A Guide to the Languages of Sri Lanka for Tourists
Sri Lanka is a melting pot of cultures and languages, with a rich history of trade, migration, and colonization. The island’s linguistic diversity is reflected in its official and recognized languages, which include Sinhala, Tamil, English, and several minority languages. Understanding the language landscape of Sri Lanka is essential for tourists who want to fully immerse themselves in the local culture and communicate with the friendly and hospitable Sri Lankan people.
- Spoken by the majority Sinhalese people, who make up about 75% of Sri Lanka’s population
- Belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family
- Developed from the ancient Prakrit language and influenced by Sanskrit and Pali
- Written in the Sinhala script, which has similarities to the Devanagari script used in Hindi and other Indian languages
- Useful phrases: “Ayubowan” (hello/goodbye), “Bohoma sthuthi” (thank you), “Api innawa?” (how are you?), “Mama gena oya koheda?” (where are you going?)
- Spoken by the Tamil people, who make up about 11% of Sri Lanka’s population and live mainly in the northern and eastern parts of the country
- Belongs to the Dravidian language family and has a rich literary tradition dating back to the Sangam period
- Influenced by Sanskrit, Arabic, and European languages due to historical contacts with traders and invaders
- Written in the Tamil script, which has similarities to the Malayalam and Telugu scripts used in southern India
- Useful phrases: “Vanakkam” (hello), “Nandri” (thank you), “Yen idhyam?” (what is your name?), “Inge vaa” (come here)
- Widely used as a second language and the language of education, administration, and commerce in Sri Lanka
- Introduced by the British during colonial rule and retained as an official language after independence in 1948
- Used by the urban and educated elites, as well as in tourist areas and international business settings
- Useful phrases: “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, “Where is the nearest ATM?”
4. Other minority languages
- Include Malay, Portuguese, Dutch, and several indigenous languages spoken by small communities
- Reflect Sri Lanka’s multicultural and multilingual heritage as a hub of maritime trade and colonialism
- Have varying degrees of recognition and support from the government and society
- Useful phrases: “Apa khabar?” (Malay, how are you?), “Obrigado” (Portuguese, thank you), “Dag” (Dutch, goodbye)
Sri Lanka’s languages reflect its complex and diverse history, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the cultural richness and linguistic vitality of the country. Tourists who take the time to learn a few phrases in the local languages can enhance their travel experience, break down cultural barriers, and show their respect and appreciation for the warm and welcoming people of Sri Lanka.
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