Bilingualism in Sri Lanka:Profiles of Sri Lankan Bilinguals.

Bilingualism or the knowledge of two or more languages is a common phenomenon in a multiethnic, multi linguistic country like Sri Lanka. Its long colonial history has contributed to the spread of different languages and cultures throughout the island. People living in such culturally diverse contexts are usually conversant in two or more languages as a result of exposure to different cultures. owever, their level of competency in their

languages and especially their attitudes towards the languages they use differ diametrically according to their age, socio!political background, education level and offer revealing insights to the role of language in society. Speaker one is an "nglish medium educated, upper class retired accountant of one of the leading airways in Sri Lanka. e willingly identifies himself as a bilingual speaking

"nglish, Sinhala, #a little bit of$ %amil and acknowledged knowing Latin as an afterthought. e says that "nglish is his dominant language but insists that Sinhala is his mother tongue while %amil is spoken collo&uially with his %amil friends. Being the son of an employee of the British colonial masters and coming from an "nglish speaking family background he insists that he is #very particular$ about "nglish being his dominant language. %he attitudes he entertains towards each of his three languages reflect the typical attitudes of those of his elitist class and generation. "nglish, according to him is a #very unassuming language$ which can be #used anywhere without offending anybody$ while Sinhala has to be used with #people who are not educated$. %he superior, dominant position ascribed to "nglish as #the language of the educated$ mirrors the vestiges of the colonial mentality which idoli'es "nglish. %he fact that he refers to "nglish as an #unassuming language$ evinces the lack of awareness and sensitivity to socio!political realities of the common masses that his elitist class typically exhibits. %he class dimension becomes a vital factor even in defining a bilingual. (ccording to him, a bilingual is someone who had mastered the #speaking with

with reading and writing skills of both languages which excludes people like housemaids who are only able to speak in "nglish. In fact. Speaker two is a Sinhala medium educated woman in her early fifties working as a legal advisor in one of the leading state banks of Sri Lanka and can be roughly classified as a late bilingual. is insistence that Sinhala was his mother tongue even though it was hardly ever spoken at his home context is probably the result of the prevalent nationalism in the socio!political fabric of the country. %he recent eradication of the ethnic tensions and the conse&uent ascendance of %amil as a bridge building language between the late rival ethnicities may have prompted his proud admittance that he is able to speak #a little bit$ of %amil collo&uially. %he practice of code switching which is a privileged form of communication exclusive to the bilinguals. e feels that more often code switching conveys a sense of inade&uate. er er second language is "nglish and it was learnt while she was a student at the Law +aculty.proper pronunciation$. #unrefined$ language which must be avoided at all costs by fluent bilinguals of "nglish. a receptive bilingual. %he conversation also provides illuminating instance of how the level of importance a bilingual attaches to his languages is influenced and shaped by the outside societal factors. unless to accommodate a *monolingual) Sinhala or %amil speaker.onse&uently. mother tongue and dominant language is Sinhala. as he did not consider the head priest of the village temple as a bilingual despite the priest)s knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit. . she admits that she is comfortable in "nglish only in her official legal domain and lack the #fluency and . "nglish peculiarly seems to be the defining language of bilingualism. is regarded rather condescendingly by him saying that it can be #forgiven$ in strictly informal contexts. Bilingualism then. is own knowledge of Latin was added as an afterthought and then &uickly dismissed as #not worthwhile$. seems to be defined by one)s knowledge of the marketable languages rather than knowledge of any language. a secondary bilingual and a subordinate bilingual.

