Mama Singhala igena gannava! I am learning Sinhala!

Based on my blog posts this past month, most of you probably think I was given some fancy grant from the U.S. State Department to move to Sri Lanka to travel around, drink out of coconuts, meditate in temples, and lounge on the beaches. While this has been how I have spent most weekends here, that’s far from all I am doing! My fellow Fulbrighters and I have spent most of this past month studying Sinhala, the dominant language spoken in Sri Lanka (3/4 of Sri Lankans speak it). We’ve had lessons almost every weekday in the bungalow that we Fulbright ETAs have been living in. Lessons are two hours a pop, and we’ve been learning tons. I had forgotten how much I love language-learning – the last language I learned was German, and that feels like forever ago! Even though Sinhala doesn’t come close to resembling the other languages I have studied, I’ve been reminded of how much I love foreign sounds rolling off my tongue, playing rudimentary vocabulary games, and learning how to say my favorite phrases (“Let’s go!” “I love you” “What’s your favorite food?” “This is home”) in another language.

home sweet home for the past month!
sinhala lessons in the bungalow

When I’m learning Sinhala, I learn phonetically – the Sinhala alphabet is a script, meaning its letters looks like super fancy, beautiful scrawls of cursive lines and circles. Here’s the general idea:

The alphabet can trace itself back 2,000 years. It’s derived from Sanskrit, is closely related to Hindi, and is an abudiga, which is something I had to learn a lot about online before coming close to understanding it! It basically means that each consonant in the alphabet has an inherent vowel which can be changed with different vowel signs. Needless to say, learning the letters has been where I’ve struggled the most. (To make things harder, there is a strong distinction between the formal written language and the colloquial spoken form.) But I’m loving the vocab and numbers and learning how to string sentences together!

As for its practical uses, I definitely practice my best Sinhala when I am alone in tuk-tuks! Tuk-tuk drivers (and folks in general here) get a kick out of Westerners attempting to speak their language. (They also love to practice their English: today, for example, I had many drivers express how happy they were that Obama won the presidency once they found out I was from “Americava.”) For one, it’s not very common for foreigners to speak Sinhala here – I’m generalizing, but for the most part, people here see white skin and assume “English-speaking.” Tourists visiting for a beach holiday don’t bother to learn any Sinhala, so when I tell my tuk-tuk driver to turn ‘ramata’ or ‘dakunata’ or to go ‘keling,’ I get a chuckle. When I tell Sri Lankans in Sinhala that I am a teacher and I live in Colombo, I get an approving ‘ah ah ah’ and a smile. I believe that knowing basic Sinhala – and this goes for knowing the language of any country you’re traveling in – increases your chances of getting what you want for a fair price. ‘Mata Singhala tika pulawan’ (I can speak a little Sinhala) is my new favorite phrase, and I’ll never get in a tuk-tuk or talk to a stranger without it.

Here are some lovely things about Sinhala: The word for February is ‘pepperavadi.’ I was born on a Tuesday, which is a much simpler word than its seven-syllable Sinhala counterpart, ‘angaharuwada.’ The word for avocado is ‘aligaeta pera,’ which literally translates to ‘large seed pear.’ And the phrase one would use to say that they don’t smoke is ‘Mama sigeret bonne nae!’ and literally translates to ‘I don’t drink cigarettes!’

It’s a fun language. I’m really enjoying it.


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