For me, the saddest thing I’ve experienced in Sri Lanka has not been the sight of limbless beggars or the sound of countless war stories. On my last day in Nilaveli, I walked up the beach and passed through a fishing village. Every available man was pulling on one of 4 or 5 ropes that extended far into the sea. Chanting and wearing skirt-like sarongs and headscarves to shield them from the searing sun and flying sand, the men pulled in what I expected would surely be a massive haul. With their enormous nets and hours of work, the groups of around 20 men never pulled in more than 100 pounds of mostly small fish.
It didn’t strike me as being enough for them to even feed their families for the day. The sight reminded me that in addition to the war, the terrorist attacks, the massacres, the torture and the disappearances, most Sri Lankans confront devastating poverty on a daily basis, so that even if the peace lasts, true victory is nowhere in sight.
Hitchhiking back to Trinco that evening I was picked up by a van full of government researchers there to study exactly why there are so few fish left. According to them, not even the fish escaped the devastation of war, though the exact explanation of that connection escaped me.
This is because, unfortunately, my Sri Lankan English is quite poor. I had anticipated having few language problems here, but instead I confront them every day. Sri Lankan English is not easy to understand, and it lacks the melodious Indian lilt we find so charming in the West.
Words and phrases are shortened, verbs are omitted, the letter “f” sometimes becomes a “p”, and some terms simply require a dictionary. Thus,“sweetmeats” are “sweets,” a “saloon” is a place for a haircut, not a drink, “what country?” or “where prom?” means “where are you from?”, “how?” means “how are you?”, kiosks are called “cool spots,” a “hotel” is a restaurant, and a side-to-side head motion means “yes”, not “no”.
I am constantly asking people to repeat themselves, though usually I just nod my head (side-to-side) in passive agreement to whatever is being said. In Nilaveli, young children kept yelling out what I thought was “disculpen” (“sorry” in Spanish) whenever I passed by. I told a Spanish tourist that when I replied “ah, hablas espanol?” to one child I got no response. She pointed out that what they’re actually saying is “a school pen?”, the only phrase they know in English because apparently such simple school materials are in short supply across the country.
To make matters worse, unlike in countries where English is strictly a “foreign” language, most Sri Lankans do not doubt their English skills, no matter how limited they are. I therefore frequently find myself speaking to people who have no idea what I’m saying but who listen attentively anyway.
Having been born in Switzerland – where most people from each linguistic region speak the language of at least one other region – I was surprised to find out that very few people speak both Tamil and Sinhala. English usually serves to bridge this gap, but the problems this causes are numerous. Police officers have been known to conduct interrogations of Tamils in Sinhala with unqualified interpreters, or force Tamil detainees to sign confessions in Sinhala rather than in Tamil.
Home for Human Right’s own work, I would soon discover, is carried out exclusively by Tamil staffers and therefore suffers at the hands of this language obstacle. The first legal case I read through, for instance, included the following remark concerning witness interviews: “It seems that we need somebody to go and talked [sic] to her neighbors. Our field officers in Batticaloa said that they can’t [sic] go as they can’t speak in Sinhala.”
Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)
Posted Nov 27th, 2006