By Sandun Jayawardana
The sole authority for language policy implementation is the Ministry of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages. The Department of Official Languages (DOL), the Official Languages Commission (OLC) and National Institute of Language Education and Training (NILET) fall within its purview.
Mano Ganesan is proud of being the first subject minister proficient in all three languages. He insisted that language law implementation was essential to a political solution to the country’s national issues, in an interview with the Sunday Times. If allowed to freely carry out his language plans, the Government can solve “51 per cent of the national issue,” he said.
Bilingual language proficiency within the State sector was nowhere near satisfactory, Mr. Ganesan admitted. “Learning the second language is considered an additional burden by employees although second language proficiency is tied to their promotions and incentives,” he said. He alleged that some State employees were using ‘dubious means’ to obtain second language proficiency certificates for promotions and incentives. Consequently, most public sector workers with second language proficiency certificates do not speak, write or understand the second language.
This creates situations where poorly-qualified people make basic mistakes that insult whole communities. Mr. Ganesan referred to a photograph sent to him of a sign fixed above a bench in a Government office. In Sinhala, it read, “Reserved for pregnant mothers”. The Tamil script said, “Reserved for pregnant dogs”. He cannot dream of a bilingual State service even within the next few decades, the Minister said.
He once asked the officer-in-charge (OIC) of a police station in Colombo how he would deal with a complainant who knew only Tamil. The OIC had introduced him to a Tamil-speaking Sinhala officer who did that job. The Minister then struck up a conversation with him in Tamil. “Within a minute, I found he could speak very little Tamil,” he recounted.
The officer had no academic qualifications in Tamil. He had picked up bits from tuition classes. His skills were clearly inadequate for someone tasked with so serious a responsibility’ as a complaint is taken down in Sinhala and the complainant is required to sign it, the chance for error is high.
“I realise this is neither the fault of the OIC nor of the officer,” Mr. Ganesan stressed. What this underlines is the need for professional interpreters and translators in the State sector.
A Cabinet Paper is due to be presented soon seeking approval to recruit, train and appoint an initial batch of 3,000 “bilingual assistants” to all State institutions requiring such service. They would be picked from among those who had sat for the GCE A/Level or O/Level exams and had passed second language subjects.
Another Cabinet paper has already been submitted seeking amendments to the scheme of recruitment for State services enabling those with bilingual abilities to score extra marks at recruitment interviews. Among other things, the Minister wants Cabinet approval to amend the Official Languages Commission Act enabling legal action against all violators of language policy.
Other immediate measures are also being taken on four fronts, he said. Steps will be taken to ensure all external and internal movable and immovable signboards are trilingual. All documents and forms for public use will be available at State institutions in the three languages. Efforts will be made to ensure citizens receive oral and written responses in the official language of their choice or the link language at all State institutions. The Ministry will push institutions to commit towards an official language policy in all Government offices.
The Government will encourage the private sector to implement these. Mr. Ganesan does not see anyone obstructing the plans. Even the Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa has assured its support for implementation of the language policy
“I trust the President, Prime Minister and Cabinet would support me in achieving my targets,” he said. “If I can’t get it done, I don’t think I’ll waste my time continuing as a Minister.”