TamilWeek Mar 19, 2006
Bilingualism- Path to Peace

Monolingualism is a product of the country's education
system. The neglect of teaching languages other than one's
own over the last fifty years has deprived the
underprivileged rural youth in all parts of the country of the
opportunities not only to learn another language but also to
interact with each other across ethno-linguistic lines. As is
well known, the formation of identities and world views is
critically influenced by linguistic skills. In a country where
ethno-linguistic divisions figured prominently even at the
time of political independence, more than fifty years ago, the
propagation of monolingualism through education has been
the biggest political blunder. This is perhaps the most
important factor that facilitated the emergence of almost
exclusive political constituencies in the north as well as in
the south. Yet, we have done precious little to address this
critical issue over the last several decades.

Prof. S.T. Hettige

Let me begin this article with an anecdote. I was invited to
address a gathering of youth in Galle last week, at a youth
camp organized by the UN volunteer programme. It was an
international event and the organizers had brought together
about 500 youth not only from different parts of the country
but also from several other countries in Asia. When I was
asked to address the gathering, I wondered in what
language I should speak. Though it was an international
event, if I spoke in English, the vast majority of the youth
present there would not have understood my speech. If I
spoke in Sinhala, Tamil speaking youth and foreign
participants would not have understood me. So, I decided to
speak in both Sinhala and English, while a Tamil translator
tried his best to give a reasonable summary in Tamil.
Whether my attempt to do justice to all the participants in
the audience was successful or not, only the participants
could tell. But, my own impression was that it was not

What does the above anecdote illustrate? It points to the
naked truth that, when youth belonging to different ethno -
linguistic communities are brought together, they do not
have a common language to communicate with each other.
In other words, youth in the country in general continue to
be monolingual, while only a very small proportion of them
have become bilingual or trilingual. The latter largely come
from urban, often middle class backgrounds or from ethno
-linguistically mixed communities that are few and far
between. Foreigners who come here to do "development
and peace" often do not realize the gravity of the situation
because they mostly interact with the members of the
English -speaking minority in Colombo and elsewhere.

When the ethnic conflict broke out, it naturally became a
political conflict, a conflict for state power. Those who stood
for peace naturally began to talk about reconciliation and
finding a negotiated political settlement. All our energies and
resources have been devoted to facilitate the peace
process. Peace lobbies mushroomed in the country,
particularly in Colombo, with the support of Western
countries and international agencies. Many people have
been travelling around, holding workshops, seminars, peace
campaigns, etc. and all these would have cost millions of
dollars. All these efforts no doubt have had some impact on
people but the change of attitudes has been influenced
more by the adverse impact of the war on both sides than
by the activities of the peace lobby. But the opportunity cost
of devoting all our energies and resources to bring the
warring parties together at the expense of dealing with the
ground conditions that have continued to keep these critical
constituencies in their mutually exclusive ethno- linguistic
enclaves, has been enormous. The international community
that probably did not understand what was happening in the
country at community and institutional levels, (in other
words, social and cultural processes) came up with their
readymade conflict resolution packages and found enough
support in the country to remain pre-occupied with "political
reconciliation" to this day.

In a situation of violent political conflict, it would be insane
not to talk about political dialogue and conflict resolution.
But, it would be equally insane to reduce the long standing
ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka to the level of a mere power
struggle between two political factions. Moreover, It would
also amount to an outright insult to the entire social science
community. Empirical Studies in a range of social science
disciplines such as social psychology, socio-linguistics,
anthropology, and sociology have demonstrated in no
uncertain terms that social and cultural processes at family,
community and institutional levels influence identity
formation, and shape inter-personal and inter -community
relations. Yet, the over-emphasis on the political dimension
of the conflict has almost blinded us to other dimensions.
Consequently, we have done precious little to change the
ground conditions, that continue to reproduce mutually
exclusive ethno -linguistic constituencies and everything that
goes with them. On the other hand, a few NGO's, however
effective they may be in keeping the peace message alive,
cannot be expected to change the ground conditions in the
country. Here we need the state to take the upper hand and
make a concerted effort with the support of the international
community. A few nation- wide policy interventions can bring
about a major shift in the ground conditions within a few
years. Given the fact that peace efforts have been under
way for more than two decades and yet political
reconciliation is still not in sight, it is wise and logical to start
working on other fronts as well, without further delay. My
humble opinion is that, had we approached the issue on all
fronts from the beginning, as I have advocated for the last
two decades with little success, the situation in the country
today would have been very different. Had we changed the
ground conditions significantly, the intransient leaders would
have come under pressure from below, drastically reducing
the need to apply pressure from above.

What should we do to change the ground conditions? Let us
start with the language. We should set a national goal with
regard to language. It can be framed as follows. "No child in
Sri Lanka should leave school without being at least
bilingual". Once set as a national goal, both state and
non-state actors can help reach the goal within a
reasonable period of time. We can develop a national plan
of action, mobilize resources to implement it and monitor its
progress in order to guide the process through. If we
succeed, a diverse group of youth like the one I addressed
in Galle would have a common language, not only to
understand a lecture but also to communicate among

Today we organize "national" events in various fields but
they can be hardly called national. We invite people from
different parts of the country to Colombo and end up
conducting the programme in Sinhala or English. When we
conduct the programme in Sinhala, monolingual Tamil
speakers are in the dark. When we conduct the programme
in English, monolingual Sinhala and Tamil youth use only
facial gestures to communicate, as they do not understand
the language. How can we mobilize young people for a
national purpose and allow them to work together
irrespective of their ethnic origins, if they cannot
communicate with each other? On the other hand, if most of
the younger population in the country cannot participate in a
truly national event, how can we talk about national, political
reconciliation?. Does the patching up of the differences
between warring political factions at a superficial level
amount to creating a sustainable political structure that
allows different groups to participate in mainstream activities
on the basis of egalitarian and democratic principles? Is
political reconciliation a substitute for social integration? Or
would political reconciliation inevitably lead to social
integration? If not, what should be done to facilitate social
integration as a process parallel to political reconciliation?

As indicated above, removal of linguistic barriers is a critical
step but many other interventions are needed. Addressing
the linguistic issue is not just to facilitate inter-community
interaction, but also to provide a range of other
opportunities such as training, employment, spatial and
social mobility, inter -cultural learning, participation in
national political life, acquisition of knowledge using IT, etc.
Adverse socio- economic conditions prevailing in remote
rural areas and conflict zones contribute to frustrations and
an acute sense of relative deprivation that, in turn, breed
anti systemic feelings, class hatred and animosities towards
opponents. At an institutional level these attitudes and
feelings lead to intolerance and group violence as is clearly
illustrated by widespread and persisting political violence
among university students in Sri Lanka

The international community, and its partners have helped
put peace and political reconciliation on the national political
agenda. This is a major achievement, though real peace is
still a moving target. On the other hand, if we could change
the "ground realities", the target might begin to move in our
direction rather than away from us.

So, it is time for the international community and those who
work with them to embark upon a campaign to highlight the
need to provide the children and the youth in the country
with opportunities to transcend their ethno-linguistic
boundaries and become equal citizens of a pluralistic state.

Under such conditions, achieving peace and political
reconciliation might be much easier.