The recent launch of the Sinhalese version of Mozilla Firefox, launched a series of controversies. This article is not about who is right or wrong, instead it is about an issue which this incident brought up, the issue of language. There were those who stated that the development of Sinhalese language support for software was a conspiracy to keep people from rural areas out of the IT industry. Hence the use of localized software should not be encouraged. Instead English should be the medium of instruction for IT.
Along with Jayantha Mendis using an interpreter (an issue only to those with an inferiority complex) this is a good time to explore a few myths and realities of ourselves and the world. First let us start off with a few figures.
Sinhalese is a language with around 14 million native speakers. When ranked according to the number of native speakers, Sinhalese ranks as the 60-70th most spoken language in the world. The ranking cannot be made precisely due to the different estimates in the number of speakers. Close to Sinhalese in terms of number of native speakers are Hungarian, Hebrew and Madurese with around 14 million speakers each.
Throughout history, people adopted common languages for communication. English owes its existence as a lingua franca due to the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. Had the French and Spanish won the Battle of Trafalgar, English would have ended up as a backwater language. Different regions have different common languages; in Latin America Spanish is the lingua franca. In fact, Spanish has more first language, second language speakers and speaking nations than English. Similarly French is widely spoken as a common language in Africa.
What should be understood is that none of these languages (English, Spanish and French) were widely adopted due to some good quality of them such as the ease of learning. Instead they were enforced on people of the colonies whether they liked it or not. On numerous occasions people tried to invent, easy to learn structured languages for international use such as Espranto, Interlingua and Ido. However, apart from Espranto with an estimated 2 million speakers none other were ever widely adopted.
In Sri Lanka the population capable of handling English is less than 10%, this leaves a population of 90% with limited or no proficiency in English. There is nothing wrong in learning English as a second language. English is learnt as a second language by nearly all people in the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. It is also widely learnt as a second language in Germany, Iceland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium. The fact that people in Germanic speaking nations (Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark) find it particularly easy to learn English is mainly due to the similarity between English and their respective mother tongues.
However there is a huge difference between a person who knows English in the above countries and in Sri Lanka. A person in the Nederlands or Norway will never speak to a fellow countryman in English or show off their proficiency in English. To them, English is just a tool for international communication. It is a handy tool considering the 50 or so languages spoken within the European Union. Bogus pundits in Sri Lanka who say that we should not be slaves to language and advocate education in English deliberately avoid mentioning this.
The notion that adopting English is the one and only way to development is a mere myth. Japan, Korea and China achieved great economic strength with negligible proficiency in English. Often, we see arguments that English educated graduates are more employable especially in the software and marketing sectors. In the current context of Sri Lanka it is true but it is due to the nature of work done in our country apart from anything else.
In North America or Western Europe, the entry salary for a software developer is around Rs. 300,000/- a month. In Sri Lanka it is around Rs. 50,000/-. Therefore, Sri Lanka is a good location for outsourcing software development. The software we develop are merely what the clients of wealthy nations want. Therefore software firms in Sri Lanka seek people proficient in English because it is usually the language of the finished product.
Therefore a software developer proficient in English would easily find employment in the software industry in Sri Lanka. A similar story can be said about the marketing sector. However would a person who learns paddy cultivation in English be “employable” or let alone of any use? This is the thing that should be understood. There are also numerous graduates in Sri Lanka who studied Science or Arts in English medium but are unemployed or under-employed due to the lack of jobs in their respective field. Often such graduates have to seek alternative qualifications for employment. This is another group advocates of English education never mention.
Around 6% of graduates in Britain (the birth place of English) are unemployed despite the fact that they can speak English fluently. On the other hand, graduates from Japan, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Finland should not be employable since all of those countries conduct undergraduate work in their respective languages.. In reality, a graduate from Japan or Germany who studied in his or her native tongue is highly employable despite having little or no command of English! Software developers in these countries work in their own native tongues. This can be clearly seen in the translations of manuals of leading development technologies. The official PHP documentation is offered in 11 languages and for Java it is 15.
Outsourcing is a dangerous business. Once a cheaper source of labour is found, the clients of today will quickly move elsewhere. Similarly, this practice does not help in stimulating innovation. Software development in Japan, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland mainly focus on solving the problems of their respective countries from improving industrial automation, banking to traffic control. This leads to innovation.
The Linux operating system, SSH (Finnish origin), MySQL (Swedish), Qt (Norwegian), AVG (Czech), Kaspersky Antivirus (Russian), PHP (Greenland-Danish and Israeli) and Knoppix (German) are all extensively used software developed by people from such countries. Such innovations from countries such as India, Malaysia or Sri Lanka which depend on outsourcing are practically non-existent. This is because the focus is on solving others problems at a cut down price.
Software for Sinhalese is lagging far behind other languages. Despite having 14 million speakers, we hardly have an operating system with support in Sinhalese apart from Windows XP, Windows Vista and certain versions of Linux.. Compare this to Icelandic which has only 300,000 speakers but full native language support for Windows, Linux and Mac platforms. It is only a matter of commitment to ones identity and heritage.
Had English been a prerequisite for cricket, there would be no Ajantha Mendis today, his talent would have simply been wasted. Likewise, developing software in Sinhalese would open up the world of the computer to the remaining 90% of our population. No longer will English be the barrier to the computer as it is now. The development of Sinhala Unicode has already paved the way for extensive use of Sinhalese in IT. Supporting the development of Sinhalese software will allow countless talented village boys and girls to show the world their true colours.