Status of Languages and a Country’s National Identity

(20.09.2014 – Email)

While speaking at the ‘Annual Hindi Day’ event held in the Indian consular office in Jaffna, the acting Indian High Commissioner (HC) S.T. Murthy has pointed out that at least 50% of the Indian population knows the Indian main language and similarly Sri Lankan Tamils also should learn Sinhala Language in order to grow the relationship.

Ironically, India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former High Commissioner A.N. Dixit were on records for invading the country’s air space and insisting on a multi-lingual system without any historical evidence or approval from the country’s citizens, merely to please their own racial elements in Southern India and to achieve their own internal and external political goals.

At a time, Sinhala children are being forced to learn Tamil by our own politicians who do not have the right vision or a backbone to ask the rest of the communities to learn Sinhala, the above statement said to have been made by an envoy of India is somewhat interesting.

Status of Languages in India

Despite the fact that there are more than 22 officially recognized languages in India at State levels, including, Hindi, English, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Panjabi, Marathi etc, Hindi and English languages are recognized as the Official languages of India. Although the number of native Hindi speakers range up to 24.5% in total Indian population, as the acting Indian HC correctly pointed out, Hindi is now spoken nearly 50% of the Indian population. English continues to be used for some official purposes by the government of India in conjunction with Hindi, the number of English speakers within India is nearly 20%. Hindi is the only native language to be recognized as the official language of the country, since English is a foreign language. Even though English language is not included in Eighth Schedule (as it is a foreign language), it is one of the official languages of Union of India.

Although there are 61 million Tamils in India, Tamil is not an official language of India.

The Republic of India does not have a national language despite there are 30 languages are spoken by more than a million native speakers (according Census taken in 2001). A national language is a language which has some connection—de facto—with a people and perhaps by extension the territory they occupy. The term is used variously. A national language may for instance represent the national identity of a nation or country.

Let us examine the national or official status of respective languages in some of the well known countries in the world.

Status of Languages in Asia

The national, or official, language in Malaysia is Malay which is the mother tongue of the majority Malay ethnic group. The main ethnic groups within Malaysia comprise the Malays, Chinese and Indians, with many other ethnic groups represented in smaller numbers, each with its own languages. Korean, also called Hangul, is the official language of both North Korea and South Korea. There are approximately a hundred languages spoken in Burma. However, Burmese spoken by two thirds of the population is the official language in Burma. Vietnamese is the national, official language of Vietnam. In Thailand, the official national language is Thai. There is no official language in Japan; however Japanese is the national language. Even though the Singapore Government recognizes four official languages, English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, only one of them is accorded the “national language” status due to historical reasons. The Malay language is the national language whereas English is the main working language.

Status of English as a Language

The two largest countries (in terms of population) where English is the inherited national language are Britain and USA.

In Britain, English is the official language, despite there are 5.3 m Scottish, 3.1 m Welsh and 1.8m Irish. According to statistics, 13% of the British population is non-white people originally from Asian and African countries. French language is the official language of France. German is the language of Germany. Language of Spain is Spanish. The national language of Luxembourg, a tiny country in Europe, is Luxembourgish, while French and German are the primary official languages.

Although Australia has no mention of an official language in its Constitution, it is largely monolingual with English being the de facto national language. English is the predominant Language in New Zealand, although Maori is also considered as an official Language. There is no necessity for the majority English speaking people to learn Maori language and is not part of the medium of instruction.

Under the Canadian Constitution, the federal government has both English and French as its official languages. However, over 85% of Canadians have working knowledge of English while only 30.1% have a working knowledge of French. This is partly due to many French-speaking Canadians learning English and more immigrants choosing to learn English as their second language rather than French.

Furthermore, in other countries colonized by British, it is a second language, in others it is an official language or the language of business.

Status of Languages in Sri Lanka

It appears that Sri Lanka is among the very few countries in the world that have identified both the official and national languages.

In Sri Lanka more than 74% of the population is Sinhala and only 4.7 million (Including Tamil and Muslims) speak Tamil language as their mother tongue. Both the Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 recognized Sinhala as the official language of the country. Ironically, it was India who forced Sri Lanka Government of J.R Jayewardene to make Tamil as one of the official Languages while making English as the link Language providing both the official and national language status to Sinhala and Tamil.

By providing the National Language status to Tamil under the Section 19 of Chapter IV of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, either Sinhala or Tamil shall be used in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Authorities, medium of instructions (except higher education) while Sinhala and Tamil shall be the languages of Administration, Legislation and Courts. As per the Section 22 of Chapter IV, Tamil shall be used as the language of administration and be used for the maintenance of public records and the transaction of all business by public institutions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
As can be seen, the Constitution has conveniently provided the monolingual provision to the Northern Province today, since Tamil separatists have chased away almost all Sinhalese population from the province and are now protesting for any Sinhala re-settlement in the region and, hence, are expected to build a mono-ethnic state of their own.

The acceptance of Northern and the Eastern Provinces as areas of historical habitation of Tamil speaking peoples and provision of both the official and national language status to the Tamil language, either under duress or erroneously when signing the Rajiv-JR pact, the demand for self rule have enhanced and that is why the full implementation of the 13th Amendment is one of the main demand of the TNA even today.

Prior to the signing of the 13th Amendment, there had been a belief in some quarters that the official language policy of 1956 was the root cause of the conflict. The 13th Amendment made Tamil an official language overnight as a solution but the demand for self-determination is still continuing. If official language is the root cause, the conflict would have resolved itself with the implementation of the 13th Amendment language policy.


There is only one language; the language spoken by the majority emerges as the official language of a county even if there are provisions for use of other languages at official level. Major foreign languages such as English, French, German, Spanish etc are being used by countries, once ruled by those colonial powers, either as one of the official language or the language of business. The national language is the language of the nation, and should be accorded to the language of the people who were responsible for the civilization of that country. Not many countries in the world use the term “national’ when they categorized languages although they maintain their national identity via the official language status.

As can be seen above, countries have several spoken languages but have one predominant official language even among few designated official languages. Perhaps, Sri Lanka may the only country in the world chosen two national languages and two official languages with equal status without any historical evidence or approval from its citizens, but apparently under the duress of racial threat and foreign intervention. Thus only Sinhala should be the given the status of National Language due to historical reasons following the stand taken by Singapore, Luxemburg, Japan, Vietnam, Burma and Malaysia, when deciding the country’s national/official language status.

S. Akurugoda

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