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Lanka bid to bridge yawning language gap

Two decades have passed since Tamil was made the second official language of the country but it is still to get its due, reports PK Balachandran.

world Updated: May 10, 2007 12:33 IST

The one million strong Sri Lankan bureaucracy has a major flaw. Civil servants knowing Tamil, the country's second official language, constitute only 8.31% of the total staff, though Tamil is the mother tongue of about 20% of the country's population of 20 million.

Two decades have passed since the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution made Tamil the second official language of the country in addition to Sinhala, but Tamil is still to get its due. Sinhala continues to be the de facto official language with English as the effective second language.

"Tamil is the predominant language in the North-Eastern districts and, indeed, it is used there as the main official language. But in two thirds of the country, where 61% of the Tamil-speakers live, it serves only a decorative purpose," noted Raja Collure, Chairman of the Official Languages Commission.

"There is no simultaneous translation facility in some of the provincial councils in Central Sri Lanka where Tamil speakers are a substantial proportion," he pointed out.

It was to close the yawning linguistic gap that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government implemented two significant steps recommended by the Official Languages Commission in 2005, Collure said.

(a) Entrants to the public service have been made to acquire proficiency in the second official language within five years of their appointment; (b) Those already in service are being given an incentive between LKR 15,000 to 25,000 to gain such proficiency.

"If only these measures had been adopted soon after the passage of the 13th amendment which made Tamil an official language, Sri Lanka's language problem could have been completely solved by now," Collure pointed out.

However, these two steps would not, on their own, solve the problem, he cautioned.

"The Commission has therefore recommended that: (a) government recruit more Tamil-speaking staff; (b) use the university system to train at least 200 translators and interpreters per year and make the Official Languages Department function as a Languages Training Institute also; (c) outsource translation to a set of trained people; (d) make both Sinhala and Tamil compulsory in schools up to the GCE Ordinary Level," Collure said.

GCE O level is equivalent to Class X in the Indian Higher Secondary System.