Speaker three is a girl in her early twenties. %his speaker too places "nglish in a more privileged position over the other two languages. . in speaker two)s opinion bilingualism itself is a class marker and is determined by one)s profession rather than by the ability of one)s language to manipulate certain contexts. a secondary bilingual a successive bilingual and a productive bilingual. could even be thought of as bilinguals. +urthermore. owever. "nglish being the second language learnt from tuition classes and /apanese being the third language learnt at school and can be roughly classified as a late bilingual. with Sinhala being the first language ac&uired at home. it is better for a Sri Lankan bilingual to know #a little %amil$ as #an extra language$ or as a mere additional &ualification for the -ob market. she feels it to be a sign of her incompetence and avows that she is always #ashamed$ when she is compelled to mix the languages. she feels that bilingualism is a condition exclusive to #educated professionals$ who are e&ually confident in all the four skills of both languages. she defines a bilingual as a person who has at least one international language like "nglish or +rench. er very admittance that she is not comfortable in speaking "nglish despite her obvious command of the language and . deeming it #ridiculous$ that a housemaid or a bus conductor who has only a limited speaking knowledge.confidence$ to use it collo&uially because she does not have a #good accent$. she feels that since %amil is gaining importance in the present day Sri Lankan context. Speaker two believes that being a bilingual is advantageous in the globali'ed world because it aids in forming links with other nationalities. she feels to be #a common Sri Lankan habit that is a disgrace to both languages$. which illustrates that speaker two too believes that bilingualism is in fact a knowledge of marketable languages.oreover. %herefore.ode switching. and believes that the priest in a village temple cannot &ualify as a bilingual because he only knows #useless. . dead languages like Pali and Sanskrit$. (lthough she herself admits to mixing languages on the rare occasions she speaks "nglish collo&uially.

%hus. %hus. She is confident in both spoken and written /apanese admitting that the positive attitude she had towards the /apanese culture encouraged her learning the language. which shows that the colonial mentality still continues even among the new generation. she replies that she would have given priority to /apanese as it makes one #more privileged$ with better paying -ob opportunities in /apan but4 would have learnt %amil as an #extra language$ in case the ethnic conflict of the country concludes with a favorable resolution to the %amils. %he knowledge of /apanese seems somewhat irrelevant in the Sri Lankan context but it was learnt with a utilitarian purpose in mind!to help with the tourism cooperation owned by her family. she defines a bilingual as #an ordinary person$ 0one who studied up to 12Ls3 who #speaks only Sinhala and who is not able to converse in "nglish$.her own free avowal that she is more comfortable in writing "nglish rather than Sinhala. implies that "nglish is regarded with an almost reverential attitude!it is the language where to make a mistake would be a disgrace. even the speaker two regards "nglish as the essential language of bilingualism and4 the knowledge of "nglish is automatically associated with the educated. +urthermore. the level of importance a bilingual attaches to the languages he2she knows is defined by the socio! political context and the utilitarian values embedded in the overarching ideology of capitalism. as %amil has more relevance in the Sri Lankan context. her dominant tongue. she feels that %amil had become #useless$ and sees no purpose in continuing the little %amil she learnt at primary school. She views the state of being a bilingual positively saying that the more the languages one know the easier it is to ac&uire others citing that since she knows the structures of several languages she finds it easy to grasp the structures of a new language like indi. Speaker two freely admits to code switching2mixing especially switching from Sinhala to "nglish and vice versa during informal contexts yet views the practice of code . (s the conflict ended favorably to the Sinhalese. 5hen asked if she would have continued the little %amil she learnt at primary school instead of learning /apanese.

who also has an all round knowledge of both Sinhala and "nglish as well as a speaking knowledge of 7rdu. .uslim boy in his early twenties. his attitude differs strikingly from the previously interviewed representatives of the mainstream discourse because he gives the most prestigious position to Sinhala saying its #our language spoken by the ma-ority of the country$. 6evertheless. and a receptive bilingual. . having been educated in the %amil medium throughout his school career and his obvious lack of fluency in Sinhala. %he importance he seems to ascribe to Sinhala and his determination to pro-ect himself as a fluent speaker of Sinhala could be induced by the prevalent nationalist atmosphere of the country and his desire to identify himself with the Sinhala speaking ma-ority. Pun-abi with a reading knowledge of (rabic enabling categori'ation as an early bilingual. Speaker four is a . his free admittance to having ac&uired at least a spoken knowledge of them implies that he wishes to hold on to his 7rdu and Pun-abi identity. she feels that code switching is acceptable in an "nglish!speaking person not competent in Sinhala but4 is unacceptable in *monolingual) Sinhala speakers such as +.oreover.switching as a mark of incompetence rather than a privileged and effective form of communication exclusive to bilinguals. 5ith regard to the degree of prestige he attaches to the languages he knows. deeming it #useless$ in a Sri Lanka context. radio announcers. is knowledge of a number of languages is the inevitable conse&uence of his multilingual family background and his belonging to an ethnic minority group in a multiethnic country. a compound bilingual. he also entertains a more favorable attitude towards code switching than shown by the interviewees representing the mainstream discourse. +urthermore. boldly placing Sinhala over "nglish. a mother tongue speaker of %amil. e has ac&uired 7rdu from his Pakistani father and Pun-abi from his grandparents and though he has never cared to gain a written knowledge of either of these languages. he insists that his dominant language now is Sinhala. despite %amil being spoken at home.

