Language Essay: Sri Lanka's Languages & Cultures

 As a Sri Lankan citizen, I grew up in a multicultural environment. We are taught to speak English, Tamil and Sinhala as children and most of us are orally fluent in at least two of the languages by sixth grade. Sinhala is the mother tongue of Sri Lanka and boasts the largest collection of short stories in any language here. Tamil is more commonly spoken in the northern region but is used in its many dialects around the island. In most schools English is the main language and so, children have an exposure to all three of the languages on a daily basis. We are brought up around people from various ethnicities and so learn about different races and cultures from a young age. Sri Lankan culture has a very rich past influenced by India, the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Arabs. The amalgamation of the cultures from all over the world has created a unique culture that Sri Lankans are proud of. Our customary traditions, art, literature, music and even cuisine all have a distinct feature to them. The large range of communities such as Sinhalese, Burghers, Tamils, Moors, etc. has given rise to a multitude of hybrid cultures.

It is often common to see Sri Lanka as a branch of India. Most South-east Asian countries are lumped together and the individual cultures and traditions of each country are overlooked. As this is the silk routes session, I believe that participants from all involved countries would greatly benefit from learning about the differences between our culture and their own. Despite our cultures originating from similar roots, we have all evolved into distinctive new societies with our own traditions, art and cultural norms. I hope that by learning about the customs, languages and literary traditions of each country, we can have a deeper understanding of our individualities.

Sinhala literature can be traced back to two millenniums and is considered to be the successor to the ancient Aryan literary traditions. Many early versions of Buddhist scriptures were documented in 6BC and the oldest prose work dates back to the 9th century. Prose and Sinhalese folklore were an integral aspect of literature in Sri Lanka. During the middle ages, Sri Lankan literature saw a boost and many poetic writings known as Kaviyas were written during this period.

Tamil literature in Sri Lanka developed its own style despite its ties to the Indian subcontinent. It too has a colourful background, contributed to by both the Hindu and Muslim communities here. Dating back to the Sangam era (200BCE to 600CE), it lasted through the Portuguese era, prevalent in the Jaffna courts. Tamil literature saw a fall during the civil war but still has its literary traditions intact. Language has linked many different ethnicities within the country and is important here in Sri Lanka but is given low priority amongst the newer generations.

Despite the significance the two languages have with respect to Sri Lankan culture, in many schools little to no time is allocated for their literature. Although I can speak Tamil and Sinhala to a certain level of fluency, reading is an entirely different issue. As someone who loves literature of all kinds, this lack of exposure pains me. Due to this lack of exposure, the distinct styles of Sinhala and Tamil literature is being rapidly forgotten and before long, may die out. This is why I believe BTL should incorporate at least one of the languages and delve into its literature as I feel it would be of benefit to all those involved.