Celebrating Multilingualism

K. N. O. Dharmadasa in his Keynote Address at the Language Awards Ceremony held at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies on July 30, 2011.

I am very happy to be with you on this very special occasion in which the students who have successfully completed language courses for the years 2009 and 2010 will be awarded certificates.  I should thank the Director and staff of the BCIS for inviting me to be the Chief Guest and for making arrangements for me to share some of my thoughts with you.

Going through today’s programme I noticed that there are items in Chinese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, German, Tamil in addition to Sinhala which I think is the mother tongue of the majority here and we work here in the English language for practical purposes. This truly is a beautiful multilingual situation. Here we  are celebrating multilingualism.  So, let me now come to the thoughts I wish to share with you on this occasion.

At the outset I should say that although I am professionally a Professor of Sinhala I would never have been able to achieve that position if not for my competence in several languages other than Sinhala. If I was a monolingual I would never have been able to obtain the degrees I earned and engaged myself in research studies and  written and published my work which enabled me to be a professor of Sinhala . I was able to do all that  because I was a multilingual and not a monolingual. There is a crucial factor as far as my career as well as the careers of many others of my generation were concerned. It is that the educational policies at work during the period we were in school were such that multilingualism was fostered. In the schools system the education was in the mother tongue, i.e. Sinhala in my case, and English was introduced in the second or third year as a subject. Apart from that the classical languages Pali and Sanskrit could be studied in the higher grades, especially when preparing for university entrance. There were teachers competent to teach these languages and thus the schools system provided for a culture of multilingualism . We who came from Sinhala speaking homes were able to master the English language without much effort. I mention English in particular because English engaged most of our attention among the other languages which we could study. That was because,  of the languages other than our mother tongue, it was English that engaged most of our attention as a window to modern knowledge and as an avenue to higher education, better employment and social advancement.

If you would permit me I would like to mention here the fact that after primary education in Sinhala my parents sent me for my secondary education to an English medium school. In that school except the subject of Sinhala all subjects such as history, geography, civics and government etc. and even Buddhism , were  taught in the English medium. Here I should emphasize the fact that Sinhala was never neglected. Actually we grew up as competent bilinguals. We could wield the English language as well as the Sinhala language with equal felicity. Unfortunately, things changed later. In fact I was in the last generation of students who entered the university in the English medium. Short-sighted educational policies ended that era of multilingualism. The universities came to produce monolinguals who sometimes could not even write properly in their own native language.  I shall come to that episode later in this talk.

 Multilingual Sri Lanka:  When we look at the history of Sri Lanka what we notice is that a culture of multilingualism has been there from the earliest times. If we take the Mahavamsa story about the beginnings of Sri Lankan history we note that a group of settlers led by Prince Vijaya who would have been speaking a dialect which linguists call a Prakrit, came and settled down in the northern plains. Gradually their numbers grew and a civilization was slowly emerging until in the 3rd century BCE a momentous event took place. That was the introduction of Buddhism. It was with the introduction of Buddhism that many advanced features of civilization such as the art of writing, architecture, the arts etc. were introduced and became the basis of the thriving civilization that emerged during the ensuing centuries. As recorded in the Mahavamsa, along with Buddhism came  the Pali language which was the language of the Buddhist scriptures. The Mahavamsa says that Arahant Mahinda, who was the leader of that missionary group, was able to preach the Dhamma in the language of the land (diipabhasa) , i.e. the early Sinhala language. Obviously, Arahant Mahinda, as a good missionary,  knew the importance of studying beforehand  the language of the people whom he was going to convert. The Mahavamsa also says that having introduced the Sutras in Pali Arahant Mahinda translated into the island language the commentaries (Atthakatha) for the benefit of the island people. So those Sinhala people who were keen to study the Dhamma, especially the Buddhist monks,  became bilingual

Later in Buddhist history, Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to Lanka  by some monks from Indiaand that was along with the Sanskrit language which was the medium of the Mahayana doctrine. As we learn from history some of the great monasteries of Anuradhapurasuch as Abhayagiriya and Jetavanaya became centers of Mahayanism and the Sanskrit language was the main medium used in the affairs of those institutions. We have remnants of inscriptions in Sanskrit whereby the work of those monasteries were regulated. So by the end of the Anuradhapuraperiod there were three main languages that were studied by scholars in Sri Lanka. That is Sinhala , Pali and Sanskrit. We should remember at the same time that Sri Lankahas been a center of international trade from early times. Fa-Hsien Thero, the Chinese monk who visited Sri Lankain the 5th century has mentioned how traders from many countries were operating in the city of Anuradhapura. Thus foreign languages would have been known in our society. Later, especially after the Polonnaruva period, Tamil came to be introduced and we find that Tamil was studied in our seats of monastic learning (pirivenas) in medieval times.

