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Language in Sri Lanka

Language in Sri Lanka

Past, Present and Future

Language has the capacity to both connect and divide people. Language is fundamental for the expression of culture, beliefs, customs and values and helps foster a sense of group identity and belonging. Similarly, the inability to share a common language creates divisions between individuals, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality as language barriers isolate and exclude.

Languages and Identity


Language and ethnic identity are intrinsically linked in Sri Lanka. Whilst there are several languages spoken on the island nation, Sinhala and Tamil are the two recognised national languages. Interestingly, both Sinhala and Tamil refer to two languages and two different ethnic groups. The relationship between language, ethnicity and, in part, religion, has fostered a deep divide within Sri Lankan society that has contributed significantly to the country’s violent 30-year civil conflict.

A friendly waiter transliterates our names from English to Sinhalese, Kandy.

Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan language descended from Sanskrit and is separated from its distant linguistic relatives in Northern India. Sinhala is spoken by 14 million Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.

Names written in Sinhalese Script.

Tamil is one of the major languages of Sri Lanka, with 3 million speakers countrywide. Tamil is one of the oldest Dravidian languages, it can be generally split into four sub categories; Jaffna Tamil, Up-Country Tamil, Negombo Tamil and Batticaloa Tamil.

Names written in Tamil Script.

Sinhala and Buddhism are seen by some as interlinked and central to national identity. This idea has come about through the geographical isolation of the language and a false feeling amongst some of the need to protect the Buddhist majority within the country. This bound identity has been utilised by some to promote Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, suggesting that to be Sri Lankan means that one must be Sinhala, speak Sinhala and be Buddhist.

Avukana Buddha statue from 5th century.

For ethnic Tamils meanwhile, language and culture are most important to their central identity, but religious beliefs are flexible. The practice of Hinduism is the majority religion within the Tamil Speaking community. Whilst there are some Sinhala speaking minority religious groups, the vast majority are Tamil speakers. This can be seen in the large Tamil speaking Christian and Muslim communities.

Legacies of Language


Language and ethnic division have made up a large part of Sri Lankan history post-decolonization. After gaining independence from the British in 1948, Sri Lanka actively opposed English as a colonial language. Despite peaceful protests by representatives of the Tamil minority, in 1956 the Sinhala Only Act (formally called the Official Language Act No. 33) established Sinhala as the nation’s sole official language.

Newspaper cartoon from 1955 commenting on the potentially divisive consequences of a Sinhala only language policy in Sri Lanka, reproduced in The Colombo Telegraph (Colombo Telegraph, 2016).

Two years later, in 1958, the act was partially revised to include provision for Tamil language to be used in a variety of circumstances, such as a medium of examination for Public Service admission and in the administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces. However, this compromise, which was described as “Sinhala Only, Tamil Also”, meant that Tamils still needed to speak Sinhala, while the majority Sinhalese population had little need to speak Tamil, even if working in predominantly Tamil-speaking areas.

Whilst other factors helped propel Sri Lanka into civil conflict, it has been argued that ‘language policy, and the effort to assert ethnic dominance that it epitomised, did the greatest harm of all’ (Neier, 1996: 140). Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue that the Sinhala Only Act “destroyed peaceful Sri Lanka” (Gunaratna 2018).

Sinhala held the status of sole official language until 1978, when Tamil was given the status of a national language alongside Sinhala in the Constitution.

Above: Articles 18-20 of the 1978 Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka stipulating the country’s official and national languages (Constitution of the Republic, 1978).

Despite this change, ethnic tensions continued to rise between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. During the north’s time as a separatist state, the LTTE purification act facilitated both Tamil and English proficiency but subsequently the usage and teaching of the Sinhalese language dropped away. Similarly, in the south, Tamil was a non-compulsory elective in schools.

