THE PROBLEM OF LANGUAGE IN CEYLON

Address at the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Empire Society delivered on September 7, 1951

The problem  of  language cannot be isolated from the problems of education and politics. The many- sided character of linguistic problems in education has been pointed out by the Editors of the Year Book of  Education 1949, in the following words:- ‘Seldom is the solution a purely educational one; politics,  economics and national aspirations often decide the language of instruction,  irrespective  of  psychological  obstacles  or  pedagogical considerations." It is quite evident that this problem is one of vital importance and must be treated in the most circumspect manner. The language policy that was followed by an alien Government in the Colonial Days cannot satisfy the needs of today when we are trying to plan the Society of New Ceylon on democratic lines which should be characterised by justice, social, economic and political,  by  liberty  of  thought  and  by  equality of status and of opportunity as well as by the promotion of fraternity among the individuals constituting the nation.  The solution of our language problem should not therefore violate any of the above mentioned principles and particularly the principle  of  the equality of educational opportunity that should be made available to all.

 
Under the Education  Amendment  Act 5 of 1951 which came into operation from the 1st of April, 1951, higher education is not available in Government or Assisted schools to those who fail in the Standard Eight Test; but there will be among the passed candidates two types of pupils differing widely in the prospects open to them – those who have taken up the examination through the Sinhalese or Tamil (medium) schools and those who have taken up the same examination through the English (medium) schools. The S.S.C. (English) certificate is within easy reach of the latter whereas the former are not so advantageously placed, besides being seriously handicapped in the matter of admission to the University. In consequence, all the better paid jobs and superior professions are denied to them for ever, even though they may be possessed of a high degree of intelligence and mental attainment. Such a state of affairs is incompatible with democracy and should therefore be ended at the earliest opportunity. One way of ending this inequality is by the abolition of the English (medium) schools, but that is no real solution to the problem, as that will effectively stop the supply in Ceylon of Engineers and Doctors, University  Lecturers  and  Administrators. The problem of language thus presents itself in its important aspect of the medium of instruction. The present Education Code enforces the mother-language medium in the primary school with English as a compulsory second language from Standard 3 upwards. And it allows English as an optional medium of instruction in the secondary school  while prohibiting  English  medium  in  those  secondary schools registered  before the 31st of March, 1951 as Sinhalese or Tamil schools, except in cases where the Minister of Education permits the English medium in respect of certain subjects where the Sinhalese or Tamil medium is not practicable.
 
This  provision  would be a necessary one if in the near future the English medium would no longer obtain in any of the secondary schools of the Island. The intention on the part of the Government appears to be to do away with English as the medium of instruction in the secondary stage. This is revealed in the following extract taken from the Administration Report of the Department of Education for 1950 :- "The medium of instruction is to be one of the National Languages. Sinhalese or Tamil, although in the secondary stage some subjects will still have to be taught for the time being through the medium of  English." Whether  such  a  step is possible or practicable, it becomes our duty to enquire.  Such  a change cannot be made unless the Technical College  or Colleges and Law College as well as the University of Ceylon adopt the National Languages as their media of instruction. In other words secondary education cannot be dissociated from higher education and particularly in the matter of the medium of instruction. If English is going to be the medium at the University, English cannot be abandoned as the medium in Secondary Education.
 
The Select Committee of the State Council that was appointed to report on the steps  necessary to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese and Tamil with the object of making them the official languages of Ceylon deals with this problem in its Report published in December, 1946. This Committee recommended that Sinhalese and Tamil should be the media of instruction at the University as soon as the necessary books were available and added that this interval  should  in no case exceed the ten year interim period. They further recommended that the appropriate authorities of the University should take immediate steps to produce all the necessary text books in Sinhalese and Tamil for University use.
 
The Committee's recommendation is worth careful analysis on our part. The members do not seem to have realized that books cannot be produced to order, that translators should be proficient not merely in both the languages but also in  the  subject  of  the book itself whether it is meta-physics or mathematics. Or in other words translations cannot be mass-produced but require a certain combination of skills, which is not found everywhere. If and when this work of translation is  accomplished  it will have the effect of bifurcating the University itself. There will be in reality two Universities in place of the one we have, a Sinhalese and a Tamil University with the chairs and posts almost doubled. The expenditure of such a vast amount of energy by the elite of the country in the production of the books necessitated by the adoption of two media of instruction can be ill-afford by an under-developed country like ours,  which  is  small  in  size and small in numbers. Such dissipation of effort is all the more to be deprecated, when the goal aimed at does  not  possess  any  manifest  advantages,  commensurate  with  the expenditure  of that energy. The Select Committee does not seem to have addressed itself seriously to the problems created by  the proposal to change over from the present medium of English.
 
