Thursday, June 25, 2009

One About Not Speaking Sinhala

Me and my brothers were brought up in an English speaking environment. I don't just mean that we were brought up in London, I mean we were brought up actually speaking English all the time, both at home and at school.

I should ask my parents more about this and the reasons for it but my current understanding is that it was a conscious decision by them. It was heavily influenced by the fact that my Dad, as a Muslim, was brought up speaking Tamil and my Mum, ironically a Tamil, was brought up speaking mostly in English but also in Sinhala far more than Tamil. So they found a route for their own communication through English and used this with their kids too.

It's an interesting love marriage story is my parents' one, not for now, but it's the type of relationship that rarely would have blossomed had they both lived in Lanka at the time.

When we were very young kids they sent us to the London Buddhist Vihara to learn Sinhala from a Priest. The Priest was a very kind and patient old fellow and for a while we'd go there once a week and drink that highly sugared orange squash and be taught how to write Sinhala characters with the precision and accuracy of a bloke who's just been told to go an scrawl some graffiti on that mirrored wall over there, the one with the naked women on it.

It never worked out. We wanted to learn the everyday stuff, the normal conversational bits and pieces, the haggling with tri shaw drivers and chatting with our Grandmother who couldn't speak English type of thing, so we gave the lessons up. To this day I have a love for orange juice, not sweetened and preferably the kind with bits in it.

Over the years we've picked up snippets of Sinhala, particularly myself and Academic Bro as we travel there more than Musicbiz Bro. But I'm no linguist, not even a cunning one, and have little confidence in attempting to talk in Sinhala or chuck a word or two in between English sentences for effect. My West London drawl seems to exist in direct contradiction to the ability to pronounce things in the othere languages of my heritage.

Stick me in the middle of a bunch of people speaking in Sinhala and I'll often be able to get the gist of the conversation, though I do wonder how much of what I understand is actually from the Singlish words more than the Sinhala ones. Ask me to say something though and you'll probably laugh at my ineptness. Then, once you've finished, you'll laugh at my accent too.

My observations on this suggest that Academic Bro is far more brave in his attempts than I am. He can chuck a word or two out with confidence whereas I crumble, like an apple. He's crap on the drums though.

My position now, at 43, is that I wish I could speak Sinhala. She died some years ago, but the Grandmother who lived in Lanka was of the non English speaking variety. So, not only did we not see that much of her but, when we did see her, communication was slow, painful and needed an interpretor.

I've also come to the conclusion that linguistic intelligence isn't one of my strong points. I can learn meanings and words but, whatever the lingo, I struggle with the making noises bit. When I attempt to speak French my accent is crap, or le crap as they say over there. Yet I continue to read these touristy Sinhala English word and phrase books to try and improve my general comprehension as much as possible.

I was particularly fascinated to hear and briefly meet that Michael Meyler chap at the GLF and felt a bit woeful that I never really spend long enough in the motherland to have some lessons with him.

My other Grandmother used to have a little glass bedside plaque of that "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change" thing. It's become one of my mantras and the Sinhala issue is an ongoing puzzle for me. Do I accept that I'm destined to speak one language badly and just get on with things or do I fight against it and go out and make a hash of things anyway? It's not as if you need Sinhala in Sri Lanka these days, it's a want for sure, just not an essential.

Vut too doo?

At least I know what that means!


PseudoRandom said...

I think the only way to 'really' learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. It's part of the reason why, at age 10, I went straight from a county school in the UK to a local school in Colombo, instead of an international school (the other being that my parents couldn't afford it). I had no choice but to learn Sinhala. It's very difficult to become fluent in a language if you're not forced to use it.

The only way you can improve your Sinhala (if you still want to) is to speak it more often, with dodgy grammar and pronunciation and all. You'll become more comfortable in using the language (once you get over your friends laughing at you) and to be fair, the dodgy pronunciation is mainly due to lack of confidence. Grammar in colloquial Sinhala is quite fluid anyway, so as long as you're understood, you can get by :-)

Electra said...

