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Friday, April 03, 2009

Sri Lanka: some thoughts on language

fromThe Island

Charles Sarvan

The ‘language question’ is again preoccupying some Sri Lankans: see, for example, Mr Arjuna Hulugalle, The Island, 17th April 2009. I say "again" because it was the major issue in the "Ceylon" of the 1950s, when I was a student of the University of Peradeniya. Had the language-issue been handled with reason and patience, rather than with emotion and impetuosity, the Island would have been spared animosity and resentment; conflict, destruction and tragedy, and been altogether a very different country today. So there is a sense of déjà vue, a feeling of humanity being doomed to repeat mistakes: I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s sobering historical study, The March of Folly. But folly must not be permitted, fatalistically, to march on and on. I draw attention to three aspects of the subject, and hope it will not be entirely without use.

As one who has taught English not only in Europe but also in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, I am well aware that there can be resistance in some quarters to learning English. For example, in Sri Lanka it could take the form of "Why should we learn the language of our former imperial masters?" There might be the fear that the English language will be the Trojan horse used to smuggle in Western culture and values, to the damage and detriment of the traditional, the native. I think this suspicion and emotional resistance, where they still exist, can be overcome. English is no longer the language of only the English. Numerically, far more non-English people use the language than the English. One now speaks of a ‘first language’ (rather than of ‘mother tongue’), that is, the language in which one is best able to express oneself. So defined, there are many in Africa, Asia and elsewhere to whom English is their first language. It is unfortunate that the same word applies to a language and to a people: Indians do not speak a language known as ‘Indian’; Pakistanis a language called Pakistani or the Swiss a language labelled Swiss. The English language must be recognised for what it is today, the world’s language, the medium of international communication. Ludwik Zamenhof (1858-1917) invented Esperanto, an artificial language, with the hope that it would become an international medium of communication, cutting across geographic, national and linguistic boundaries. He hoped it would help create mutual understanding, and that understanding would lead to a greater measure of harmony. Esperanto did not achieve wide, let alone common, currency but in the English language we have a natural, living, "Esperanto": it must be seen, taught and used as such.

To move to the second aspect which I suggest for consideration, one way of preventing the march of folly, the repetition of the past, is to learn from the past. Perhaps the major contributing factor to Sri Lanka’s much-troubled history since independence was the sense (strengthened over many decades and centuries of Western imperial rule) of neglect, disregard and insult felt by the majority, be it in economic, cultural (including religious) or social terms. Position and power belonged, in the first instance, to the British; secondly, to the Westernised "Ceylonese" who spoke, and were comfortable in, English. (To our shame, it must be remembered that inadequate or imperfect English caused superior amusement, but not a lack of competence in Sinhala or Tamil. People were made to feel inferior in their own country because they did not know a foreign language.) It is argued that English functioned as the link-language at independence and prior to the Sinhala-Only Act and, therefore, should be re-instated and given the importance it then had. But at independence the vast majority of Sinhalese and Tamils were not competent in English: the language "linked" only the English-educated middle-class, and the Colombo elite of that time. According to data provided by Mr. K. G. Kulasena (formerly of the Education Research Institute), just two years before independence (1948), only 6.3%of the population was literate in English. I hope the situation is now very different, but the danger remains: giving greater prominence to English will, once again, privilege the middle class in urban centres, above all in the capital city. This is a possibility and potential danger that must be thought about and avoided by the investment of funds and resources, and the providing of incentives. If it is not done, resentment and resulting violence will repeat themselves.

Thirdly, there are some who, motivated by laudable feelings and aims such as generosity, justice and inclusion, argue that the Island strive towards tri-lingualism: Sinhala, Tamil and English. "The Tamil speaking areas could revert to having Buddhist priests in their schools to take the Sinhala classes as was [once] the case. This will result in Buddhist priests learning Tamil and being able to preach in Tamil, and Tamils will be introduced to Buddhist precepts" (Arjuna Hulugalle). No doubt, tri-lingualism would greatly contribute to the ushering in of linguistic, social and political harmony. Sri Lanka would become a true "Paradise Isle", not merely in scenic terms; not only for tourists. Of course, I would welcome Sinhalese having some competence in the Tamil language but, as an erstwhile pedagogue (and at the risk of outraging, even incensing, some Tamils), I must acknowledge I have reservations. Learning a language means the investment of resources: teachers and their salary, textbooks and teaching-aids. Time is also a consideration since time devoted to one subject implies the limitation or total exclusion of another subject or subjects. Is it, educationally and otherwise, "economic" for roughly 80% of the population to expend resources, time and energy in learning the language of 20%? It may be countered that the motive here is not so much the learning of a language but the far more important political and social goals of inclusion, fair play, and the building of national harmony – "harmony", as distinct from a "peace" imposed by military and numerical superiority. But experience shows that a language learnt and not used is soon lost. A pupil in the South expends hours learning Tamil but, thereafter, never has occasion to use it. Is that not a waste of time? Shouldn’t that time have been spent more usefully? Or is the thinking that language-competence is not lost but merely in abeyance, and can be quickly resuscitated, should the need arise? I taught for several years at the University of Zambia. Zambia is a large, linguistically diverse, country with English as the official language. (Among other things, one had to be competent in English in order to stand for parliamentary election. I don’t know if this law still applies.) So that no one ethnic / linguistic group would be advantaged, all were equally ". If a state employee were transferred to an area whose language she didn’t know, she (or he) could nevertheless function because neutral English was the medium of administration. Still, I am not convinced that all Sinhalese pupils should learn Tamil. Perhaps, it can be decided on (a) where one worked and (b) the nature of the work to be done. A woman or man is granted a scholarship to study, be trained or carry out research in a foreign country whose language is totally foreign to her or him. S/he attends an intensive course, usually lasting about six months, and at the end of it, is ready to commence. Similarly, a Sinhalese found to need Tamil can be given time and opportunity to intensively learn the language. This language-competence could be made a condition for securing or retaining employment, and for receiving promotion. Similarly, Tamils can be offered incentives (say, a small increment in salary) to learn Sinhala. Of course, given the present "ethnic climate", whether it is even remotely realistic to expect Sinhalese to learn Tamil is another matter. Much preparatory work, sustained, intensive and persuasive in nature ("propaganda", but in a positive sense) will have to be undertaken.

I am confident there is no dearth of creative ideas and solutions in Sri Lanka. What is needed is the political will and determination. If decisions and actions are not guided by emotion but by reason; if answers are applied with seriousness and patience, then the language issue, rather than being a dangerous and divisive "problem" (as it has been) can transform itself into solution and salvation. To adapt the words of Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke (1811-1892), every effort must be made to educate our masters: the populace whose wishes and demands are catered for (if not pandered to) because of the fear of electoral consequence. "Esperanto" is derived from "one who hopes".


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