By Surya Vishwa/DailyFT
The topic of this article is about the psychology of the use of English language in post-Colonial Sri Lanka. Before getting into the dynamics of it, it is necessary to first look at the mother tongue of the majority of the country’s population; the Sinhala language.
Last week I had a very interesting discussion with a Lankan friend; a Sinhalese and an engineer who possesses a library of around 5,000 rare books, mostly in the Sinhala language pertaining to Sinhala culture and civilisation. Both his parents being scholars of the Sinhala language and culture, he is the quintessential storehouse of a vast knowledge. It ranged from comparative aspects of the languages of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit, knowledge of Buddhism, Ayurveda and Deshiya Chikitsa medical knowledge, folklore, knowledge of the supernatural beliefs and ancient sciences of Lanka, to ancient engineering concepts from Sri Lanka and Asia. One could listen to this person for hours.
Psychology of the politics of English
In our recent discussion emerged the psychology of the politics of English (Kadda as it is called in Lankan universities). The friend lamented the pettiness of looking at English as an opponent of Lankan patriotism. For seven decades we have not strategised how English could be integrated into our cultural system. As a nation we have not seriously considered the immense possibility of teaching English through local heritage knowledge.
Although we brought in the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, one could argue, that this has done nothing in a practical sense over the years to the upholding and promotion of the Sinhala language. This has indirectly contributed to English being seen as a weapon to undermine Sinhala. This intriguing convolution of ideologies cannot easily be tackled in one article as it has so many historical, social and political dimensions.
While countries such as Japan and China have strong policies to promote their literature and writers globally through a strong translation-focused literary promotion a lot of our brilliant writers writing in the Sinhala as well as Tamil languages are virtually unknown in the rest of the world.
I belong somewhat to the English literary circuit and with the exception of several authors such as Lal Medawattegedera (a lecturer in an English Department of a Sri Lankan university) there is a general tendency for English language-based authors to circulate amongst their own cliques. Having many close friends in the Sinhala literary circuit I am also aware of the jokes they narrate of the ‘kadda types’ – the slang term to describe those using English for professional communication.
Reverting to my engineer friend I have cited in the beginning, one of the most admirable qualities of his, is his truly Buddhistic attitude. He has no sense of prejudice or judgment of any Lankan who would use the English language to communicate the knowledge and culture of the country. With experience of around 30 years of being associated with several patriotic movements associated with the Sinhalese community, he does not confuse communalism with patriotism and correctly understands that English should be increasingly used as a tool to communicate genuine national harmony-based patriotism – amongst all communities of Sri Lanka – and not look at the English language as an opponent of patriotism.
In this context it is pertinent to highlight that English is anyway made up of around 50 other languages, and therefore could be recognised for what it is; a universal language that at least 1.5 billion people – 20% of the world population speak. And just for record, it was Latin and the old Anglo Norman French that was used in the medieval and 12th to 15th century England.
A linguist would further be able to explain how many languages including those such as Greek, Italian, Arabian and Spanish contributed to the formation of the English language. Thus we can free our minds from the falsity of thinking that English is owned by just one entity.
Lankan context of the importance of English
Back to the relevance of the Lankan context of the importance of English; it could be especially used to communicate Sri Lanka’s soft power; its heritage, to the world. This means that the era of connecting English to the British throne (the common reference to speaking ‘Queen’s English) is now gone and what is important is respecting it for its technical usefulness.
On the topic of promoting Lankan heritage internationally I will have to seemingly digress but to a very connected point with the headline of this article which will be explained shortly.
In this pandemic backdrop nations are realising that the global status quo; as to who remains powerful or not in the global ampitheatre after the end of this pandemic, would depend on the level of strategising each nation would have to do to conquer this health challenge with resources it has at hand. It is up to these nations to then use effective models of communication to get across their message to the world.
Sri Lanka has had for the past 10 months very lamentably not used a unique opportunity to prove to our country and the world the actual potency of Lankan indigenous medical expertise in practice in this COVID-19 backdrop. When many traditional physicians of Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala wedakama) and Sri Lankan Ayurveda doctors were clamouring for a chance to treat COVID19 patients our national approach haphazard and ad hoc.
We were judging these physicians with the colonial measurement of who a scientist is and doubting whether these traditional physicians were capable of researching a ‘medicine’ for the coronavirus, little knowing that almost all Lankan Ayurveda and Deshiya Chikitsa physicians were actively following English medium Western world research on the virus, at times with the assistance of their international professional contacts, and using the Vatha, Pitha and Kapha theory to find which herbal combinations could be used to destroy the virus at the earliest stage..
