The past five years has seen a record rise in the expansion and improvement of the country’s road network. New roads have built at a pace never seen before in all regions of the country. Similarly, there has been a major activity in bridge building too. Together with the development of roads, new bridges have been built in many parts and existing bridges have been improved and upgraded. The building of roads and bridges has been a key aspect of the government’s infrastructure development policy.
It is a policy directed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa who sees the importance of opening up hitherto untouched areas of the country for rapid development, with emphasis on the rural areas, as well as his emphasis of expediting development in the vast areas of the country where development was prevented for three decades due to the presence of terrorism. President Rajapaksa sees new roads and bridges as vital to the development of the economy, as well as increased contact between the different communities in the country, improving social and economic relations among the communities to whom Sri Lanka is home.
Today we see the launch of another important bridge but different bridge building programme, not at the level of physical infrastructure that is so important, but at the level of the mind and human skills.
The launch of the Ten Year Programme to make Sri Lanka a Trilingual country and the declaration of the current year 2012 as the Year of Trilngualism, are key aspects of President Rajapaksa’s policy on social and economic development. This follows the President’s earlier initiative that launched the teaching of English as a Life Skill, which saw the training of English language teachers in schools, with the assistance of India that has already taken major strides in both the learning and teaching of English.
Language has been a major political issue in Sri Lanka for most of the period since independence in 1948. Although language is generally known as a unifying factor in society, experience has shown us that it can also be a major divisive factor. It is not wholly incorrect to see the non-resolution of the language issue as a major cause for the ethnic crisis that has enveloped Sri Lankan society for several decades, and ultimately led to the emergence of separatist terrorism that caused so much loss of life, and led to vast damage to the economy, as well as pushing back the progress of the country.
The language issue, which saw the increased separation of the two main communities in the country, the Sinhala and Tamil people, also brought about policies that led to an unquestionable perception of unfair treatment of Tamil speaking people of the country.
We came very close to realizing the prophetic warning of Dr. Colvin R de Silva in 1955, at the height of the language debate and the campaign for Sinhala Only as the one official language, when he said that one language would lead to two counties, while two languages would ensure one country.
It took more than three decades with much political strife, and the emergence and progress of an armed separatist campaign for the country to shift from Sinhala Only, to the acceptance of both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987, which also saw the naming of English as the link language.
Some of the problems on language in the country came with the policies on education. Among the chief causes of later strife was the policy of education in the mother tongue, introduced before independence following a resolution moved in the State Council by the late JR Jayewardene.
Although the aim of this policy at that time appears to be to give greater opportunities for learning to the indigenous people of the country, then referred to as natives by the colonial rulers, in fact this led to a considerable amount of the later separation of the communities, beginning with the separation of children in schools based on the language of instruction. As JRJ explained in introducing this policy, it was based was the learned thinking at that time that a child could be best educated in one’s mother tongue, which is not questioned even today.
But in implementing this policy one saw the emergence of an even greater divide in society, which would not have been seen by the initiators of education in the mother tongue.
This policy, combined with the virtual elimination of English from the school curriculum, through lack of emphasis on its teaching and learning in the post- 1956 period, saw the emergence of a major divide in society among those who had knowledge of English and those without it.
Combined with the inequities of the Sinhala Only policy as implemented, the knowledge of English or the lack of it became a major issue of social division, leading to considerable migration out of the country, long before the separatist violence of the LTTE, and the emergence of a privileged class, whose main privilege was the knowledge of English, and the ability to passing such knowledge down their progeny. The divisions among schools spread from schools to universities and in the situation of a shrinking economy, with lack of expanding employment opportunities, except in the state sector, that too due largely for political reasons, those without a knowledge of English began to be increasingly left out of whatever avenues of progress available.
The public sector took in those educated in the Sinhala medium, there were many disadvantages to the Tamil speaking, especially through the short-lived but highly discriminatory system of admission to universities.
Meanwhile, the private sector, especially in the service areas such as hotels, marketing and the financial services kept giving preference to those with a good or even passable knowledge of English.
Along with those educated in Tamil, the Sinhala educated too were being shut out of good job opportunities. It did not take long for youth who saw the opportunities for progress in society rapidly shrinking, and the best opportunities going to those who had even a little knowledge of English, which emerged as a social class, to name English as the ‘Kaduva’ or sword, which can cut down those who did not have it, and wielding it being the only for social and economic advance.
The declaration of 2012 as the Year for a Trilingual Sri Lanka and the launch today of the Ten Year Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka (2012 – 2021) is the important move at building new bridges among people. It began with the full implementation of the language policy of the government, with the decisive steps taken to teach both Sinhala and Tamil in schools and the special incentives given to public servants to gain proficiency in Tamil.
This was later extended by President Rajapaksa with the new impetus given to the teaching of English in our schools, with the knowledge of English being considered a Life Skill.
What is being initiated by the President today is the move to make Sri Lanka a Trilingual country. This is bridge building both within Sri Lanka and outside it too. Within the country there is all the encouragement to build bridges between communities, with the wider knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil leading to better interaction between the two main communities as well bringing closer linkage between all Tamil speaking people and the Sinhala speaking, This should in turn lead to greater understanding among people, and hopefully contribute to the process of reconciliation after a prolonged conflict that had its roots in injustice in the matter of language.
The Trinlingual initiative goes further in helping to open the doors to better and wider contact with the outside world, especially important for the students and youth in our country to benefit from the daily and major advances in technology, as well as the new thinking that is taking place in areas such as economic s, development, political thinking and social progress.
Learning of English as a Life Skill would, if well implemented by those in charge of it, give our youth many opportunities they have been hitherto denied, and available only to a small elite who had access to and knowledge of English. This will lead us to the full benefits of language knowledge, which is better understanding among people, leading to greater unity, in the conditions of a sustainable peace that is being built, as well giving our people a key to the vast resources of knowledge outside our shores that become available through the knowledge of English. It will also help break the social divide that exists between those who wield the English ‘Kaduva’ and those who cannot even reach it.
It is a new bridge of understanding and outreach that can propel Sri Lanka towards greater unity within and better interaction, and communication and participation with the world outside; a new bridge to greater learning and understanding through the opening to the knowledge resources of the world, in a culture that has always valued learning as the path to progress. It is a bridge not too far, but which took far too long to build!