Background to teaching science in sinhala at University Level, and the early days of the science faculty at Vidyodya University.

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Teaching Science in Sinhala

The science words we have presented in the webpages of this site, for quantum physics, nanotechnology, computer science, as well as the sinhala names for botanical plant names, have a history going back to the Vidyodaya University (now known as Sri Jayawardana Pura University) in the 1970s. The place-names project was also initiated during that time, with the offing of the Mahaveli development project, when a Senior engineer associated with that project, Mr. Manamperi, invited Prof. Dharmawardana, then Vice-chancellor of Vidyodaya, to look in to the Tamilized names of the villages in the Mahaweli basin, as reflected in the maps drawn for the Hunts report for the Mahaveli project. Professor Hewage, and Ven. Henpitigedera Gnanavaasaha were initially interested in the place-names project which languished till its revival around 2005. The webpages for place names were made open to the public in the summer of 2006, around the time of the Mavil Oya (Mavil Aru) battles, to profit from the interest created in traditional place names during that time. The teaching of science subjects at an advanced level became an issue with the creation faculties of science at Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara .

Pioneers in Teaching science in Sinhala

Popularization of Science had been under taken by Buddhist scholars like E. W. Adhikaaram who published a sinhala popular science periodical. Martin Wickremasinghe's book "Sathva Santhathiya", on Darwin's theory of Evolution, was another important step in science popularization. The text books by Mr. M. W. Karunananda of Ananada (and later, Nalanda College), and Mr. C. Wijayatunga and others were also early steps taken in the 1960s, after the introduction of the official languages act, and the education enactments of Mr. W. Dahanayake introducing the teaching of Science in all the schools in the Island. These schools had taught, during colonial times, a course known as "Graameeya Vidyaava", directed to home-gardening, agriculture, livestock keeping and sanitation. That had been the only source of science education in Sinhala, prior to the reforms introduced by Mr. W. Dahananayaka.

The contributions of the Sinhala department of the Peradeniya University, with individuals like Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi, P. E. P. Fernando and others in constructing early glossaries should not be forgotten. These were mainly used in the science curriculum of the schools, and provided a foundation that could be used for further development. Of course, it is easy to find newspaper articles criticizing these glossaries by taking some short-comings in them, or objecting to too much "Sanskrit". Languages are organic, growing things, and they are nither logical nor systematic. The best test of a word is its general acceptance and nothing else. Criticism is the easiest thing . The more constructive attitude should be to recognized these efforts for their very great value, and go forwards.

Graduated introduction of English to Sinhala medium students

The students, coming in from the Sinhala medium, possibly from rural schools with poor facilities, had little ability in English. There was even opposition to English, especially from Arts-faculty students who nick-nameded the use of English as a use of the "Kaduva" and opposed its usage. One of the student leaders of the 1970s, Mr. S. B. Dissanayaka, wanted Russian taught instead of English, as he was, at that time, a supporter of the Communist Party. When Russian classes were provided, some sort of a reality check came into effect. Also, swabasha did not receive strong support from the Left movement, in its early phase.
The pioneering work at University level was done by academics like Professors J. K. P. Ariyaratne, Charles Dahanayake, Chandre Dharma-wardana, P. Wimal Epasinghe, Neil Jayasooriya, V. K. Samaranayaka, Tuly de Silva, G. P. Wannigama and others (alphabetical order). Prof. B. A. Abewickrama, Raja Fonseka, E. Kirthsinghe, of the Colombo University, and others contributed to the resolution of the challanges in the biological sciences.

Readers are invited to send us information about others we have inadvertently missed out, as well as early text-book writers, especially in the pre-1956 period, by e-mailing to

The approach used at Vidyodaya, and probably at Vidyalankara, was to teach mostly in Sinhala during the first year, with practicals and tutorials written in English as far as possible. The amount of English was gradually increased, and by the start of the third year, the lectures could be entirely in English. The chemistry department at Vidyodaya, under the direction of Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana , introduced a course unit system in 1972, enabling each student to answer each course unit in any language they pleased. This system remained in place for some time but did not survive for long. Howver, now, most universities in Sri Lanka have adopted such course unit systems. Many departmnts functioned with so few lecturers that many envisaged progressive steps were difficult. Thus, Mathematics at Vidyodaya was manned almost singl-handed by Prof. Epasinghe, whose sinhala mathematics tutorials were famous for their effectiveness. Dr. V. K. Samaranayake joined Vidyodaya in 1972 as discussed in the article in his felicitation volume, and also helped out, prior to his moving to the Colombo site to set up a statistics and computer science program.

Vidyodya had already strated some activity in computer science. A rudimentary course unit in Fortran and Pascal programming was also offered at an informal level, for those interested. An IBM card punch machine was placed in the "air-conditioned room" of the Chemistry department, and used for punching out programs which were dispatched to be run at the State Engineering Corporation computer, managed by Mr. A. W. Wijesinghe.
The students had the choice of answering the final examinations in English or Sinhala. This procedure worked quite well, and many of those students are now in distinguished positions in Sri Lanka and overseas. We believe that every university student (and of course the staff) should be multi-lingual. Instead of learning a language, one should strive to learn a family of languages in one shot. Thus Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, and indeed Tamil, can be learned together, in consort, taking advantage of the similar characteristics of the orthography, grammar, and the vast pool of common words coming from Sanskrit. Learning to use three or four languages fluently is no more difficult than learning Fortran, Pascal, C+++, Java, Perl, XLM etc. However, even today, languages are taught as individual languages, with no attempt to go from one language to the other by collecting the words already common to the mother toungue and the foreign language. According to I. A. Richards, the originator of Basic English it is only necessary to acquire about a 1000 words in each language to be able to begin to use it.

The word lists presented here, at this web site
These are partly from words used in the chemistry department at Vidyodaya, brought upto date (2008) especially for computer science and nanotechnology. They also contain words that were used in other science departments of the time. Many of the more common technical Sinhala words in Chemistry and Physics are well known, and may not have been included in our lists. Also, some of our recommendations mat differ from the more commonly used forms.