English may be a foreigner's tongue and till recently might have been the language of the conqueror which "in the mouth of the conquered is ever the language of  the  slave." Many  of the objections against English had validity when we were not free to make our own choice of the language of education and of administration. We  are  now  free to consider the place occupied by the English language in the world of today and whether Ceylon can progress without English. In the words of the recently published report of the Radhakrishnan Commission, English is not merely the language of the Englishmen but also of British Isles, U.S.A., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is taught as second language in practically all European countries including U.S.S.R. and is widely known in Asia. Today it is the first language of world diplomacy and is understood by the  largest number of persons.  In a recent survey of articles published in the field of Analytical Chemistry if was found that 44% were published in English, 15% in French and 11% in  Russian. India is contemplating the adoption of Hindi as the federal language;  yet  India  is  anxious  not  to  create a void in the centre by immediately abandoning English which is now in use till the provinces are ready for the change, and till the provincial educational institutions have spread the federal  language adequately. The following paragraph from the same report gives us an indication of the importance of the English language:-
 
"English, however, must continue to be studied. It is a language which is rich in literature – humanistic, scientific and technical. If under sentimental urges we should give up English we would cut ourselves off from the living stream of ever growing knowledge. Unable to have access to this knowledge, our standards of scholarship would fast deteriorate and our participation in the world movements of thought would become negligible. Its effects would be disastrous for our practical life, for living nations must move with the times and  must  respond  quickly to the challenge of their surroundings. English is the only means of preventing our isolation from the world, and we will act unwisely if we allow ourselves to be enveloped in the folds of a dark curtain of ignorance. Our students who are undergoing training at schools which will admit them either to a University or to a vocation must acquire sufficient mastery of  English  to  give  them  access  to the treasures of knowledge, and  in  the  Universities  no  student  should  be allowed to take a  degree  who  does  not  acquire  the  ability  to read with facility and understanding works of English authors. We must take into account our Yugadharma. A sense of the oneness of the world is in the making and control over a medium of expression which is more widespread and has a larger reach than any of our language today will be of immense benefit to us."
 
Even in India bilingualism cannot be avoided and educated India will be compelled to be trilingual. Pupils at the higher and university stages of education  will  have  to  know three languages. Every boy and girl must obviously know the regional language, at the same time should be acquainted with the federal  language and should acquire the ability to read books in English. And the Report proceeds to comment that "these are not extravagant or  extraordinary  requirements",  citing  examples from the Continent of Europe.
 
For the various difficulties that have been indicated above, it is not possible to conceive of replacing the English medium at the University within measurable distance  of time.  That  need not preclude our giving greater importance to the National  languages  than  what  obtains  today  at the University  and  elsewhere.  Every  candidate  before  admission  to  the University could be compelled to show a high degree of proficiency in one of the National languages and the continuation of studies of the language at the University could be insisted upon. The English medium could be abandoned to a greater extent in the teaching of Sinhalese and Tamil at the University. Special Chairs could be established for the encouragement of the National languages and special facilities given for research in these languages.
 
If it is concluded that the English medium cannot be abandoned in our University,  and  no other conclusion seems valid in the circumstances, it follows clearly that  the  English  medium  cannot  be  abandoned in our Secondary Schools. But at the moment there seems to be a tendency to settle the medium of the Secondary Schools without reference to the University and other centres of higher education. A solution which ignores or brushes aside this vital aspect of the problem cannot but be fraught with the gravest danger to the true progress of the country.
 
