Language for National Integration

Rohana R. Wasala , Courtesy of Island, 24 December 2010

The Public Survey and Research Unit (PSRU) of the Presidential Secretariat has had a sociolinguistic survey conducted by an independent research institute. The sample of subjects drawn from five provinces (western, southern, central, eastern, northern) consisted of 1484 citizens of both sexes belonging to the three major ethnic communities of the country – Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim.

They included religious leaders, provincial level politicians, government servants, members of the security forces, university lecturers and students, businessmen, farmers, labourers, housewives, pensioners, those returned from employment, and others. The survey was carried out by 37 field officers under six supervisors using a pre-formulated questionnaire and interviews in August 2010. I find that the questions have been designed so as to preclude biased responses, as far as possible. The final report that I have looked at may be taken to genuinely reflect the attitudes of the three ethnic communities towards the learning of one another’s native language and English, and of their current proficiency levels in the languages. The report represents a graphically supported sociolinguistic justification for the envisioned three language system.

The five provinces covered by the survey have been grouped into two categories, A and B. The western, southern, and central provinces with a Sinhala speaking majority are included in A, while the northern and eastern provinces with a Tamil speaking majority are grouped as B (hereinafter referred to as SSM areas and TSM areas respectively). The respondents are from all walks of life, which should have enabled the researchers to ensure a balanced representative response from them to the survey. The subjects are all proficient in their first language.

To the question “Are you familiar with the other national language?” 97% of the Tamil and 100% of the Muslim respondents in the SSM areas have given an affirmative answer, whereas only 39% of the Sinhalese have responded with a “yes”. A similar pattern of readiness on the part of the linguistic minority to learn the language of the linguistic majority is demonstrated in the TSM areas: there, 77% of the Sinhalese are familiar with Tamil, while 62% of the Tamils and 87% of the Muslims are familiar with Sinhala.

Thus, in both areas, all three communities show a greater readiness to learn the language of the linguistic majority when they find themselves in a minority situation. However, in this respect, the percentages given above reveal an apparent disparity between the Sinhalese and their minority compatriots Tamils and Muslims: it looks as if the Sinhalese are less inclined to learn Tamil than the Tamils and Muslims to learn Sinhalese! But this is not due to any sense of racist dislike of the Tamil language on their part.

If the Tamils and the Muslims show a greater willingness to learn Sinhala than the Sinhalese to learn Tamil, that, again is not because of any extraordinary love of the Sinhalese or the Sinhala language that the former have. In any communicative situation under normal circumstances, a person’s choice of a language depends on their perception of its immediate usability, however imperfectly they could handle it, rather than on their love or hatred towards the native speakers of that language. Since Sinhala speakers form about 75% of the population, and Tamil and English speakers the rest, and since there is unrestricted mobility across this small island of just over 60,000 square kilometres, the chances of Sinhala being used as the language for wider communication are greater.

When Tamils and Muslims can communicate with the Sinhalese in Sinhala, the latter do not feel any urge to learn Tamil; similarly, when the Sinhalese are able to interact with the Tamil speakers in Tamil, they unintentionally obviate the latter’s need to learn Sinhala. The same natural tendency may be observed in India where the Tamil or Kannada speakers, for instance, evince a greater interest in learning Hindi than native Hindi speakers in learning those languages unless there is a strong motive for doing so. This situation should not be interpreted as one community’s malicious rejection of the other’s language. (A glance at the Census of Population and Housing for 2001 will show that the vast majority of Tamils of both Sri Lankan and Indian origin can speak Sinhala.)

In all provinces, none of the communities can claim a universally high level of English language proficiency. Though English is usually said to serve as a link language among the ‘educated’, and is often touted as such, it certainly is not a link language among ordinary people. Among them Sinhala performs that role. But this does not detract from the real importance of English for us, which is as a tool of education and modernization.

Most Sinhalese in both SSM and TSM areas seem to think that Sinhala is important for getting a job and for receiving higher education, whereas their Tamil and Muslim counterparts do not share this view. But all believe that their first language is useful for asserting their social cultural values, and also for creating intra-communal unity. There is general agreement about the fact that its language is for stressing a community’s identity.

The Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims alike do not believe that their mother tongue is a decisive factor for labour mobility. The importance of the first language for preserving one’s religious rituals and practices is recognized by the majority of all communities. Few believe that it is essential for communicating with the other communities. People in both SSM and TSM areas do not think that one’s first language is important for integrating with the other communities. Hardly anyone believes that the three communities should live separately. All communities hold that living in a mixed society has three major benefits, which are, in order of popularity: social integration, a chance for learning another language, and economic benefits.

The idea that a language community can compete better for power and benefits in the country through separate language identity is rejected by the majority. Less than 50% of the Sinhalese, 41% of the Tamil, and 45% of the Muslim respondents in the SSM areas believe that separate language identity will help the development of one’s language, but 75% of the Tamils, and 68% of the Muslims interviewed in the TSM areas believe it will.

While it is universally agreed that separate language identity will highlight the richness of your culture, opinions about whether separate language identity will emphasize group solidarity are divided. Only 46% and 32% of the Sinhalese respondents respectively of the SSM and TSM areas believe that separate language identity will emphasize your group solidarity; but these values contrast with 55% and 66% respectively for the Tamils of the two types of areas. As for Muslims, there is a clear division of opinion about this point between those of them who live in the SSM areas (45%) and their counterparts in TSM areas (70%). However, only 48% of Tamils and 43% of Muslims in the TSM areas believe that one’s language community will be economically better off through separate language identity. These figures create the overall impression that the majority of all communities in both types of areas subscribe to the view that separate linguistic identity is an obstacle to national integration.

(Readers will get a fuller picture of the reasons for the three language initiative after reading my column next week which will, in fact, complete my commentary on the final report of the survey under consideration. The sole purpose of this exercise is to contribute, in the modest way I can, to the promotion of public awareness about a worthy national enterprise.)

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