Sri Lanka Tsunami Blog

How to Speak Sinhalese

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When 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

By |  March 22, 2005; 11:43 AM ET  | Category:  Michael Dobbs
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Actually, Sinhala is an Indo-European language, so it is more closely related to European languages than is the other major language of Sri Lanka, Tamil. (Tamil belongs to the Dravidian family of languages.) The comments about tongue positioning also apply to most of the major languages of India, including Hindi.

Posted by: Andrew Myers | March 22, 2005 03:54 PM

The language spoken is different from casual settings and formal (when you are giving speeches). I am a Sinhalese living out side Sri Lanka. I still have trouble switching from casual to formal.

Posted by: raja | March 23, 2005 05:04 PM

I find it interesting reading your article on Weligama. I am currently volunteering with Project Galle 2005 working with those devistated by the Tsunami. We provide food and other basic items for those in the camps in Weligama as well as 68 other camps on both sides of Galle. We just last night went to Weligama and had a "movie night". We take a laptop, amplifier, tarp (to project the movie on), generator, projector and speakers. We set up around dark, as we were setting up those in the camp started gathering around and becoming exicted. Once the movie began, we chose a local Sri Lankan comedy film, they we clapping and laughing and having a wonderfull time. When it was over the people there were so pleased and thankfull. I have been here for almost two months delivering food to camps and building temporary housing and yet I have not seen so many people so happy as they were sitting on the ground under the stars watching a make-shift movie in a Tsunami devistated area. It is wonderfull to hear children laugh. I have been taught a great deal by those here, espailly the children who have lost everything and yet wear a smile as though nothing has happened. Thanks and keep up the good work

Posted by: Daniel Strode | March 25, 2005 06:50 AM

I enjoyed your brief blog on Sascha and I wished that I were able to e-mail it (as well as future ones)to others,but can't seem to find a way.

Posted by: Bob Holtz | March 26, 2005 05:10 PM

I write from Samoa(an island in the south pacific).We had been hit by cyclones several time and know the feeling at the aftermath of devastation, though not comperable to the death and destruction we see on TV.
It must be heart warming to those people the work that people like Daniel and Michael and everyone else are doing. Good luck guys.As for Sascha it is indeed a wonderful feeling to see and hear a foreigner speak your language fluently-cheers to the kid.

Posted by: Vaomalo Kini | March 27, 2005 04:12 AM

The Sri Lankan language is not hard to learn. I live in Australia and can speak Singahlese!

Posted by: Nadine | March 30, 2005 01:54 AM

Dear Mr. Dobbs,
In your Readers' Digest article(April 2005), you stated that $600.00 could purchase a new home for a family in Weligama. I teach High School and my Student Optimist Club would like to raise money to purchase a home for a family. However,I could not find a specific way to donate the money.There is a link on one of the sites indicating that you can "buy a lot" for a home, but the lots were several thousand dollars (ex. $3,900.) There is no way we could manage that, but I think we could raise $600. for a home. Could you contact me and give me further information? We don't want to donate to a general relief fund. Thank you & Bless you for the work you're doing.

Posted by: Susan Bravard | April 5, 2005 06:11 PM

There are lot of charities directed towards providing housing in Weligama area.

We belongs to a group based in Minnesota, USA and we build very basic houses for $1500 each. For another $700, we can add water and electricity.

You can visit us at:

Posted by: Prabath | April 6, 2005 12:57 PM

I read your articles with interest. I drove past Weligama in mid February when I visited Sri Lanka to delivery an aid package coordinated by the Australian Medical Association (Western Australian Branch).

Weligama carries a lot of memories. My partner worked in this beautiful coastal town as the District Medical Officer in the late 70s.

The town hasn't changed much but the tsunami has changed everything there!

I hope the money colleted will reach people and assist in rebuilding community infrastructure destroyed during the tsunami. All the stories I heard from people suggest that the trickle down aspects of humanitarian assistance are rather slow in the southern coastal belt. I don't know why!

Posted by: Sunil Govinnage, Perth, Australia | April 13, 2005 11:33 PM

I am from sri lanka and speak sinhalese. I do not think it is a difficult language to learn. I know several foreigners, who after living in sri lanka for several years and interacting closely with the locals, picked up the language well and even speak it with the expressional tones used by native speakers. I think all you need is to have the inclination to speak it!

Posted by: kbob | May 5, 2005 07:06 PM

I am frenchman by origin and work for a french university, language department. I am visiting this lovely greenish country with my wife Monica (Sri lanka once called Sinhala and ceylon by europeans) since 1999 and I would like to comment Sinhala language is not difficult its very easy. what you need is just the practical guide and interest only.I learned it within 2 weeks time with the help of a buddhist Ayurvedic monk in Kandy another world heritage place in sri lanka.

Posted by: Prof. Jean Perez | May 9, 2005 01:15 AM


Posted by: DFGDF | May 11, 2005 04:03 AM

Its easy to criticize another's abilities

Posted by: unknown | May 18, 2005 02:17 AM

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