Effective tri-lingual services in government offices: the immediate way forward

Chandre Dharmawardana…. “Providing Tamil-Language resources where needed, and building Ethnic reconciliation”

Sebastian Rasalingam (SR), writing in the Island newspaper of July 5th, has discussed the topic  “Administering justice to Tamils, 13A+, and the issueof ethnic reconciliation‘. SR was responding  to an article by Mr.Hemantha Warnakulasuriya (published also in D. B. S. Jeyraj’s electronic journal).

The language barrier and jailing innocents on suspicion : Hemantha Warnakulasuriya (HW) has narrated the harsh treatment faced by  a group of exclusively Tamil-speaking citizens of Sri Lanka  (described as “Estate Tamils”) who visited Colombo in the terror-ridden days of  January-February 2008. They had left their identity cards with an agency house procuring foreign jobs, and failed identification when checked by the police. The Sinhalese-speaking police officers, and the language-handicapped courts created a veritable Kafkaesque situation for the Tamils who were jailed for days before being released after identification.

HW describes this “systemic denial of Justice to the Tamils” and posits that the solution to the problem lies in implementing Rajiv Gandhi’s`provincial councils (13A+) amendment’ that moves Tamil matters to the “Traditional Tamil homelands”.

Rasalingam’s Discussion and Jane Russell’s rejoinder:  Sebastian Rasalingam (SR) reviews HW’s narrative, and draws the very opposite conclusion. Rasalingam rightly points out that even if there were provincial councils with full powers, Tamil-speaking citizens would still need to come to Colombo for various needs, and they would face the same problems as long as mutual suspicion exists among the ethnic groups. SR suggests that compartmentalization of ethnic groups via provincial boundaries would actually lead to increased ethnic suspicion. Rasalingam rejects the 13A+ of Rajiv Gandhi, and emphasizes the need for the intermingling of these ethnic groups, and learning each others’ languages. He thinks that a generation is needed to rectify matters.

Commenting on Rasalingam’s conclusion, Dr. Jane Russell, the English historian and author of “Communal Politics under the DonoughmoreConstitution 1931-1947“, writes (in a private communication to the author) :  “I agree with his (Rasalingam’s) conclusion that only through continuous intermingling in civil society can the ethnic and caste polarisation be ameliorated…A change in the education system would also help: co-ethnic schools with certain subjects, e.g., Physical Education, arts and crafts, and English, taught together could possibly be tried in larger towns and cities”.

It is well known that the arts (e.g., music and drama), sports and business cut across languages. It is from practical situations that one learns languages. The age-old method of memorizing irregular verbs etc., does not work.

Surely, proper education of the new generation in co-ethnic schools, (and NOT provincial segregation) is crucial in the long-term.  Even if the North and East were given devolution with Tamil-language hegemony (which exists today in a de-facto sense), it would not solve the problems of the “estate Tamils”, or the large populations of Tamil-speakers in Colombo and other areas of the south. People’s personal records, and historical records may be in different places, e.g., where you were born may be different to the province where you went to school, where you got married etc., and provincial councils merely add another level of rubber-stamping and possibly bribe taking.

ICTA’s  project for E-government is the solution to such difficulties: An immediate practical solution for providing language services: We cannot wait till a generation grows up, or till we learn the other’s language. The socio-political networks that exist in Tamil society were used to organize the much feared LTTE machine. So, we should harness that genius to form privately-run Tamil-Sinhalese-English-language kiosks, somewhat like internet cafes, in every place where language services are needed. Court houses,  government or bank offices, notarial chambers, train stations, stock exchange etc., would have such kiosks, and translator-help can be had for a modest fee. A pro-Bono service can be offered to the poor who cannot afford it. If there is a need, market forces should move into satisfy it. The TNA, still said to be buried in the mindset of the 1970s would probably oppose it. The NGOs did not (and would not) do it because they fulfill the agenda of those who fund them.

Private entrepreneurs, Chambers of Commerce, Lions or Rotary clubs can set the wheels in motion. The government too has in its ranks the likes of `Daya Master” (the ex-LTTE communications director) together with `KP’, the ex-organizer of the LTTE-arms procurements. If they have truly turned the page, they can help set up the translation kiosks through out the island. The cost would be an insignificant fraction of the `Trilingual-Lanka’ project launched by the government.

Difficulty of implementing Trilingualism in practice: The Tamil population of Sri Lanka is probably 10-20% depending on how you define it. The CIA fact book puts it at ~ 6%!  In Canada more than 40% are francophone,  and more than 50% are anglophone.  After four decades of state-sponsored bilingualism with billions of dollars  into education, inducements and publicity, the population remains 80% uni-lingual, buried in their own languages  (I have discussed technical solutions to language learning  in the Island Newspaper of 22-Nov-2011 (http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=39515) , and in Professor Michael Robert’s webpages (http://thuppahis.com/2011/11/08/switching-on-%E2%80%98trilingual-competence%E2%80%99-without-learning-languages/).

Thus I fear that Sri Lankan parents and children carrying a high `tuition load’, would opt for English as the only extra language, neglecting ethnic languages. Even English knowledge in the country and within the academic community has suffered compared to the 1970s.

So, technical solutions (using cell phones with automatic language-translation capability), or language call-centers (as suggested by Rohan Samarajeeva) are other alternatives that the government needs to consider.

Conclusion:  Thus while Rasalingam is completely correct in his conclusions regards long-term issues as well as the irrelevance of constitutional reform, weneed short-term solutions. Here we have noted several eminently practicalones that neatly sidestep the political log  jam.


Filed under communal relations, cultural transmission, democratic measures, discrimination, language policies, life stories, NGOs, politIcal discourse, population, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

2 responses to “Effective tri-lingual services in government offices: the immediate way forward

  1. Philip Fernando

    Language is contentiously debated not on linguistic imperatives but the dictates of the textured society that Sri Lanka has become. English was acquisitively grabbed and mastered by the Tamils and the elitist Sinhalese during the time of the British. Even representation was sought for the English educated.

    When Sri Lanka chose an official language like USA, UK and others—with ample provision for the reasonable use of other languages—1956-58– Sinhala was deemed a vehicle of oppression—SWRD was demonized as a divisive man. Those who left the country in a huff—and the second generation Sinhala and Tamil Diaspora got used to English as lingua franca.

    Making available sufficient numbers of administrators and teachers proficient in Tamil and Sinhala is a slow process. How many Sinhala teachers are needed in Puttlam, Mannar and Jaffna never came into the discussion—all we see is a pretext for politicized action. Tragically, palliatives are sought without actual remedies.

    English use is sweeping the country due to obvious economic reasons—this is a non-issue.

    Philip Fernando, Los Angeles

  2. Pingback: Bridging the language divide in Sri Lanka — with our questions for IRIN | Thuppahi's Blog

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