Learning Sinhala: As easy as ekka, dekka, thuna

After our ten day tour of the island, it was time for the students to turn to their studies. For my mom and I that meant back to school shopping. We took a trip to a hole in the wall shop that carried school supplies. The back wall was lined with shelves containing paper of many hues which had been used to create colorful decorations that hung from the ceiling. I had learned over the past several weeks that Sri Lanka was different in almost every conceivable way than home, so that there was something new to see in even mundane things. Notebooks, for example, were all bound flat rather than spiral bound and were shorter and fatter than a standard page in the U.S. or taller and skinnier. We opted for the squatter variety and I also purchased a plastic pencil case, pencils, sharpener and eraser. Accumulating new school supplies was always one of the most exciting things about starting the school year for me. I loved the order and possibilities of sitting at a desk with a clean notebook and newly sharpened pencils.

I was excited when we arrived at the University of Colombo on Monday morning at 9am for our first Sinahala lesson.  My enthusiasm for nine am college classes did not remain when I was actually in college, but on this day, with fresh supplies in hand, I was ready to begin. The university entrance was marked with a modest sign in three languages.


The top line was the rounded script of Sinhala, the language I would be studying. The second line was the more flourished angular Tamil and the last line was English.  From the outside, the University resembled a luxury hotel with a white central tower and several floors with many large windows.  Grand trees shaded a drive up to the main entrance which looked like it should have valet parking. Walking inside though, the halls resembled, and I noted smelled, like any learning institution, and our classroom could have been anywhere.


I sat next to my mother on the left side of the room near the windows.  The students entered the morning class in various states of alertness and filled in the seats around us as I set up my desk with my materials and wrote my name on the front of my notebook in bubble letters.  A petite woman in a colorful Sari quietly entered the room and most of the chatting students did not notice. Although small in stature, she was not shy and did not hesitate to take control of the class. She said that class would be intense and that by the end of our four weeks she expected us to be able to carry on a conversation in a language that until recently none of us had ever heard.


Sinhalese or Sinhala as it is referred to in Sri Lanka is the language of the majority ethnic Sinhalese population. The name Sinhala is derived from a Sanskrit term that is associated with “lion-killer” or “lion-blood.” Lions are an important symbol to the Sinhalese as their ancient founder, Prince Vijaya was the result of a union between a princess and a lion. The language belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages and came to Sri Lanka from Northern India. As it is related to European languages there are some words that have vaguely familiar roots especially if one is familiar with some of the other romance languages like Spanish or Italian that evolved from Latin.

For example counting to three…sinhalasentences

ONE – Sinhala: Ekka Latin:Unos

TWO  Sinhala: Dekka Latin: Duo

THREE Sinhala: Thuna Latin: Tria

Then there are the words that taken directly from English. Once we discovered those words such as car ekka, bus ekka, bag ekka, phone ekka, ticket ekka, tv ekka we would add ekka to any vocabulary word we did not know in the hopes that we would be understood. Unfortunately those words are limited or we would have been golden.

Although we were able to ask for a toilet by simply saying toilet ekka with an inquisitive look, reading proved more of a challenge.

The script is very different than the English alphabet and is descended from the Brahmi script which also gave rise to many modern Indian languages. It has a syllabary of 56 beautifully rounded characters. I was told by an old Buddhist monk that Sinhalese characters were rounded because ancient scribes who wrote important Buddhist texts used palm leaves. Writing on such leaves with angular strokes caused the leaves to split along the veins of the fronds, and so Sinhala became a round alphabet. In our class we were to be introduced to the script as well as the spoken language.  To read transliterated Sinhalese we used the International Phonetic Alphabet which was also new to me.


“We have started Sinhala lessons. Our teacher goes very fast. It is our second day and we are on lesson six! I don’t think I am having any trouble keeping up with everyone. In fact, I think I am doing a little better than mom!” –Johanna August 31, 1982 sinhalanotebook

With the mind of a 10-year old and three hours a day for a month of intensive lessons I did learn a lot. And, since each day of lessons was rewarded with a trip to the Oberoi hotel swimming pool, it was worth it.

“Johanna is doing well in Sinhala class and isn’t afraid to practice what she has learned. Of the four hours we spend at the pool every day, she’s in the water about 3 ¾ hours. So, her swimming is really getting good too. I think we are all going to wear out our bathing suits before we leave Colombo.”-Judith Sept 3, 1982

At the end of the month-long session the other students who were taking the course for credit had their final exam which I decided to take just to see how I would do. I received a combined 79 on my oral and written exam. Not a grade I would have appreciated in college, but not bad for a ten year old. What I gained by studying and more importantly practicing Sinhala was invaluable. So many encounters and friendships were made possible by reaching out, however crudely at first, in the local language. In anticipation of my trip in 2017, I am desperately attempting to reach into the recesses of my aging brain to pull out my long-dormant Sinhala ability. I hope that any fragments I am able to rescue come with my ten year old lack of inhibition so that I can try once more to speak with the friendly Sri Lankans in their native tongue.


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

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