If we  accept  the position that English cannot be abandoned as the medium of instruction for higher education, certain conclusions inevitably follow. And one of them is that it would be undemocratic to have one set of Secondary Schools with English medium and another with Sinhalese or Tamil medium, as those who study in the latter are precluded from higher education not  because  of   their   intellectual    incapability   but   on  account  of  the non-availability to them of English (medium) Secondary Schools. Hence what is required is uniformity in regard to the medium or media of instruction in the Secondary Schools of Ceylon, in other words the discontinuation of the present system of having one set  of  Secondary Schools with English as medium and another where English is only a compulsory second language. Coming back to the Standard Eight Test with which I started, there should be at the earliest opportunity one examination  where  the English medium will be enforced in respect of certain subjects and the Sinhalese or Tamil medium in respect of the rest of the subjects. By this method alone could we ensure equality of educational  opportunity  both to the city pupil as well as the pupil from backward areas. The claims of English so necessary on utilitarian grounds could thus be harmonized with the claims of Sinhalese or Tamil which is so essential on national grounds. For these reasons, bilingualism should become an essential feature of the New Society of Ceylon where every member will know English in addition to his national language, namely, Sinhalese or Tamil.
 
At this stage we shall have to ask ourselves the question, "what is meant by bilingualism ? What is the kind of knowledge of English that is required of every individual?" and whether even those who have failed the Standard Eight Test and are not seeking higher education should be required to possess this knowledge of English ?
 
In the first place bilingualism need not necessarily mean equilingualism or equal proficiency in either of the two languages. A bilingualism that is good enough for a salesman is hardly sufficient for a teacher. Malherbe who has conducted investigations recently in South Africa outlines six stages of bilingualism. In the first stage, a man must be able to follow intelligently an ordinary conversation, speech or sermon in the second language both in its written and spoken form, e.g. newspapers. He need not possess the ability to speak the second language fluently. In the second stage, he will be required in addition to converse intelligibly and fairly fluently in the second language. The accent may not be perfect and the idiom pure. He may not have the ability to write the second  language but he will be able to read easy fiction and magazines. Here the second language begins to be an opportunity and new vistas are opened up and the life of the individual enriched. In the third stage, he will possess in addition the ability to write the second language correctly. He need not in writing the  second  language reach the height of literary excellence  but  whatever  he  writes must be free from grammatical and spelling errors and without gross violation of idiom. In the fourth stage, he should in addition possess a correct and convincing power of expression  both in writing and speaking the two  languages. In the fifth stage, he commands a greater facility and power in the use of both languages than 90% of the people who use either of these languages as their mother tongue. In the sixth stage, he will possess  the  unapproachable  ideal of a 100% perfection in  both languages.
While the University student should reach at least stage 4, the question may be asked why should we burden the failed JSCs. (Standard Eight) with any appreciable knowledge of English. The answer may legitimately take the form of another question," why should we deprive the failed JSC candidate of the opportunities of enriching his life by the vast resources of knowledge that are available through the English  language and which admittedly are not available through either Sinhalese or Tamil?" If a country is to have a body of educated citizens, able to think and judge for themselves and not to be misled by shibboleths and slogans, knowledge should not be made the monopoly of non-farmers and non-labourers but should seep through every stratum of society. Bilingualism is sometimes dismissed as unsuitable on the ground that it is an unnecessary strain on the mind and has the tendency to retard mental development. Like all other  experts,  psychologists themselves do not seem to favour us with any unanimity  on this subject; and if there is so much difference among them, psychology alone cannot decide the issue for us. In  the words  of  H.G. Wells quoted by  Malherbe  "the  inducements to an Englishman, Frenchman or German to become bilingual are great now-a-days but  the  inducements  to  a speaker of the smaller languages are rapidly approaching compulsion. He must do it in self-defence."
 
If the earlier system of education practised in Ceylon where English was the medium of instruction even in the primary stage of education has produced among the Ceylonese able administrators and professional men, eminent Headmasters and efficient University Lecturers, one begins to doubt whether the early introduction of English as a second language can have all the dire consequences sometimes predicted. Investigations in South Africa have shown conclusively  that children in bilingual schools are in no way inferior in the matter of scholastic attainment to the children in unilingual schools; instead the  former  are superior all-round. Therefore to abandon bilingualism on psychological grounds which have no special application in the context of our circumstances is extremely inadvisable. The statement of the workers' leader in Belgium during the First World War is apposite. "The suppression of the teaching of French in our Flemish primary schools will prove a blow to the working class. The middle class will be able to send their children to boarding schools or to their friends in the Walloon countries where they will acquire French at first-hand. The rich men will send theirs to France for a time. But our workmen will be unable to make that sacrifice…. and yet remember that man who knows one language is like one who has only one arm; he who knows two languages has both his arms."
 
