Battle of the Tongues: Sinhalese Trumps All?

Posted: August 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

A Sri Lankan who is communicationally at his optimum, in the country and universally, is trilingual.

My English is impeccable, Tamil is good, Sinhalese is okayish (I can have short convos in sinhalese and can convincingly slap someone on the back and shout ‘ela kiri machan!’ without looking strange).  

This awesome post about this year’s Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Universe by T, which was about that but touched a bit on a language-superiority issue, got me really thinking about this.

Ok so if you’re Sri Lankan, you have to know Sinhalese – otherwise you’re less of a Sri Lankan. That’s what I’ve been taught so far in my experience post-school.  
But then later, I found that Tamil is theoretically equitable to Sinhalese, since theoretically Sri Lanka is a multiethnic country – and not just a Buddhist country despite its Sinhalese majority. True or false?

So if Sri Lanka is defined as a multiethnic country as opposed to a purely Sinhalese/Buddhist country, and the Tamil and Sinhalese people are seen as equals – shouldn’t both languages be held in the same esteem? English came later from colonization so I’m not going to consider it a necessary language in terms of omg-you’re-a-srilankan-why-can’t-you-speak-this-language. So it’s safe to say the average educated functional Sri Lankan is bilingual at least.

But there’s a sort of social war going on between the languages – one is the annoying idiots who are great at English (or not really, just that they have weird accents) and an air of ‘Oh I’m too posh for anything non-English. Could I hav’a’ cuppa tea?’ and need to constantly lol at people who don’t  know English. ‘Ohh he doesn’t know English..’ comes the hushed mocking tone at meeting someone whose mother tongue is Sinhalese or Tamil. And I’ve seen loads of people come to Colombo from outstation and feel embarassed at their inability to speak English as fluently as someone here, and they’re made to feel less educated.

Then there’s the other battle that I struggled with last year – because my Sinhalese was bad. I was fresh out of an international school that functioned in English, and my family having Muslims from inner Kandy were well versed in Tamil. Sinhalese had never happened in my life apart from maybe saying ‘samosa ekai’ to the tuckshop lady. Once work started after A/Ls and socializing outside school began – oh man, being bilingual didn’t cut it at all. Sure, I get it, most people in Sri Lanka are Sinhalese, so it’s obviously useful to be good at the language so you can communicate with the average person on the street – but is the social pressure necessary?

I cringed every time I had to say something like, ‘I didn’t understand that properly..’ when someone said something fast in Sinhalese. ‘You can’t speak Sinhalese?!’ came the reaction which I think was a mix of shock and disgust. I felt like that Batticoloa boy who joined my college and the pompous art teacher turned his nose up at him because his English was appalling. I could always understand Sinhalese because I caught onto it fast when I heard people talking, but lack of practise made me a weak speaker. But I was eager to learn.

People treated me like I was being vain, because I had grown up with Tamil and English. ‘You’re too good for Sinhalese huh?’ And the posh brat stereotype jokes would ensue. Dude, I was just culturally not around the language, at least I’m trying to learn your mother tongue, has the idea of learning Tamil ever even crossed your mind? What about my mother tongue?  

But then maybe Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese country after all? I don’t see anybody bothering with the Tamil language anyway: Tamil people have to learn Sinhalese to function, and apparently so do Muslims. If the average middle class Sinhalese person is learning any new language to communicate with non-sinhalese speakers it might be a bit of English. Quite clearly, Sinhalese trumps all.

So are Sinhalese and Tamil ideally equal languages at all? Will they ever be? Or am I just a big kalu suddha? 😛

  1. St. Fallen says:

    to quote the constitution:

    Chapter IV

    Official Language.
    18. 3[(1)] The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
    4[(2) Tamil shall also be an official language.
    (3) English shall be the link language.

    National Languages.
    19. The National Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.

    on Equality:

    Chapter III

    (2) No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds:

    and Freedom:

    14. (1) Every citizen is entitled to –

    (f) the freedom by himself or in association with others to enjoy and promote his own culture and to use his own language;

    It’s in the books, but that’s about it I suppose. Socially it’s a requirement to be able to converse in the language if you want to be respected as a real Sri Lankan, and if you want to be understood. Which I think kind of sucks. I’m not proud of not being able to speak the language, but I can speak my mother tongue as well as English, so it doesn’t bother me much. I’ll just not talk to Sinhalese speaking people 😛

  2. hey i’ve wanted to learn Tamil for ages, ‘cept i’ve had noone to teach me 😦

  3. Seesaw says:

    I think everyone should speak the language they’re comfortable in, and not be judged about it. I know my Sinhala well, but am not too fluent when speaking it and get laughed at numerous times. It makes me become v.conscious esp if I’m around a group of people who speak mostly in Sinhala and who don’t know me. Which makes me speak even weirder.

    And I’m ‘Sinhalese’ 😛

    Also, I agree with you about only knowing what you’ve been exposed to. So until we have a burning need to learn Tamil (which, in all honestly, we as urbanites don’t have to face), it will always be on the back burner. It needs to start at school, but our Tamil teacher never really thought us much. I only remember that ‘maram’ means ‘tree’.

  4. John says:

    I think it may be a subconscious thing. A ‘them vs us’ mentality when you don’t speak the same language. People should just speak in whatever language they are comfortable in or everyone should just drop everything and adopt a universal standard. Or google should just make an on the fly translator.

