The English spoken by many Sri Lankans is very different than American English. The vocabulary and pronunciation are British not American, and sometimes it feels like a game trying to guess the correct word so that people will understand me. I have to remember to ask for washroom, not restroom or bathroom, and to enunciate my t’s, which feels very unnatural, but it is the only way people understand me.
The British English spoken by some Sri Lankans, those who haven’t traveled much outside the country or had much experience with native English speakers, is somewhat out of date. A few weeks ago I was in Matara at the beach when a student from nearby Ruhuna University came up to talk to me. She was very friendly and asked me “Shall we have a sea bath?” I politely told her, “No, we shall not have a sea bath.”
The local papers also use English phrases I don’t understand, including the headline “King Croc Comes a Cropper in Hendala.” The story was about a gigantic crocodile caught by local villagers in Hendala, on the West Coast. I still haven’t figured out what “comes a cropper” means.Needless to say that communicating, even in English, can be challenging.
The Sinhala I’ve been learning has helped me a little, especially the numbers, though I still can’t tell the difference between 60 and 70 which sound the same except for a different “t.” The words I’ve learned mostly refer to animals and small things. I can say elephant, baby elephant, dog, puppy, cat, kitten, cow, water buffalo, monkey, and three different words for small (chooty, podi, and punchi). In day to day life, the two phrases I use the most are “pissu hadenuwa” and “Deyyo dani, api no dani,” which mean “making me crazy” and “God knows, we don’t know.” Usually I’m talking about the traffic. I’ve also learned that close friends can be called “amba yaluwa” which means “mango friends, or they can be said to be like “kiripaeni,” which means “curd and treacle” a popular Sri Lankan dessert.
Even though I’ve learned how to communicate better here, it is always a relief to talk to people who are fluent English speakers so I can talk as fast as I want with my American accent and be easily understood.