When we  realize that Ceylon is an under developed country which cannot for ever depend on foreign experts in science and technology and that the future progress of the country would depend on the efficiency of its scheme of higher education the need for bilingualism with English as one of the two languages cannot be over-emphasized. How best this bilingualism can be achieved without any sacrifice of scholastic achievement and without any diminution of the importance of the National languages is the problem that we are called upon to solve adequately. Compulsory English language has been re-affirmed as the policy of the State. And the Education Amendment Act of 1951  is  clear  in  this  respect, that English shall be taught as a compulsory second language from Standard Three upwards. The whole hearted and speedy implementation of this is an urgent necessity. At present there is an insufficiency of  bilingual  and  qualified  teachers. There is a paucity of suitable text books. Special researches keeping in view our special needs will have to be undertaken. To condemn bilingualism before it has had a fair trial is not in the best interests of the country.
 
Another fear that is being entertained in certain quarters is that in the scheme of bilingualism of the type advocated, English will come to occupy such a  dominant  position as to diminish the importance of the National languages. This is not possible  because  Ceylon  is no longer a Colonial country and the State can be depended upon to encourage and foster National culture and National languages. The  old  Macaulayan  conception of the English language enabling the formation of a class of persons Ceylonese in blood and colour but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect cannot obtain under a National Government particularly when the State has already taken steps to repudiate this conception by its enforcement of the mother tongue or National medium of instruction in the primary schools. There is no danger of this bilingualism (with English as one of the two languages) turning Ceylon into a Little England. Today even after three-and-a-half years of Independence,  English is still the language of status and privilege but under a bilingual scheme of the type envisaged English will cease to be "a badge of class distinction and become a means of common understanding", thus providing the New Ceylon with the most efficient tool of learning that is available to us. National sentiment demands that English should be dethroned but not necessarily abandoned.
 
If bilingualism is our aim and is in the best interests of the country, the problem of the official language or languages of Ceylon assumes somewhat of a different aspect. It will be possible to have English recognised as the third official language, the use of which could be confined more or less to inter departmental transactions and correspondence to the higher Courts of Law.
 
This bilingualism would not diminish the importance of the National languages but would ensure the equality of educational opportunity that is a vitally important factor in any true democracy. Besides, it would also ensure that Ceylon continues to share the benefits of the English language and the wealth of knowledge that is accessible through it. In the absence of such a bilingualism the progress of Ceylon both materially and culturally will be definitely retarded.  Once  we  suffered  from the over-enthusaiam of the advocates of  the  English  language who wanted it to be the medium of instruction  from  the Kindergarten to the University and now there is an attempt to banish it altogether as a medium of instruction. Safety lies in the middle path of bilingualism.
 
In a bilingual Ceylon where the State will give every encouragement to the promotion of the National languages we can hope to have Sinhalese or Tamil as the language of religion, poetry, drama and music and English as the language of science, technology and commerce. In addition, our smallness in respect of territory and population and our central position in Asia require us to be bilingual. Whether this necessary bilingualism can be made to enrich our lies would entirely depend on our ability to persuade the Government to follow the  path of wisdom, unawed by the extremists of either camp.
 
The following paragraphs are reproduced from the Prize Day Report of Zahira College by Mr. A.M.A. Azeez read on March 30, 1953
 
Before I conclude I should like to touch on one or two problems of education we are confronted with. The logic of circumstances appears to me to point irresistibly to the need in Ceylon for bilingualism with English as one of the two  languages. This question was fully discussed in the House of Representatives in September 1950; and even though views were expressed by some that English should be compulsorily introduced in Standard 2 and by others that English should not be introduced at all at the primary stage of education, Parliament  by the  Education  (Amendment)  Act. No. 5 of 1951 re-affirmed the position that was accorded to it by the School Grants (Revised Conditions)  Regulations  1945 – English shall be taught as a compulsory second language from  Standard  3  upwards –  But  it would appear that bilingualism is now being lost sight of perhaps to certain apprehensions, which are not difficult to understand but which on analysis prove to be groundless. Firstly the fear probably exists that in the scheme of bilingualism of the type that is being advocated,  English  may once again come to occupy such a dominant position as to diminish the importance of the National Languages. But the Country is now irrevocably committed to a policy of Swabhasa in Primary Education and to a large extent in Post-Primary Education as well as in a wide field of Administration. And there is therefore no likelihood at all of the hand of the clock being put back in these spheres. There will be no room whatsoever for the Macaulayan conception of the English language in the new Ceylon, which has already set as one of its most important goals the encouragement and fostering of the National Languages.
 