he willingly accepts a person knowing Pali and Sanskrit as . after moving to the 7nited States and conse&uent continuous exposure to "nglish. a representative of the Sri Lankan 9iaspora living in the 7nited States and is an example of an achieved bilingual. identity!asserting. e willingly admits to mixing languages in informal contexts. 7rdu to Pun-abi and vice versa. it functions as a unifying. school instruction was Sinhala with a little "nglish spoken at home in Sri Lanka. is mother tongue and the medium of primary and secondary owever. saying it is the #most effective and welcoming way$ of communicating with the other Sri Lankans. switching from %amil to "nglish. he insists that Pun-abi is never mixed with "nglish because it is the #8odey Language$ which implies that despite his claims to the contrary he too entertains certain veneration towards "nglish.7nlike all the mainstream representatives who regarded the code switching in +. code switching does not carry the same stigma it does here in Sri Lanka. e says that he is still fluent in Sinhala speech but face difficulties in reading and writing Sinhala. Speaker five)s attitudes differ significantly from the attitudes of the previously interviewed Sri Lankan bilinguals. owever speaker five)s more liberal and tolerant attitude can be explained in terms of the difference in context: as the 9iaspora is expected to be more or less competent speakers. %his illustrates that it is possible for a bilingual to lose at least some part of one)s own mother tongue with the lack of contact with the language. owever. radios as something positive saying the fre&uent switching from Sinhala to "nglish facilitates understanding. Speaker five is a man in his early thirties. 1n the contrary. admitting freely to mixing the languages liberally at home and with the other Sri Lankans living in 7S(. his dominant tongue has become "nglish. he views the code switching in +.. radios as an *abuse) of language showing incompetence. +urthermore. Sinhala to "nglish. a dormant bilingual and an ascendant bilingual. intimacy creating mechanism. especially among friends and family. positive attitude towards code switching. e seems to entertain a more tolerant. 7rdu to "nglish.

ence. 1nce again. as a person)s state of bilingualism is largely determined by the context. with the ascendance of %amil after the conclusion of the . +or example if speaker one is an ambilingual. a state fraught with many socio!political issues. +ourthly. it becomes evident that Sri Lankan bilinguals are hemmed within a colonial and capitalist mindset and bilingualism in Sri Lanka is therefore. from the interviews conducted. 6evertheless. . privileged way of communication exclusive to bilinguals even though the minority groups and the 9iaspora entertain more positive views.ivil 5ar many bilinguals feel the need to learn %amil though none is ready to replace "nglish with %amil as a link language or accord it a similar status with Sinhala.a bilingual saying that bilingualism is the knowledge of any two languages and believes that even a housemaid with a speaking knowledge of "nglish could be &ualified as a bilingual because it is sufficient for her to survive successfully in her sphere of work. certain trends of bilingualism in Sri Lanka can be identified. bilingualism is inextricably associated with "nglish. this liberal attitude too seems to have stemmed from the difference in context: in 7S( "nglish is the language of the ma-ority and is devoid of all the extra linguistic values of class and status that it is inextricably linked with in the Sri Lankan context. In my opinion. Secondly. one)s status as a bilingual depends on the number of marketable languages one knows. many are not ready to regard code switching as an effective. the inevitable conse&uence of which is that bilingualism itself is linked with class. the practicality of classifying bilinguals under certain labels as some linguists have attempted can be &uestioned. as a result of the overarching capitalist ideology with its emphasis on utilitarianism. +irstly. %hirdly. an additive bilingual or a maximal bilingual serves no useful purpose because such categori'ation is very sub-ective and does not aid in understanding the many serious socio!political issues that bilingualism is fraught with.