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Content Confusion:
Sri Lankan Food + Medical Packaging In Language Nobody Can Understand

Grocery packaging tends to use English, even though it is only the third national language. Many Sri Lankans are uncertain what they’re buying and what is inside.

13.11.2017  |  
A grocery store in Colombo. (Picture: Daibo Taku)

“If you speak to a man in a language he can understand that goes to his head. If you speak to him in his language, that goes to his heart,” Nelson Mandela once said, when describing the power of language in communication. It is no secret that the language heard by a small child becomes their mother tongue. They later learn to express views by gradually picking up words, and then begin to express themselves in written form following a course of study at a formal educational institution.

People have the right to know the details of goods they buy.

Yet despite the personal familiarity with a mother tongue, it becomes clear that it is not enough, especially when travelling through various communities across Sri Lanka.

Following the end of war the market authority rapidly spread throughout the country. But the language did not spread at the same speed as trade. There are still unresolved problems related to market authorities and consumers.

Aliyar Lebbe, who has a hotel in the Ampara Eragama area, said one needs a magnifying glass to read the Tamil letters on some products. Details of most of the products and goods are in English including important details pertaining to health and safety, like the date of manufacture and the expiry date.

“People in our village do not know English,” said Lebbe. “The older ones also do not know Tamil. People have the right to know the details of goods they buy. But only the name of the product is in the mother tongue. Now health authorities say not to eat food with preservatives and sugar. It is said that the sugar content is mentioned on the packaging. If it is mentioned, how should they read it?”

Ardam Lebbe, 78, is a resident here. He went to the bazaar to buy some traditional medicine as he was suffering from flu and fever. He bought two packets of medicine on which only Sinhalese was printed. “I can speak Sinhala as well,” said the older man. “That is why I took the packets. But not everyone in this village can speak Sinhala. It is a problem for them to buy goods like this. It would be good if producers printed details in both languages.”

Sri Lanka’s official languages are Sinhala and Tamil with English as a link language. The Constitution says Sinhala and Tamil are Sri Lanka’s official languages. But that is only a document.

L. Musmi, 32, a resident of Eragama who works in the security division of the Eragama Tile Factory, has problems with language as a consumer.

“Look at this, this biscuit has words in big English letters. Sinhala and Tamil are in small letters. Why is that? The majority in this country speak Sinhala. Next is Tamil. Leaving aside languages of both, English has become so big. How can people know these details? These are simple things,” he said.