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Profile: Kanishka

Country: Sri Lanka
First Language: Sinhalese
Education: Law from Sri Lanka; MA in Intn'tl Relations; PhD candidate PubPol

"My mom used to give us a hard time if you start speaking in native language and she would tell us to switch to English."

~On the post-colonial legacy in Sri Lanka:
There is a high correlation between people who do well and their fluency in English.  Our whole thinking is structured that way and that is why people keep using English at home between friends, in the offices, in the school, so people do that.  I think this is coming from the class structure because when we were a British colony, all the goodies were given to the people who were close with them and to build that you had to know how to speak in English.  During that time, when we were a colony, people who could speak English and were close with them were the winners in the society.  But in 1948 we got our independence, but this has still flown, kind of come in the current situation too, and the system is still structured that way, that the people who could speak English have an advantage.  And that makes sense because you have companies who are dealing with other international companies would rather have someone who can communicate with others and speak not only in Sinhalese.

English knowledge is identified with indication of success and parents, from the very start, they try to influence you to start talking because actually that makes a lot of sense because English speakers, who are good in English will have better opportunities when it comes to careers.  They always try to encourage you to do that.  In fact my mom used to give us a hard time if we start speaking in native language and she would tell us to switch to English.  So that is how we grew up. 

A problem I notice is that whenever I write, I acquire the writing style immediately of whatever I am reading right now, which doesn’t really suit my academic writing.  I noticed that I have to stay focused on the academic reading, published articles and stuff to maintain that style in my papers too, otherwise I immediately try to bring that color, that particular thing I was reading, especially with Dickens; he is so verbose, you cannot use that kind of language. Yeah, so I just distance myself from that, which is a sad thing though.  That richness of the language is lost.

I should say here it is a more functional language and practical and I think professional too in the current status quo, because you know that is what people are looking for.  Where you are demonstrating the beauty of the language is pretty much different where you try to convey a quick message.  They would be two different arenas totally, so maybe if you are doing something in an office, maybe you shouldn’t use too much beautiful language, that doesn’t make sense.  Just tell me what you are telling me and that makes sense.  What is your point; that is the thing, the time restrictions and the deadlines and the bottom lines.

When I was in Claremont in particular, that is where I had my initial friction between the cultures and I was told over and over again you have to cut down, clean up your paragraphs.  To me, I was very offended because I came with a lot of confidence behind me and suddenly I find that is totally different.  But it didn’t take me long to catch up, though.  I realized it was totally different and any nice language I use is wasted; no one is going to look at it in that way.

The first thing I had to realize here was to scrap all the unnecessary and say what you are saying in the simplest possible way.  I think I mastered that to some extent but I still feel sad that I am losing a lot of the beauty of the language.

I don’t get to speak in Sinhalese too much.  I mean right now, my brother lives up in Boston but unless I call him up, everyone else is back home in Sri Lanka.  Sometimes I worry that I am losing some of this, the classical use of it.  But day-to-day I can talk with anyone without a problem, but that real, the pure, the difficult Sinhalese, I think I am losing touch a little bit, but of course I absolutely understand.  It is when I talk myself, the first time I might not be able to remember the exact word, the real word.  Of course I can communicate with a friend, or maybe use an English word.  That happens a lot; people speak in what is called Singlish because we always use English words in between, you kind of intersect with English fillers, which is a very bad thing I feel because you are killing both languages.  But yeah that happens, so that way I guess I can communicate with anyone without problem, but I like to maintain that I can really use the right Sinhalese word without any filler.

My sentences were far too long and verbose so I had to cut that down, which was a sad thing for me but also I realized the function of part of it.  The summer I was working at the Inspector General’s office for the postal service, and I realized that in those memos or even the emails, you just have to be to the point and that makes a lot of sense.  It is very efficient that way; you don’t waste too much time or anything.  Very simple language, you don’t use big words at all, even if there was a big one you would probably try to think of an easier word, and try to tone it down before you send it out to anyone.  Even in school I noticed unless it is technical word, they encourage you to use the easier word in place of the more difficult one.  So that way I think I left a lot of words by the wayside and styled my writing also to suit what is demanded here.  But it is a bittersweet kind of experience because I am sad to let go of the some of the words. 

Maybe one thing I see between editorials, if I am comparing one editorial in The Washington Post against one in Sri Lanka, what I would see is here you can be totally pushing a particular side of the story, but you will remain neutral in your language.  But you will find the Sri Lankan editorial loaded with flowery language which is totally pushing your case.  Let’s say a policy, I mean here if you are talking about one particular policy you would give a name, like Iraq policy or something like that.  But in Sri Lanka there would of course be an additional word before that.

~On what he was taught in Sri Lanka about structure in writing:
I am thinking that what they emphasized was mostly completeness; you had to tie up all ends by the time you finished.  It is that kind of structure more than organization itself.  You should not leave anything unattended, you know, whatever you mentioned early on.  But besides that I am thinking they didn’t emphasize too much on what kind of structure, where you should have these different components of the essay.