Monolingualism Disparaged: What we have as classical Sinhala literature, i.e. works such as Amavatura, Butsarana, Muvadev Da Vata, Sasa Da Vata, Saddharmaratnavaliya are all products of this culture of multilingualism that was there in ancient Sri Lanka. When we listen to  the mellifluous prose of Butsarana for example, we note how effortlessly a writer could blend Pali and Sanskrit words with Sinhala, thus displaying a complete mastery of all three languages. Again the highly evocative imagery found in the 13th century Mahakavya the Kav Silumina displays not only the poet’s familiarity with the works of great Sanskrit poets such as Kalidasa but also his creative genius to surpass them in some instances. I can go on describing the fruits of our multilingual heritage. But I think that is sufficient for the moment.

Next I would like to draw your attention to the manner in which knowledge of other languages was valued in ancient Sri Lanka. I am sure some of you would have heard of the 15th century  poem Gira Sandesaya  This message poem (Sandesa) is sent to one of the most distinguished and erudite monks of the Kotte period, Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thero. The carrier of the message is the parrot and the author of the poem , a young monk living in Kotte introduces Sri Rahula Thero in a long description running to 16 verses. In one of those verses he says ( I translate)

            “He who is verily an embodiment of virtue expounds the Dhamma

              expanding the mental horizons of the listeners His verbal skills 

              were so adroit that it was like  a masterly dancer displaying her

              skills on the floor boards of six languages.” 

Totagamuve Sri Rahula Thero was famous as “Shat Bhasha Parameshvara” that is, “Supreme master of six languages”. The six languages as we learn from the texts were Sanskrit, Prakrit, Magadhi, Paisachi, Sauraseni and Apabramsa. These were languages in use in contemporary north India.And we learn that in Sanskrit theatre for example, different characters coming from different social strata were made to speak in the different dialects. As for Sri Rahula Thero we do not have any information on what use he made of the different languages. But his dexterity with language is displayed in no small measure in the works he has written . We must also remember that while celebrating multilingualism, monolingualism was viewed as a drawback. I can quote from Alagiyawanna Mukaveti who lived in the 16th century these two lines in which he explains why he was writing the Subhashitaya  in Sinhala:

Demala saku magada nosahala satata     dada

Sihala basin sekevin kiyami pada           benda

“I am compiling this poem in Sinhala verse for the benefit of the ignorant folk who do not know Tamil, Sanskrit or Pali.”

English Introduced: Even afterSri Lankabecame a British colony the culture of multilingualism continued. Our scholars, particularly the most erudite sections of the Buddhist monkhood, continued with their Pali and Sanskrit studies in addition to Sinhala. Furthermore some of the adjusted to the prevailing circumstanced and mastered the English language as well. Scholars fromEuropecame here to consult our scholarly monks such as Vaskaduve Subhuti Thero, Hikkaduve Sumangala Thero and Weligama Sri Sumangala Thero. English was introduced to the schools system and English medium schools known as “colleges” were established in the main urban centers. The larger number of schools were of course in the Sinhala and Tamil media. But I them also English was taught as a subject.

The English medium schools provided the man-power needs of the British administrators. At the same time however, English education created a native intelligentsia. We cannot forget the fact that the great intellectuals of modern Sri Lankawere the products of the educational system the prevailed at the time. We mentioned the names of some erudite Buddhist monks who were the products of the multilingual education given in the Pirivenas.  Among the lay scholars Munidasa Cumaratunga, Martin Wickramasinghe, Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, to name a few, were also multilinguals. It was their competence in  many languages that enabled them to be highly successful writers and intellectual leaders of the 20th century. I should mention in particular that  it was their high competence in English that facilitated their efforts to modernize Sinhala literature. In mid 20th centurySri Lanka in which I grew up the teaching of English was of a very high standard. There are references to the fact that our country was called “the pearl of the English speaking world inAsia.” The oratorical skills of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, G.G.Ponnambalam, Colvin R De Silva and others of that era are well known. And writers such as Regi Siriwardene, H.A.I. Goonetilleke and K.M De Silva could weild the English language with admirable mastery.When institutions of higher learning in the Western model were set up in the island, firstly, theCeylonUniversityCollegein 1921 and subsequently, theUniversityofCeylonin 1942, we find the study of languages given proper recognition. The study of Pali and Sanskrit were included in the curriculum along with Sinhala and Tamil and even Arabic. In fact in theUniversityofCeylon  there was a Faculty of Oriental Studies housing the departments teaching these language subjects. The Department of  English was in the Faculty of Arts along with the Department of Classics teaching Latin and Greek. Later, a Department of Modern Languages teaching French and German was also set up in the Faculty of Arts.

