Bilingual Education Classrooms in Sri Lankan Schools: A Social Space for Ethnolinguistic Reconciliation

  • Harsha Dulari WijesekeraEmail author
  • Jennifer Alford
Part of the Multilingual Education Yearbook book series (MEYB)


Decades of a school system ethnolinguistically segregated along Mother Tongue Instruction (MTI), compounded by a 30-year-long ethnic conflict, has had significant consequences for ethnic relations among the diverse population of Sri Lanka. The recently introduced Bilingual Education (BE)—English and Sinhala/Tamil—has enabled some core subjects to be taught using English Medium Instruction (EMI), bringing together students of different ethnicities in multiethnic, bi-media schools. This has created a new social space and, thereby, new possibilities for changing social relations. In this chapter, we explore BE students’ ethnic identity orientations through analysis of their expressed feelings and perceptions towards ethnically diverse ‘others’, before and after joining multiethnic BE classrooms. Using the Bourdieusian conceptual triad of habitus, capital and field, we present analysis of data collected in two, multiethnic schools in Sri Lanka. The findings show that during early socialization in ethnically-exclusive institutions, such as family and monoethnic classrooms, students acquire insular, ethnocentric dispositions that undergo reorientation towards more supraethnic, inclusive dispositions when students get to know each other and study together in multiethnic BE classes. Learning through English as a common language, and cross-linguistic flexibility, made possible a growing positive inclination towards people of different ethnolinguistic backgrounds, and recognition, respect, and increased acceptance of diversity and heterogeneity. The findings are highly relevant to post-conflict, ethnolinguistically heterogeneous societies, especially in terms of how language in education could be utilized in promoting interethnic relations and thereby national solidarity.


Bilingual education Bourdieu English Medium Instruction Ethnolinguistic identity Social cohesion Sri Lanka 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Postgraduate Institute of EnglishOpen University of Sri LankaColomboSri Lanka
  2. 2.Queensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia

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