Monday, March 21, 2016

How to Learn Sinhala for Foreigners and Expats

A few years back, I wrote a blog post titled "The Funny World of Sinhala, Singlish and English" and it seems like an opportune time to revisit this topic in a more practical sense. Over the past year I've had a quite a few expats get in touch, who are either moving or have moved to Sri Lanka, expressing an interest in learning to speak Sinhala (and possibly to learn to read and write too). This is wonderful to hear and warms my little heart to know that there are other expats who keen to connect and communicate with locals in their native tongue, and also to feel more at home in Sri Lanka.

There have been plenty of expat articles that emphasize how learning the local language can be really beneficial to the expat experience of living in a foreign country. For one, it brings you closer to the locals and to better understand the local culture. It's a real revelation to be able to laugh and joke in the local language! Another reason, is that you will find more confidence living in Sri Lanka once you have a grasp of the language. It also is easier to navigate around the island using public transport and being aware of notices and signs for things of interest. Eventually, all this knowledge will make this place feel more like home, and what's not to like about that. I know all of this to be true from personal experience.

This blog post offers some practical advice and resources to assist expats and foreigners on learning to speak, read and write Sinhala.

Learning to speak 

The easiest way to learn to speak Sinhala is to enroll in a language class or find a private tutor. I know many people think that they'll pick up the language by simply hanging out with locals, but it can actually take a little longer or you don't learn the proper grammar and words, which means you'll end up with Singlish or some kind of colloquial Sinhala. This might be alright for informal conversations with friends, but can be limiting if you also want to use Sinhala for work and other situations.

The following list is not exhaustive, but offers a good starting point for expats and foreigners looking for classes in Colombo. They may also be able to suggest Sinhala teachers who are willing to offer private tuition. I would recommend seeking an accredited Sinhala teacher or tutor, rather than a local with no teaching credentials. This is to ensure you learn to speak proper Sinhala.

  • International Language Centre Colombo ("ILCC") offers a course designed to improve your ability to understand and speak Sinhala. At the end of the course you have the option of progressing to their  Advance Course and from there you can sit for a language proficiency exam. I haven’t tried this course.
  • Michael Meyler - previously taught a popular Sinhala beginners course at the British Council (note - I believe the British Council no longer offers these courses). Michael now teaches both Tamil and Sinhala classes independently.  All the materials he uses in classes are developed by him and are based on communicative English language teaching methodology. He also introduces his own version of the phonetic script to students to help them master pronunciation. His Sinhala beginners class covers 40 hours of teaching, divided into twice a week sessions of two hours each. You can then enroll for the Sinhala 2 level (40 hours).  
  • University of Kelaniya - Certificate Course in Sinhala - This course is highly focused on foreigners who wish to learn Sinhala. There are five compulsory course units over one year. It's aim is "to impart a substantial knowledge in the dual spheres of spoken Sinhala and the standard grammar of the Sinhala writing system; and to confer an adequate knowledge on important features of Sinhala culture".
  • Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies ("BCIS") - Sinhala for foreigners language courses conducted over ten weeks, where you attend one class a week lasting three hours used to be offered. I’ve tried this course many years back and it was a fun experience. You’ll meet a lot of embassy or consulate staff learning the language this way. Note - I'm still waiting to hear back whether this course is still on offer at BCIS

If you're interested in self-study to learn to speak Sinhala, I would recommend Shirley Perera and her Let Us Speak Sinhala Series in three volumes. Volume 1 comes with a CD and that is very helpful for pronunciation and exercises. These books are available at local bookshops in Colombo. It was possible to purchase some of the volumes on Amazon, but when I last checked they were out of stock.

Learning to read and write

There are many reasons why you would want to lean to read and write Sinhala. I found it was for practical reasons that I initially felt the need to learn to read i.e. I wanted to be able to read the destinations for the buses or simple noticeboards for shops and sights. Later on, I wanted to be able to read the local newspapers and even recipes as well as to write my name and simple notes for people.

It's quite a confidence boost to be able to look at the Sinhala alphabet and see that it's not just doodles that look like "bottoms" and squiggles.

Some of the classes that were mentioned in the "Learn to speak" section of the blog post cover reading and writing, but not all. However, you may wish to undertake some self-study using online and published material. I have done classes and self-study with regard to leaning to read and write. I feel it takes a bit more time and effort than learning to speak, which you can practice quite easily.

One of the easiest ways to start to learn the Sinhala alphabet is to go back to basics as if you were in pre-school or primary school. This means using the exact same tools as someone at that age would be using, which is basically very elementary picture books with Sinhala letters and practice tracing exercises. They sometimes use these in basic Sinhala classes for foreigners and expats. If you pay a visit to one of the local bookshops, such as Vijitha Yapa or Sarasavi or MD Gunasena, and go to the children's section you'll find a wide selection of such picture books.

J.B. Disanayaka, is an Emeritus Professor and one of the leading authorities of the Sinhala Language. I have found his learning collection for kids (i.e. Akuru Mihira and Punchi Apata series) very good for learning the basics of the Sinhala alphabet. His Let's Learn Sinhala Series in four volumes is probably the series to try out if you wish to study in a more effective manner about vowels, consonants, clusters and special letters. You can purchase these books at most bookstores in Colombo, but Sumitha Bookshops has a whole page dedicated to this author's works and can be ordered online. If you live abroad and wish to study in advance before coming to Sri Lanka, Amazon also sells his books.

Other online free tools

There are web-based learning tools and applications available on the internet. The list below is not comprehensive, but some that I thought were useful. - Learn Sinhala - FSI Sinhala
Open University Sri Lanka - Sinhala Programme
Lazy but smart Sinhala

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you use or where you learn the local language. Hvae some fun while you're learning Sinhala and be okay with making more than a few mistakes! The locals never seem to mind if your Sinhala isn't perfect, they just love that you're speaking it. And all that really matters is that you can have a communicate, connect and be understood by a native speaker, and read and write as much as you would need to.

If you're an expat or foreigner that has used or found a useful web-resource, class or tutor to learn to speak, read or write Sinhala, please feel free to leave a comment to share this.


Sujata Gamage said...

Infogate Kantale founder Ishara Madushanka is developing a Sinhala-English exchange program for expats. He can be contacted at ishara at infogate dot lk.

Mohamed Aarish said...

Did you participate in the ILCC course ? How was it ? it's weird that they are not replying to my emails. I am out of Sri lanka for this Sri lankan new year holidays. Will call them once i go to Sri lanka.

Eva Stone said...

Hi Mohamed, as I mentioned in this blog post, I haven't tried the ILCC course. Things do change in Sri Lanka with courses being dropped or varied, so best to try and call. Wishing you the best

Jem DeAlwis said...

Kapruka has a free English to Sinhala dictionary online here:
It has pronunciation as well which may be very helpful to expats.

Eva Stone said...

Thanks for sharing this Jem. Looks helpful with the pronunciation in sinhala :-)

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