‘The Struggle for a Multilingual Future’

Youth and Education in Sri Lanka

Cover for The Struggle for a Multilingual Future by Christina P. Davis, 21 January 2020, Oxford University Press

212 Pages | 10 illus
ISBN: 9780190947484

Oxford Studies in the Anthropology of Language

  • Demonstrates the challenges of promoting peace and interethnic tolerance through multilingual language policies in post-civil war Sri Lanka
  • Explores how power inequalities and ethnic conflict are created and perpetuated in everyday social interactions
  • Advances studies in the ethnography of education by exploring ethnic divisions and educational inequalities in relation to youths’ lives beyond the classroom
  • Shows how Tamil and Muslim youth managed forms of monitoring and the reinforcing of ethnicity, and created futures for themselves in the conflict-ridden nation

In The Struggle for a Multilingual Future, Christina Davis examines the tension between ethnic conflict and multilingual education policy in the linguistic and social practices of Sri Lankan minority youth. Facing a legacy of post-independence language and education policies that were among the complex causes of the Sri Lankan civil war (1983 – 2009), the government has recently sought to promote interethnic integration through trilingual language policies in Sinhala, Tamil, and English in state schools.

Integrating ethnographic and linguistic research in and around two schools during the last phase of the war, Davis’s research shows how, despite the intention of the reforms, practices on the ground reinforce language-based models of ethnicity and sustain ethnic divisions and power inequalities. By engaging with the actual experiences of Tamil and Muslim youth, Davis demonstrates the difficulties of using language policy to ameliorate ethnic conflict if it does not also address how that conflict is produced and reproduced in everyday talk.

Christina P. Davis is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.  “It is based on ethnographic and linguistic research I conducted in Kandy, Sri Lanka during and after the civil war (2007–2008; 2011).”

Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
Notes on Transcription and Transliteration


School Segregation and Language-Based Ethnic Divisions

Teachers and “Legitimate” Tamil in a Multilingual School

English and the Imagining of a Cosmopolitan City

Peer Groups and Tamil Identity in and outside Schools

Tamil Speech and Ethnic Conflict in Public Spaces



The Struggle for a Multilingual Future offers a timely, incisive analysis of how ethnicity is (re)inscribed and lived through language in (post-)civil war Sri Lanka. This important book is remarkable for its ethnographic detail and for its keen sense of how language policies, and the ideologies that animate them, impact the imaginations and everyday lives of Tamil and Muslim students. Davis masterfully offers a vivid portrait of life in this fraught multiethnic and multilingual context.” — Constantine V. Nakassis, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Associate Faculty of Comparative Human Development and Cinema & Media Studies, University of Chicago

“Christina Davis gives us an intimate understanding of the effects of some two decades of civil war, showing us why, in the absence of national reconciliation, students place their hopes for a viable future in cosmopolitan cities and foreign migration. It is a fine study, and its implications are profound.” — Thomas R. Trautmann, Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology, University of Michigan

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