Hesitancy about advocating bilingualism may also arise from the fear that the learning of a second language may be injurious to a child's control over the first language. There is no doubt a lack of unanimity on the subject, but we are apt to be unduly influenced by the educational experiences of countries like England  where  bilingualism is no more than of academic interest. The Report, published a few weeks back this year, of the Central Advisory Council for Education (Wales) on 'The Place of Welsh and English in the Schools of  Wales' has after an  exhaustive  study  of  the  subject concluded, "It appears wisest at the present juncture to accept that body of opinion that maintains that bilingualism in itself is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage to the mental development of the normal child." That sufficient research work has not been done in Ceylon itself is very unfortunate but in view of  what has been accomplished outside Ceylon it is essentially and urgently  necessary that the Government policy of bilingualism should be speedily and enthusiastically implemented.
 
One all-important fact to be borne in mind is that bilingualism would provide the best means of ensuring the equality of educational opportunity that is a vitally important factor in a true democracy. The benefits of English as a second language should not be restricted to the urban child or the child of wealthy parents. The extra knowledge that is available through English but not through Swabhasa should not be made the monopoly of non-farmers and non-labourers but  should  seep  through every stratum of Society. In this connection, the statement of the Workers' Leader in Belgium during the First World War is quite apposite – "The suppression of the teaching of French in our Flemish Primary Schools will prove a blow to the working class. The middle class will be able to send their children to boarding schools or to their friends  in  the Walloon  Countries,   where  they  will  acquire  French  at  first-hand. The rich men will send  theirs  to  France for a time. But our workmen will be unable to make that sacrifice – and yet remember that a man who knows one language is like one who has only one arm, he who knows two languages has both arms. Mutatis mutandis, these remarks are exactly applicable to Ceylon.
 
My own sincere belief is that the total abandonment of English in Ceylon or even the  relegation  of  it  to  a  minor place  is altogether undesirable. Our true interests demand bilingualism with English as one of the languages.
 
For the Standard Eight Selective Test, which was held for the first time in November, 1952, we presented 110 candidates of whom 93 were found fit and 17 unfit. The  figures  for  the whole Island show that of the 42,062 candidates who sat for this Test, only 5,311 were finally regarded as unfit for Senior Secondary education. If this examination is to serve the purpose for which it was  introduced,  a  much  higher  pass  standard appears to be necessary; for  the Island figures  given  above  undoubtedly paint a very flattering picture of the number of students fit for senior education.
 
I do not, however, hold with those who advocate the abolition of this Selective Test. One very important reason for its retention is that otherwise boys and girls  who are now in Junior Schools and possess the necessary aptitude for higher  studies will find it very difficult to gain admission to Senior and Collegiate Schools, which in the absence of the Selective Test will have their post-Junior classes full of their own students and will have very few places for students from the Junior schools. The abolition of the Selective Test will therefore have the  effect of loading the dice heavily against the cleverer students in the Junior schools. One must never lose sight of the real purpose of the Selective Test – to select those fit for senior education and give them all possible facilities and encouragement. Last year a student's fitness or unfitness was judged without reference to his or her cumulative record. This year probably this omission will be made good to some extent. In the first year of its introduction, the cumulative records will necessarily be of a scanty nature, but when these records cover a period of four or five years, they will be sufficiently reliable to correct any marked disparities in performance at the Test itself.
 
It has also to be emphasised that merely adjudging a student's fitness for higher studies is not enough. Every student, once he or she is judged fit, must be assured of the opportunity of securing a place without any difficulty in a Senior  school. If  the  Senior  School  doe not happen to be within reasonable distance of the student's home adequate boarding facilities will have to be provided at Government Central or other schools on the same lines as the  scholarships now provided at Central schools for those candidates passing the 5th Standard Test. No one doubts the sincerity of the Government when it professes to aim at the achievement of the equalisation of educational opportunity. But those who execute the policy must be ever on the alert lest this object is nullified by failure to make provision for every item of the whole scheme.
 
Hitherto,  attention  has  been  too  much  concentrated on making provision for the unfit. This concern for  the unfit may be laudable, but if as a result the  fit students are left to fend for themselves, the benefits, of the Selective Test will be largely lost.
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