I think I should highlight here some aspects of the culture of multilingualism that was there in theuniversityofCeylonwhere I was a student. All teachers in the Department of Sinhala were competent in at least three languages Pali, Sanskrit and English in addition to Sinhala. My Guru Professor D.E.Hettiarachchi was competent in 13 languages which included Portuguese and Dutch. It is said that Swami Vipulananda, the first Professor of Tamil , too was a was similar polyglot being competent in Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, and Arabic in addition to Tamil and English.               

Language Policies: We became free from colonial rule and achieved political independence in 1948. So did India. But while India continued to retain English and function as a multilingual country we in Sri Lanka not only lost much of  our literacy in English but also did away with the multilingual heritage we have been cherishing for over two thousand years. How did this happen? It was due to the short-sighted language policies adopted by successive governments. Let me trace briefly how we lost our culture of multilingualism. As I have seen in my study on the subject there were three stages of this tragedy. The first stage which was in fact not very disruptive was initiated in 1945 with the State Council deciding (in 1944) that Sinhala and Tamil should be the official languages of Lanka, replacing English by stages. With regard to the medium of instruction in schools it was decided (with due consideration to an educational principle that children learn best by being educated in their mother tongue) that Sinhala and Tamil should be the media of teaching from grade one onwards. This change-over continued class by class until 1955 when the school leaving certificate class was being taught in Swabhasha. It needs special mention however, that the teaching of English was not abandoned. English was taught from standard 3 onwards and it was a compulsory subject. That is because educationalists emphasized the importance of learning English . Also, Pali and Sanskrit too were  available as subjects in many schools and in the university. Thus the culture of multilingualism was not severely affected. The real disruption came in second stage,  in the aftermath of the days of “language nationalism” in the mid 1950’s. The Act passed by parliament in 1956 “to prescribe Sinhala Only as the Official Language of Ceylon”  led to a period of severe disruption. There was no sober consideration of educational principles. People were led to believe that “Sinhala Only” meant that we could do everything  learning only Sinhala and that the study of other languages, especially English was unnecessary. Unfortunately, the prescription “Sinhala Only” led to the relentless pursuit of a policy of monolingualism.


The third disastrous step was taken with the so called “University Reorganization” of the period 1972 – 77. A committee appointed by the Minister of Education in the aftermath of the youth insurrection of 1971 to make recommendation s to remedy the problem of youth unrest came out with the conclusion that the primary cause of youth unrest was the production of unemployable graduates who had studied “soft options” such as languages and cultural studies for their degrees. Sinhala, Tamil, Pali , Sanskrit and even English were identified as subjects “whose study brings no fruitful benefits.” As a policy the study of these subjects was to be discouraged and steps were taken to remove the study of these subjects from all universities except one. The effects of this ill-conceived policy which was put into effect for five years was far-reaching. Language studies in our universities as well as other institutions were severely affected. The end result was that we lost whatever was left of our culture of multilingualism.


 I gave that brief outline of the history of our language education in order to show things in the correct perspective. We should be happy that we have put behind us that dark era and that we are slowly proceeding on the path of recovery. The younger generation today has realized the need to learn other languages and many are now becoming good bilinguals. It is indeed a pleasure to see an institution like the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies promoting the study of several international languages. We can look forward to a happier future with the  National Ten Year Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka inaugurated by the government in 2011. It is a great step forward Here we all can join hands to work for a truly multilingualSri Lanka. I think in that scheme  the mother tongues, the national languages ofSri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil, are given proper recognition. Learning other languages does not mean one has to forget or ignore ones own cultural heritage, which is one’s own mother tongue. Following Mahatma Gandhi  let us say “We will allow winds from all quarters to enter our house  but let us not allow them to blow us off our feet.” Our own languages, Sinhala and Tamil form the base of our identity. While celebrating multilingualism let us keep our feet firmly on our own linguistic heritage.                                        







Leave a comment

Filed under historical interpretation, life stories, Sinhala-Tamil Relations

Leave a Reply