Struggling to get formal local recognition many of these physicians have done actual case studies of hundreds of Lankans here and abroad obtaining through independent choice local COVID-19 immunity-boosting curative and preventive medications. These Lankans exposed to the virus and some of them having contracted it have exercised their fundamental right of freedom to choose their own medications and have used the expertise of Lankan indigenous medical practitioners. It is learnt that privately many of these physicians are sending their medical products abroad.
Last week I interviewed a physician in the Central Province who has created a herb-based vaccine equivalent who is now discussing with at least eight countries the sale of his product (safeguarding his intellectual property right). The language medium of English therefore should be looked at in the context where it could be prudently used to promote our national expertise.
Subtle psychological barriers
However there are subtle psychological barriers that have to be systematically sorted in understanding the rational value of English (without irrational eulogising or equally irrational attacking).
As a writer and communication practitioner promoting Sri Lankan heritage, especially its medical heritage and professionally functioning in English, this writer has been exposed to many diverse individuals connected with many aspects of the Lankan heritage and including patriotic organisations consisting primarily of the majority community of this country. (This does not infer that we should not consider the heritage of Lankan Tamils and Muslims which is interwoven and exist as distinct components of a rich local culture.)
As a person who is interested in integrating disciplines and currently looking at how the concept of national peacebuilding (without Western notions or trappings) could be maximised routed through this nation’s heritage, I have noticed that we have a major challenge. This is to surmount the colonial hangover we have pertaining to the English language.
This hangover is apparent in two dimensions. We have one set of persons belonging to the so-called liberal elite of Sri Lanka who seem to blindly support the view that English is the one and only way to individual and national success. We have also the polar opposite view expressed by some that the mere use of English as a formal communication immediately disqualifies one from being a patriot.
This was humorously highlighted by my friend who I referred to at the beginning of this article. He maintained that in some of the meetings of these Sinhala nationalist groups, (he himself is a long-time member of several) that what seems to be most important is to lambast how Colombo 7 ladies are speaking in English and walking their dogs in the park!
The language divide
Sadly although a nation which has the wonderful treasure of the Buddhistic middle path philosophy, we many times seem to struggle to find middle ground in these debates. This failure has cost our country dearly. It has cost us in the education sector where our university system is under the pandemic of the menace of ragging which is centred on the language divide. The kind of information on this strange mental derangement arising from several national universities is enough to drive a psychologist to suicide.
In Lankan universities the English language is referred to as the ‘kadda’ and also quite hilariously the English departments are referred to by those in other departments as ‘the place where those British types are’.
One friend in a science-based faculty once quipped in a rather irate manner ‘what aney – some of these English department students think they are from England noh.’ What he meant was a manner of exclusivity that some of these students carry about them but of course it could also be how those of other departments perceive them.
Similarly an acquaintance from the television industry said how one of his professors; a very genial personality quipped, ‘putha ara Engrisi katha karana daruwan ema bashawen kathakarana newei kegahanawane’. Trying to unravel this statement by this professor, I arrived at the conclusion that there could be a brash superiority expressed subtly or overtly by some Lankan youth who use this language, which can certainly be used with opposite route of quiet decorum.
National identity quest
We can finally sum up that after 73 years of independence from the British that we are still struggling in the quest of national identity and that it would at least now be time to re-look at how the English language could be incorporated and owned within the heritage and culture of Sri Lanka. Not to do so and to look at English and those who use it professionally with suspicion, as a kind of ‘enemy of the State’ would be as stupid as it is ridiculous. In a same way to think of English as the sole path to national glory or some social elevation magic wand would be as ridiculous as it is stupid.
To also educate our children and youth at the cost of their mother tongue is to totally cut off their link with their heritage. It is this policy vacuum of suitable alternatives to teach English strongly within the local culture that is manifesting in the sick attitude of social division merely based on a very useful language.
This writer would like to conclude this article by proposing that we begin to conceptualise the teaching English, Sinhala and Tamil in parallel, through local traditional knowledge. This way we teach much more than grammar and syntax and maximising the linguistic capacity of our students. Such an initiative taken at policy level will encourage healthy minds rooted in the holistic Lankan heritage that in the long term, benefit individuals as well as the country.
Contemplation of this theme will continue in the weeks to come in this space, as examined from different lenses. This is as part of the Harmony page objective of promoting wisdom, intellect and incisive as well as introspective thought processes connected with local knowledge that will enable genuine ‘thinking’ and possibly practical, harmonious and creative action.