How to Speak Sinhalese
View Enlarged Photo and CaptionWhen Sri Lankans hear Sascha Gerbracht talking their beautiful, lilting language, their first impulse is to grin widely. The spectacle of a six-foot-tall German high school student with blazing red hair speaking fluent Sinhalese seems utterly incongruous to them. They assume -- correctly, in most cases -- that foreigners will never take the effort to learn Sinhalese because it is a very difficult language with practically nothing in common with European languages.
I first met Sascha on Christmas Eve last year, the day before the tsunami, when he came to Taprobane with his parents for a drink. When I returned in January, I hired him as a guide-interpreter. His knowledge of Sinhalese, and his wealth of personal contacts, made him absolutely invaluable to me. When I left, I asked him to keep us up-to-date with the news from Weligama.
The reason why Sascha speaks such fluent Sinhalese is that he has been attending local schools since his parents, Tom and Heike, brought him out to Sri Lanka at the age of six. Now 17, he is in his last year at Richmond College in Galle, before going to university in Colombo.
In addition to helping his parents run their organic farm -- where he supervises the preparation of various biodynamic composts -- Sascha is an avid motorcycle enthusiast. He says he feels much more at home in Sri Lanka than in Germany and feels a little out of place when he returns to Sri Lanka from family vacations.
One reason why Sinhalese is such a difficult language for Europeans, Sascha tells me, is its unusual alphabet. There are 58 letters in the Sinhala alphabet, and none of them correspond exactly to European letters. To speak Sinhala properly, you also have to learn to use your tongue like a Sri Lankan. "Some letters you pronounce with the tip of your tongue pressed against your front teeth, while others you pronounce with your tongue curled back a bit and curled upwards, " says Sascha.
Watch this space for Sascha's reports from Weligama.
-- Michael Dobbs
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