Maybe one way to remedy your sense of regret and not being able to speak Sinhalese is to make sure your kids grow up knowing it, somewhat. And Tamil too. Like you say, just spoken Sinhalese. Just enough to communicate. That's the whole point of language after all, to be understood by others and understand others.

Anonymous said...

Here is the sad thing. I have lived in Sri Lanka all my life, studied in English, learnt Sinhala once a day by a teacher who couldnt be bothered to teach us, had no-one to speak Sinhala with, and so my Sinhala is dismal. My Tamil is non-existant.
When I left Sri Lanka to live in other countries, I came across Dutch men and women who spoke five languages perfectly. Then I began wondering why couldnt we as a country have taught three languages well to all our citizens - Sinhala, Tamil and English. Its not impossible. You just have to sell it to the people. But like you I too seem to have a language block and am monolingual.
The government seems keen to introduce English, but when our own Prez doesnt speak it well, or I should clarify that - I have never heard him speak it publicly - then how can you ask other citizens to learn English or for that matter any other language. Language is a pet subject of mine. Hence the long post.

cerno said...

My grandmother had that "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change" quote too!

I can't think how anyone would be able to get around Sri Lanka without knowing Sinhala or in other parts knowing Tamil. When I was at the ID card office 2 years ago, I was a TRI-Lingual conversation - English Tamil Sinhala. Not mish mash/Singlih words either. Just chunks of conversation switching from one language to another like gears in my Lamborghini.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Pseudo - I think that there must be many ways to learn a language, but the best way for any one person is possibly hard to find. I'm sure that being immersed in a language is very effective for many, just not sure if it would work for me. On a quiet night at my pad you may catch me appearing to talk to myself, whereas what I'm actually doing is practicing words and phrases in Sinhala.

Electra - It's a great idea but sadly impractical because of the relatively little time I get with them and the fact that I can't actually do the teaching myself. Their mother, though a lover of Sri Lanka, isn't Lankan and therefore would prob have little motivation in getting them to learn the lingo. One of the things I have tried to do is to nurture a love of Sri Lanka in them, something I hope I've been successful in.

Anon - thanks for the comment. I heard recently that kids are capable of existing and thriving in a multi lingual society very comfortably if it's started early enough. Sadly that was never the case here in the UK, English was supposedly all that was needed for so long.

Makuluwo said...

I grew up in a purely english speaking environment too, with a bit of tamil thrown in when we went to visit the grandparents..
A horrible thing when you live in Sri Lanka I have to say! I hate being so lame at speaking sinhala, because when you step out of that english speaking environment, people often hold it against you. :/

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Cerno - did your Grandmother wear a saree all the time too? If so I think we're probably first cousins. I suppose I'm referring more to existing in CMB thatn in rural areas of Lanka when I said about speaking in English, but good point.

Arkitekton said...

I guess the priest your speaking of is Hammalawe Saddhatissa Thero,who passed away in the early 90's.

Sachintha said...

I agree with PR more or less. Age doesn't really matter if you really want to learn a language. You've just got to throw all the caution to the wind and just speak it as much as possible even if you feel you're crap.

You see, before coming to Japan I learned Japanese for about a year back in Sri Lanka, but I was totally crap. But after coming to Japan, my Japanese improved remarkably, maybe withing 6 months, because I've got no option but speak it here. So, thought I'm far from being fluent in Japanese, I can communicate pretty well. Though I tend to struggle a bit when it comes to communicating with the cute Jap chicks, which is the bad thing.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Arkitekton - I can't recall the name I'm afraid, but it was in the 70s so there's a chance the person may have passed some time ago.

Sach - Yes, necessity being the mother of invention and all. your loss is the Jap chicks gain though!

Anonymous said...

Vut too doo?

Well, you can learn to write it better. After 42 years of English language if this is your grasp of it , do forget learning another language.
Invest in a very good tutor. Better still take a course and learn to express yourself better.

Just focus on English for atleast another 3-5 years.

Sanjeev said...

Anyone know of any singhala teachers in london?