It is uncertain whether in Sri Lanka’s long history that a language has created more controversy than English. After all, Sri Lanka had been invaded/settled by members of various Southern and Northern Indian nations and later by the Portuguese and the Dutch. The island-nation being an important point on the Sea Silk Route and due to its proximity to the Indian subcontinent, there is plenty of evidence to the fact that at least the clergy and the upper stratum of the Sri Lankan society had been proficient in more than one language as far back in the Anuradhapura Era. In fact it seems that multilingualism had been actively encouraged by the state by conferring honorific epithets on those who were multilingual as in the case of Ven. Thotagamuve Sri Sumangala Thero. This trend seemed to have continued up to the Kandyan Era in which some of the signatories of the Kandyan Convention have signed in Tamil which seemed to have been the language of the ruling family at the time. (Of course, there are indications to the fact that some of the signatures might have been forged, but then that is not relevant to the current topic.) More importantly, it must also be admitted that one’s partiality to sign in a particular language cannot be considered as an indication of his/her proficiency in it. The point being made here is that none of the considerable number of historical records on pre-colonial Sri Lanka gives references to a particular language being a bone of contention.
However, with the arrival of the British there seemed to have been a concerted effort to cultivate a workforce with a working knowledge of English in order to cut administrative costs involved in engaging Europeans and to develop a line of communication with the ‘natives’ in order to carry out the colonial agenda more efficiently. In the process, the British seemed to have stumbled upon other potentials for their language. In 1801, William Russell commenting on establishing English medium schools had stated, “This would tend to conquer the heart and its affections…a thousand pounds expended for tuition, books, and premiums would do more to subdue a nation of savages than forty thousand expended for artillerymen, bullets, and gunpowder.” The English language was used by the colonizer to actively cultivate a group of natives whom Edward Said (self-deprecatingly?) called Brown Sahibs who basically kowtowed blindly to their masters. By creating this substratum in the native community, the British effectively divided it as those who had English and those who hadn’t. Those who had English were rewarded with socioeconomic and political table-scraps at the colonial banquet triggering in them a greater desire to be more Anglicized than the British themselves. One might say that the British anticipated Pavlov’s Conditioning Theory by more than a century. Today, institutions like the British Council are still engaged in carrying out the agenda initiated by the likes of Russell and Macaulay in the good old days of the British Empire.
However, the majority whom either could not or would not learn English were cut off from active political life of their own country and sequestered in socioeconomic ghettoes. Sri Lankan scholars such as Hector A. Passé, Doric de Souza, Thiru Kandiah, Suresh Canagarajah, Arjuna Parakrama, etc. have written extensively on the resulting love-hate relationship that developed between the native masses and the English language in both colonial and post-colonial Sri Lanka. (English in Sri Lanka edited by Siromi Fernando, Manique Gunesekera, and Arjuna Parakrama contain a collection of article on the topic.)
From the beginning politicians of both the numerical majority and the so-called minorities tapped into the rising tensions between the Haves and Have-nots at various levels, the most overt and therefore the most referred to being SWRD’s 1956 Language Act. Whatever its drawbacks might be, it is beyond contention that the SWRDs bold move had enabled the Have-nots of all communities have a go at the socioeconomic and political jackpot of the new order hitherto inaccessible to them. Of course the Haves still had more opportunities than the Have-nots, which is to be expected with their established old boy/girl’s networks and their command of the unofficial official language. Yet most of them vilified the Act and called for reinstatement of the English language which was spoken by mere 4% of the total population at that time as the official language. They applauded writers from multi-ethnic multi-religious African countries such as Ngugi Wa Tango for giving up writing in English in favour of their native language, but held up India that had opted to retain English as a national language as what Sri Lanka should practice. Rivers of crocodile tears were shed on behalf of the masses hoodwinked by SWRD (maybe he did, maybe he did not – but this is immaterial now) who strangely enough with the empowerment of their own tongues had managed to reenter the active socioeconomic and political life of the nation.
But all that is of the not so distant past. Today as one turns the pages of a newspaper or kills an idle hour in front of the TV or travels up and down the length and breadth of the island one is bombarded with numerous advertisements offering varied forms of affiliations with the tongue of their former colonial master. To begin with one is vigorously encouraged to reside in locations carrying names such as Sherwood, Blue Mountain, and Harmony Grove. Those who resided in such places are then advised to shop at Beverly Street and Junior George. And when the shopping is done the next stop is to be Manhattan Fish Market, KFC, or McDonalds for a quick burger and a Coke. For those who are still of two minds, there is –chang where one could decide whether to send one’s future progeny to Lyceum, Royal Institute, Sussex, Oxford, or Cambridge over a cool glass of Palmyra toddy. Of course a good aunty should be found for elocution. Those who cannot afford the cost of international schooling are tacitly encouraged to get their children enrolled in a good government school with English medium classes. For those whose Kaduwa is still dull there are many Sirs to sharpen it for you within a month, sometimes even less, with money-back guarantees. It strikes as rather strange that it is the very people who have benefitted from the so-called Swabhasha policy and/or their children that these advertisements seem to target. However, upon a closer reflection one sees the logic behind the new trend to embrace everything Anglo-American; despite the officializing of the ‘native’ languages, for a long time it was an English of a particular variety that lorded it over the petite bourgeoisie of the rural areas and the nouveau riche. In man’s continuous struggle to be the fittest, no means is to be left unexplored. So once again the tide seems to have turned from Swabhasha to Parabhasha. (Some scholars rightly argue that the English language as spoken in Sri Lanka, even by the RP pundits, has become nativized.) The business sector seems to have anticipated this second coming and simply moved into capitalized on it. Today, the sellers and the buyers of this controversial commodity are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of demand and supply. But when did the tide turn from Anglophobia to Anglo-Amerophilia, so completely?