs” or “once in a blue moon.” (5)

Far from describing the English use of the average Sri Lankan, Fonseka contends, the list serves the political purpose of legitimizing deviations from Standard English as part of a decolonizing process. Such examples, he argues, signal a lack of proficiency more than an active resistance to a colonial language. Furthermore, the goal of legitimizing such variations undermines the empowerment (access to professional standing, trade, government and diplomacy, and so on) that accompanies the acquisition of Standard English domestically and internationally (7).

7.1 Conclusion

A three-language policy has recently been proposed that would restore English to an official national role and serve as a neutral link language between the Sinhalese and Tamils. As Jennifer Jenkins notes, however, “this policy may not succeed because of differences in orientation towards the learning and use of English across the two ethnic groups” (40). Part of the difficulty in instituting English as a neutral link language can be attributed to its lingering connections to colonial education systems. More specifically problematic, however, is its function as a capital language associated with social prestige and the ruling elite in the nation’s capital Colombo. The farther one travels outside of the country’s major metropolises, the more English use diminishes. A professor of political science at the University of Colombo, Jayadera Uyangoda claims, “There is a fear of the language, a cultural and social barrier. English has always been a class weapon used by the Colombo elite” (qtd. in Lloyd A49). Although intended to decolonize knowledge in the country—English had been called kadua, Sinhala for the sword—the manner in which its official status was challenged divided, rather than unified, Sri Lankans.

            The education system provides a striking example of this growing divide. Public schools ceased instruction in English, using Sinhala or Tamil instead, while private schools, accessible primarily to the wealthy social elite, continued English instruction. Similarly, state run universities offered courses only in Sinhala or Tamil. Simultaneously, English came to be the prime qualification for socially and financially attractive positions. However, those not already in relatively high socioeconomic positions could not afford tuition toward English education that would, in turn, provide social mobility. Although English once again assumed an educational function with a reversal of policy in 1998, it will take many years to train the number of teachers needed for all levels of education, and currently it is only used as the medium of instruction in elementary and honors-level high school courses (Lloyd A49).

            For Sri Lankans, language planning and English’s place within it has been extremely politically charged. Unable to erase its colonial past or the present political tensions to which its uses and abuses have given rise, the history and current functions of English in Sri Lanka are complex despite its lack of status as an official language. It is a national working language, a medium for international diplomacy and trade, a potential linking language across the country’s diverse ethnic population, a tongue of religious practice, a marker of capital prestige, and—once again—a medium of educational instruction. While such a list may suggest these functions occur discretely, the interplay between them and the vernaculars is both frequent and fraught.

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                [1] UN Census data as reported by David Crystal, English as a Global Language (64).

                [2] The country’s aboriginal population.

                [3] Tamil people are often further divided between those indigenous to the country and those brought by colonists from southern India to perform plantation work.

                [4] As Canagarajah has noted, the term is useful but somewhat ambiguous since English increasingly serves as a vernacular on the island. Herein, however, I use it to refer to local languages as opposed to the first languages of the island’s various colonizers.

                [5]Although I use this designation here in reference to the founding of the British colony, other references will use the country’s current name, Sri Lanka.

                [6] Fernando even suggests a contemporarily creole form is spoken in eastern coastal villages (“English” 189).

                [7] Fernando argues that the lack of mobility was particularly acute for non-Sinhalese (“English” 190).

                [8] Colonial administrators defined school-aged as between the ages of six and twelve.

                [9] One should note that these tracks did not always align with a student’s mother tongue. Being in the minority, for example, Tamil students often attended vernacular schools in which the medium of instruction was Sinhala.

                [10] Rajiva Wijesinha reports that the dates for this change were staggered by discipline and student body. English immediately ceased being used as a medium of education in the Arts, but it was not until 1969 that Sciences discontinued its use in favor of vernaculars. Further, Burghers and Muslims often continued to attend separate schools where they received English education until the early 1980s (369).