Can Language be a Tool for Reconciliation?
30 Sep 2015 by Sandaru Diwakara
“You look pretty in Sari. The way you have dressed it, I thought you were Tamil,” he said. As our conversation progressed, we talked about life, philosophy and what we wanted to be in the future. He was not good at speaking Sinhala. And I could not speak Tamil at all. But by speaking in English, we conversed about the poems we wrote. He writes his poems in Tamil and promised to show me few of them, once they were translated. This is how I made a friend from Jaffna, backstage at the Diyathalawa Leadership Training Camp, as we waited to perform our items.
The next story is about my mother. One day, when I came home from the boarding house, I couldn’t find Amma at home. It was a weekend and she was supposed to be home. She returned an hour later, a little exhausted and thoughtful. “I went to a Tamil class today and the grammar was very hard,” she said. Why on earth would she go to a Tamil class now? Apparently, all the government officials have to be proficient in Tamil and it has been made compulsory. She asked for our old Tamil note books and text books, went for classes every Saturday and started learning Tamil diligently.
What do these two seemingly unrelated stories have to do with reconciliation in Sri Lanka? After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, all of us were over the moon. No more war and no more death. Peace after decades is a cause for celebration. However, a military victory alone will not ensure lasting peace. We must find solutions to the root causes which led to war in the first place.
So, what are the polarizing factors that could cause chaos and disintegration? According to the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report 2014 on Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future (NHDR), the National Youth Survey (NYS) of 2013 indicates that the main factor dividing Sri Lankan society is ‘ethnicity’. Language, politics, religion, class and caste also promote inequality, disintegration and further divisions within different Sri Lankan communities. I feel that language stands out among these, as it is the medium we use to communicate. If a certain community faces a situation where their right to communicate is violated or marginalized, it negative impacts our progression towards a peaceful society. The Sinhala Only Act in 1956 and the discrimination it brought upon those who do not use Sinhala as their mother tongue exemplifies this situation. Such individuals found it difficult to find jobs in the public sector dominated by a Sinhala only policy and the vernacular differences divided them further more.
Language, our means of expressing ourselves to the world, can be an extremely volatile issue. Yet, it is also important to identify that understanding the language of a certain community is the main pathway towards understanding that culture. A language is not merely a set of words and phrases, rather a cultural heritage which is embedded in what is unique about a certain community. Traditions, customs, and emotions are incorporated within a language and understanding these aspects will certainly lead towards mutual respect and recognition. The ‘Official Language Policy’ of Sri Lanka attempts to recognize both Sinhala and Tamil as national languages and English as the Link Language. But the discrepancies which were present for decades will not fade away without a remarkable effort. For example, the NYS 2013 states that large proportions of Sri Lankan youth are monolingual, despite the multicultural environment that exists in the country. Most Sri Lankan youth being comfortable only in their mother tongue explains the lack of confidence they have with English as well.
Let me go back to my first story. As a result of the conflict and many complex reasons that existed, I am unable to converse in Tamil and my friend’s Sinhala isn’t very fluent. Yet we could both manage English and that led to a friendship of understanding. If we could not speak English, we couldn’t have communicated and we wouldn’t have been able to establish a friendship. This is just one example of the advantages of being bilingual. In the multicultural context of Sri Lanka, being trilingual will be extremely favourable for ethnic harmony and understanding.
The current efforts of the state, which are mainly conducted through the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, should be appreciated. My second story, where my mother is learning the Tamil language as a government official shows the change in attitude towards languages and the importance of going beyond the limits we set for ourselves.
According to the NHDR 2014,“Despite the department established under the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration to advance the language policy, financial and human resources need to be committed at least for the Bilingual Administrative Divisions that have been gazetted, and for critical service delivery units such as police stations, hospitals and schools.”
These initiatives would eventually lead towards a trilingual Sri Lanka. However, state initiatives alone would not suffice if we want to make a real impact. Individuals need to change their attitudes and understand every individual’s right to be treated equally.
I did not have close friends from other communities until I changed schools and came to Colombo to study for my Advanced Level Examination. Moreover, I did not know how similar our thoughts and thinking patterns would be until I made a friend from Jaffna at my leadership development camp in Diyathalawa. I understood that as the young people of Sri Lanka, we are all insecure, yet remain hopeful about the future. We need more opportunities to interact with one other’s culture. We need to make an effort and learn one another’s language. It is this understanding and mutual respect which will help all of us to reconcile, thereby making sure that past mistakes will never be repeated.