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The Power of Language

August 23, 2011

A woman works in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka's Hill Country.

By Kimberly Hatton

In January, as part of my graduate studies, I began working towards an internship with Search For Common Ground (or Search) in Sri Lanka. Having worked in a marketing and communications role for the past six years, I have seen the power that understanding another language and being able to communicate can yield and was curious about how this might apply to Search’s flagship Sri Lankan project, Promoting Civic Participation in the Hill Country. I seized the opportunity to connect with Search and to gain experience in a post-conflict setting, as well as see how language and communication might play a role in shaping the post civil war society of Sri Lanka.

In July 2011, I arrived in Sri Lanka and was quickly spirited off to a town called Hatton, located in the Hill Country. My task was to assist Search staff with facilitating discussions amongst grassroots partner organizations–Sewelanka and The Power Foundation. One of my immediate observations was that only a few participants spoke both national languages (Sinhalese and Tamil) and English.  Others spoke only two and many, only one of these languages. During the workshop, participants were asked to identify what they felt to be the most significant issues facing the Indian origin Tamil  speaking plantation communities. Language immediately arose; specifically the idea that language more often acts as a barrier between the plantation communities and the rest of Sri Lankan society. For instance, information regarding many state services is more frequently provided in Sinhalese only, instead of both the national languages, which puts the predominantly Tamil-speaking plantation communities at a disadvantage.

After a few days of partner discussions, I returned to Colombo and became more aware of the large presence of ‘English medium’ schools. These provide curriculum in English for a fee in place of or in addition to the free public schools that are taught in one of the national languages. I rarely saw these types of schools in the Hill Country, but its presence in Colombo alongside other peculiar occurrences drew a few conclusions on how language was viewed in the context of Sri Lankan society. First, the presence of English medium schools could indicate that more families could afford it and believed that education in English could provide greater future opportunities for their children. This idea is not so far off from other Asian societies who are working more vigorously to incorporate English as a second language, priming young professionals for opportunities in the global economy.

My second take on language in the context of Sri Lankan society was seen through the eyes of the Tuk Tuk drivers (three-wheeler cabbies). Specifically, I noticed the difference that understanding a secondary language like English commanded for their income. It meant that the Sinhalese and English speaking Tuk Tuk drivers benefited from attracting more fares than Tuk Tuk drivers who spoke only Tamil.  Further, language in the context of Sri Lankan society meant that the plantation workers who only spoke Tamil, were most likely limited in their access to justice, national resources and economic opportunities. For example, plantation workers were often distributed request forms for ID card in the Tamil language, but ID cards themselves were written in Sinhalese. Official government documents sent to the plantation workers were also issued in Sinhalese instead of Tamil.

Sri Lankans who speak only Tamil are at a clear disadvantage and for them language frequently acts as a barrier to greater engagement and participation. Search in Sri Lanka is working to change this through projects focused on cultivating youth leaders. In the project, Promoting Civic Participation in the Hill Country, young people will participate in leadership workshops to develop their existing community engagement skills. Once workshops are completed, the participants will be given seed grants and  guidance from the project partners to create their own awareness and community engagement projects. The project also exposes young people to the mechanisms of governance and allows them to interact with authorities as active participants in community decision making meetings with government officials and other local leaders. The participants will further be expected to help develop and produce a series of 32-episode radio dramas and subsequent call-in talk shows. The dramas and talk shows will focus on key messages about civic, legal and economic rights and remedies.

These projects and others on the horizon engage young people in a significant way, in connecting the more isolated Tamil plantation communities with wider Sri Lankan society. In making their voices heard, young people can help to undermine the pervasive barriers of language and culture and work toward a more inclusive Sri Lanka.


Kimberly Hatton is an international Intern with SFCG Sri Lanka and a graduate student at New York University’s Center For Global Affairs, focusing on Human Rights and Humanitarian Assistance. Over the past six years, Kimberly worked in the private sector as a director of product marketing and communications.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. M. Cook permalink
    August 26, 2011 10:59 am

    No doubt that Miss Kimberly Hatton has had a first hand experience , on Global Affairs. A lot more could be done if we could all work together in focusing on what’s happening globaly. We are all capable in giving and sharing basic needs to everyone it’s only a matter of “Geography” what stands at the end of the day is Human beings like us deserve more than protecting our basic “Human Rights” we need to see more hands on assistance out there just like Ms. K. Hatton is doing….more power to you Kim and God Bless you in your future projects.

    Mrs. Cook

  2. January 9, 2012 11:17 am

    A good article. For more on the Hill Tamils, see our three part series


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