Lankans seek funds to save Sinhala in US university

The Sri Lankan American community in the New York Tri-state area is raising money to save the Sinhala language programme at Cornell University from closing down over funding cuts. “Would you please consider personally donating a one-time suggested amount of $50 to safeguard this program and to keep the study of our Sinhala language alive outside of our motherland?” requests the appeal, circulated among members of the Sri Lanka Association of New York and other expatriate groups.

Cornell, a renowned private Ivy League institution in the US, is the only university outside Sri Lanka to offer a full curriculum of study in Sinhala. About half of the course funding is external, primarily from the US Government’s Department of Education. The rest is from the university. But Cornell’s administration has decided to prune its contribution to the Sinhala programme by next year and to divert these funds to disciplines which students find “more attractive”.

This will effectively turn Sinhala studies into a part-time course that can no longer retain a highly-qualified professor, will lose its curriculum status and ultimately close down by July next year. In New York, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission has also reached out to the community via local organisations. The money raised will go towards a proposed US$ 2mn endowment fund to keep the programme alive. The initiative also aims to indicate to Cornell University that “there is wide and deep support for this programme via the Sri Lankan American community as well as Sri Lankan citizens, businesses and foundations”.

A Sri Lankan expatriate group which is assisting Ambassador Rohan Perera, the Head of Mission, to explore ways of securing assistance recently briefed President Maithripala Sirisena while he was in New York. It is hoped now that the Sri Lanka Government will also make a one-time contribution towards the fund.

The Sunday Times first reported in June this year that the programme was facing closure. Leading the initiative to prevent that from happening is Cornell’s South Asia Programme Director Anne M Blackburn.

A professor of South Asia Studies and of Buddhist Studies herself, Dr Blackburn is a fluent Sinhala speaker. She first came to Sri Lanka as an undergrad on the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Educational (ISLE) initiative connected to the Peradeniya University. She learnt Sinhala from Kamini de Abrew who trained Peace Corps volunteers and also Cornell’s incumbent Senior Lecturer in Sinhala, Bandara Herath.

Dr Blackburn visited Colombo recently and met the business community, particularly those with interests in the US, to encourage them to pitch in. In an earlier interview with the Sunday Times, she said Sinhala was special to her as it had helped open up a world of exploring Sri Lanka and building relationships with people. Today, she uses Sinhala and Pali to read historical documents related to Buddhist and Sri Lankan history, literature and intellectual history.

The campaigners have a daunting task ahead. They will have to convince potential funders (including the public) that Cornell’s Sinhala language course is worth putting money into. While full admission records for the Sinhala programme going back to its inception in the 1970s are not available, recent information points to total enrolment figures of between 300 and 500 students.

Prof Blackburn said numbers were not the only indication of the programe’s impact. Cornell has been the only continual source of Sinhala teaching and learning materials for acquisition of Sinhala by those for whom Sinhala is not a first language. Cornell’s Sinhala text books are used much beyond the students of the university or its affiliated summer programme, including by business and diplomatic professionals.

Generally, around half of the enrolments are Sri Lankan, Sri Lankan-origin or heritage students. The rest have no Sri Lankan connections but are taking the course for research preparation or other personal interest. The Sinhala language programme was established around 1970 by Prof James Gair in close collaboration with Prof W.S. Karunatillake from the University of Kelaniya. Linguist Gair was known for his pioneering study of South Asian languages and their underlying relation to other countries. He died at the age of 88 last year.

Prof Gair received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the Kelaniya University which also awarded him the title of ‘Sahitya Chakravartin’. His early book ‘Colloquial Sinhalese Clause Structures’ is now a classic. His long collaboration with Prof Karunatillake began with the latter’s studies at Cornell as a graduate student beginning in 1965. It continued throughout their lives and resulted in a series of major works.

Among them was the ‘The Sidat Sangara: Text, Translation and Glossary (2013)’ with notes on the classic 13th century Sinhala grammar and its commentaries.

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