ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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English, Lanka!

In Sri Lanka, the English language remains a symbolic marker of privilege, refinement and class—as well as a means of upward mobility.

In Sri Lanka, language takes on multiple roles. While d­ividing ethnicities, language also brings them together, and has always been a strong determinant of peoples’ identities and social standing. There are three main spoken languages in Sri Lanka—Sinhala, Tamil and English. English, being the dominant language during the colonial p­eriod, never lost its hegemonic position, even after independence in 1948. The language that was associated with British culture and values retained its influence over Sri Lankan society, despite nationalistic efforts to revive verna­cular languages.

As a colonial language, English functioned as a symbol of power, privilege and high social standing. It became the language of the elite; a portion of Sri Lankan society used English to identify themselves with Western values and lifestyles. It also provided a means of upward mobility at a time when hereditary occupation, based on the caste system, limited sections of society from obtaining jobs in the administrative and legislative sections of the colonial government. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, English was, back then, a valuable form of “cultural capital” that was used to secure profit or distinction in society. Most interestingly, the use of English as such a high form of cultural capital persists to date.

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