    And yes, I’m tri lingual too! grade A english and sinhala and spoken malayali! Can vaguely understand slowly spoken tamil too on good days

  5. PseudoRandom says:

    My ‘Colloquial Tamil’ book has been sitting on my shelf for 4 years, and I’ve read the first chapter four times. The problem (in terms of us all becoming trilingual) is that in a large part of the country, it is possible to get by without knowledge of Tamil. Even if, in business, you meet someone who doesn’t speak your language, chances are there’s someone nearby who can act as an interpreter. I remember my Yr 5 Tamil class in school – the teacher said we should learn Tamil so that we’d understand if someone scolded us (I have a feeling she didn’t get on with her Tamil mother-in-law). My grandfather spoke perfect Tamil (for a Sinhalese), simply because he was stationed in Jaffna for a few years in the ’50s. In the average case, I don’t think there’s any snobbery as such towards non-Sinhala speakers (ignorance, yes, but that’s due to the condescending, self-absorbed nature of many Sri Lankans).

    There is, however, a lot of snobbery towards non-English speakers…at least among the Sinhala/English bilinguals. I think it stems from our colonial past, when only the affluent could afford to learn English. The snobbery doesn’t necessarily come from the affluent classes…go to a restaurant and try talking to a waiter in Sinhala…they will almost definitely switch to English – not because they want to become proficient in the language, but because they’re insulted that you thought they couldn’t speak English.

  6. Hmm well, I think the reason the average Sinhalese doesn’t speak in Tamil is there is no burning need to do so. I mean the majority (almost 74%) of the country are Sinhalese after all. The chances of meeting a non Sinhalese person on the street are somewhat slim – if you live South that is.
    Personally speaking, I’ve always wanted to learn Tamil, but it wasn’t taught at school – there weren’t any Tamil girls in our class – we had no Tamil neighbours. So how’s a girl gonna learn it?
    I do think it would solve a lot of ethnic problems though. Most people get suspicious because they don’t understand.

    Although, most Sinhalese know more Hindi than Tamil – myself included. This is of course because of Bollywood. I myself am not such an avid fan, but I still can understand a word here and there. Some Tamil people think this is ridiculous and snobbish – that we know more Hindi than Tamil. But that’s just not true! For some strange reason Hindi sounds ‘musical’ to the Sinhalese ear and some words are almost the same – the ones that stem from Sanskrit anyway.

    So I guess either the schools should start teaching Tamil seriously – or Kollywood needs to expand their fan base 🙂

  7. Rehune says:

    Just have a mixture of Tamil and sinhalese speaking ayahs, domestics and drivers. Two way street. They are all fluent in English and we have a working knowledge of both local languages. Then do French and Spanish in school. Problem solved

  8. Me-shak says:

    Sri Lanka being poplated with more Sinhala speaking people, I guess it’s natural for Sinhalese to over power other languages spoken in Sri Lanka, just like the rules of nature. Not being able to speak a language other than your mother tongue is not a reason to be ashamed of. People who look down or talk ill of people who can’t, are real narrow minded. I guess if you can communicate, thats all that matters. In many countries people are respected regardless of how well they speak other languages. What there is now is a silent standard that no one seems to notice. It wickedly causes many people to be judgmental. I have been learning a lot lately regarding this. A change should come, and this may be the beginning 🙂

    Interesting thoughts, awesomely put into words.
    Awesome post! 😀


  9. Jack Point says:

    St. Fallen, who exactly is taking any notice of this constitution?

    The non-implementation of the 17th amendment is just one example (there are many others but they do not come readily to mind) where the constitution is being violated.

  10. Jack Point says:

    By the way, a good post Makuluwo, very interesting.

  11. Dee says:

    Well… I wouldn’t say most Sinhalese are not keen to learn 🙂 Most have to learn for jobs, like the police, they only get promoted to a certain level if they know their basics. and planters and A LOT of staff in NGOs.
    and generally keen pplz like MOI 😉 (Just started though, but quite easy to learn THROUGH Sinhala than English)

    BUt yes, it bugs me when most public signs are not written in Tamil, as if…oops sorry, we forgot.

    In School, we had a terrible tamil teacher so our whole batch sort of failed in the subject “Link language”…but now, they are starting to bring it in, in a big way. And I don’t think its THAT hard, as in once u start using it.

    Even my Sinhala was not all Smooth when talking. As in, I’d substitute a lot of words with English and I THINK in English since we speak more of it at home. But once I started work, I need to communicate in Sinhala too, and I have to answer calls and explain stuff in Sinhala which has helped me to speak smoother which boils down to the fact that you really need to speak a language to improve.

    Ok rambly. Fin. 😀

  12. Just understanding Sinhala is good enough. Its weird how I’ve never been able to learn Tamil. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of Tamil speakers since upper school but its weird how I never learnt the language. After all these years of socializing with Muslims I still don’t know a single Tamil word (except for cuss words). I even picked up on Swedish and Norwegian just by listening to a couple of bands. And a bit of French because I had a crush on my hot Grade 5 French teacher (I wonder what happened to her). I have no fucking clue how I learned English since I don’t have any significant memories of learning English (true story). SO, I guess some people can’t learn languages just by socializing with native speakers, they have to learn it from a mastah. I think you should learn from a hamuduruwo 🙂 IN CONCLUSION; when someone makes you feel bad for not knowing Sinhala, you should point out the fact they don’t know Tamil since its an official language also. If they know Tamil, you’re screwed :3

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