Edited by Lionel Wee, Robbie B.H. Goh and Lisa Lim
[Studies in World Language Problems 4] 2013
► pp. 61–80
The politics of English is inseparable from the politics of other languages in multicultural, multilingual (South and Southeast) Asia; in few other places is this more painfully felt than Sri Lanka, where ethnolinguistic issues have embroiled the country in civil war for a quarter of a century. A source of this conflict, its origin in British rule, is the provision of English education, as a scarce commodity, affording better employment opportunities and socioeconomic advancement. With the Tamil minority viewed as privileged in the colonial system, more protectionist measures were sought in independence for the Sinhala ethnic majority through a ’Sinhala Only’ language policy, all this leading to the country’s polarization. Crucially, English has continued to be the major instrument of the dominant bilingual westernised elite, the kaduva (Sinhala ‘sword’), with the power to divide those with and without access to the language. More recent state discourse, however, reframes English as a functionally different tool, one for communication for knowledge and employment. Two aspects are notable: (i) that English be delivered and desired purely for its utility value, while Sinhala and Tamil associate with cultural values and identities; and (ii) that English be an important tool (along with ICT) for rural empowerment, with user-friendliness rather than correctness of grammar and pronunciation emphasized (contrasting interestingly with Singapore’s situation). Such a shift, in users and competence in English, beyond the exonormative, elite minority may mean a development of Sri Lankan English(es) more in line with the broader multilingual ecology, holding intriguing possibilities for its evolution and appropriation.
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