Attempting to Break Down Language Barriers


Since the end of the civil war in 2009, there have been a range of initiatives to bridge the ethnic divides between the Sinhala and Tamil communities with language. This has included establishing a Department of National Languages and Social Integration to facilitate implementation among both state and civil actors. The department of official languages, provides the functions of translation services to government and non-government organisations, compiles linguistic glossaries, textbooks and dictionaries in all three languages and conducts relevant testing for officers to obtain official language proficiency.

However, linguistic divides and inequalities remain, as we heard about during a visit to the village of Katukeliyawa in the North Central Province.

The Village Administration Office, Katukeliyawa.

We spoke to the Village Administrative Officer. He was 25 and studying law, his time in the village was part of his further education. The village itself is made up of 1332 people, of whom an estimated 1200 people speak Tamil, most of whom are part of the Muslim-Tamil minority.

The officer explained that while at school, Tamil was only an elective and he didn’t take it. He currently does not speak Tamil but is now completing a course in the language. When asked how he communicates with his surrounding community, he explained that the men in the community can speak Sinhalese well, but women often cannot. He believed this is partly due to the women’s lower education rates within the Muslim culture.

A Muslim girl rides home after school.

He explained that all the government documents he had were in Sinhalese, so it was important that the community could speak Sinhalese.

When asked about language reform, he said that things are changing but that it will be a slow process and a long time before the country is bilingual. He believes this is due to slow implementation of government policies and initiatives as well as a lack of education and exposure.

Government language policies and interventions such as this one are ambitious, but there are multiple systemic and political obstacles to be overcome if they are to be effective (School Based Trilingual Initiative Ministry of Education Sri Lanka 2019).

The issue of language also remains important in the north of Sri Lanka. After the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, there was and continues to be a large military and police presences within the northern communities.

Police checkpoint, Jaffna.

In Jaffna, we spoke to a Tamil activist who explained to us that most of the military and police only spoke Sinhalese. This meant that there were communication difficulties between the local people and law enforcement, which perpetuates distrust of government personnel in the north.

Looking Forward: Three Languages for One Country


Despite the ongoing lack of use of the Tamil language in current state held positions, the government’s compulsory instruction of languages in schools have provided a promising step towards reconciliation for Sri Lanka.

Tea plantation workers, Peacock Estate plantation.

In Jaffna, we had the opportunity to talk to a lecturer of language from Jaffna University. Over a ginger beer, he explained to us the importance of education in all three languages.

At present, there is both Sinhalese medium schools and Tamil medium schools, as well as International schools where English is the main language used. Since 2009, it has been compulsory to learn both of the national languages at school as well as the link language, English.

Home page of the Ministry of Education in Sri Lanka with all text in Sinhala, Tamil and English (Ministry of education, 2019).

English has become an important lingua franca between the north and south, in addition to being the language of instruction for most tertiary education.

At universities most courses are taught in English, except for the Arts which are taught in either Tamil or Sinhala depending on the ethnicity of the university’s origin.

– Lecturer of Languages, Jaffna, 2nd February 2019

He explained that overcoming war tensions is imperative for economic survival. The learning of the different languages can and has improved the communication between the two regions and will continue to improve trade, business and job opportunities.

Image with “Lanka” in Sinhala, Tamil and English at a gas station on the way to Jaffna.

Whilst schools are still organised on an ethno-religious basis in Sri Lanka, the compulsory language curriculum is proving to be a positive step in post-war reconciliation by helping to promote equal and healthy communication between ethnic groups.

With language inextricably connected to identity, Sri Lanka must continue to strive to overcome its language legacies and past failed attempts to form a unified national identity that have had tragic consequences; an endeavour that will demand significant amounts of time, resources and political will.

Memorial to those lost in the final days of the fighting on the beaches of Mullaitivu, civilian casualty rates were catastrophically high.

Nevertheless, with language reforms in education and government, there is hope for fostering better communication between ethnic groups and creating better understandings between cultures so that new generations of Sri Lankans can build bridges with languages, rather than barriers.