Mind Your Language

Sringlish is my name for the approximation to standard English that appears everywhere here, from the “pharmacuticle” company I pass on the bus to the tuk-tuk equivalents of “Thoughts for the Day” emblazoned on many of the more customised vehicles that ply their trade: “Waste every second – Future of your life” or “All your kind words make everyone’s day” or the gnomic “My back is not a Voicemail” seen on a scooter rider’s tee shirt recently. There’s a tuk-tuk van sits near the Fort that sells Fride Rice. Not long ago I saw a Facebook meme “Don’t criticise a foreigner’s English: at least they know two languages”, so I mustn’t be too sniffy and should smile wryly, which I can sometimes manage.

Chatting to two Croatian visitors staying at Sera’s, I was struck by how good their English was and today on the beach I heard many Eastern Europeans chatting together in almost flawless English. The Croatians, who currently live in Germany, deplored the lack of English amongst professionals in that country: I suggested that perhaps German was sufficiently well-established as an international language that fluency in English was not a necessary adjunct to a well-paid job and I must admit the Germans I’ve met generally have very good English. The Croatian lady – well-travelled in Asia by the sound of it – replied saying that in most of the countries they had visited over the years the standard of English was excellent. She went on to say that she believed the Asian countries which had deliberately turned their backs on English, possibly as a result of rejecting an imperialist legacy, were the ones that struggled most economically. She told a story of a visit a few days ago to a tea factory where the guide was inordinately proud of his English but was also completely incomprehensible and took a “You haven’t been paying attention: I already told you that” approach when they asked questions. On the whole, though, I feel that staff in tourist-facing enterprises such as restaurants, hotels etc. are not at all bad communicating in English. My experience of guides in National Parks, Safari Jeep drivers and the like has been very positive. I remember last year on a trip to Yala NP, the guide / driver spoke very good English but, when he discovered my two temporary companions were Swedish, he explained everything in both languages despite their impeccable English. Before anyone points it out I must confess that I have absolutely no Sinhala, except for “Stuthi” – (Thank You) and “Gin Ganga” – (Fire River), which doesn’t get one very far! I also know my pronunciation of place names is terrible: I can cope with Ambalanwaththa, the district of Galle where I live and the school is located, but places like Madawalamulla are beyond me to pronounce comprehensibly. Of course, the Sinhala script – beautiful as it is – doesn’t help. It also leads to a considerable degree of flexibility in spelling when transliterated into our alphabet: Ambalanwaththa – I’ve taken the spelling off Sera’s business card – also appears as Ambalanawatta, Ambalanwatha etc. The Other Place I briefly worked in last year was on Donald Janz Road, but even the official street signs weren’t standardised: Jeans, Janes and other spellings cropped up all over the place as well as variations on Donald.

From my position of near-complete ignorance, it seems that Sri Lankans swallow their sounds and slur words a lot: “th” can be pronounced as “t”, a slightly aspirated “th”, an “h” and even – rarely – “th”. V’s English pronunciation is very hard to follow: it mostly sounds as though he’s speaking with an old sock in his mouth, consonants disappearing in a slurry of homogenised vowels. He’s young, of course, and no doubt his English teachers have a heavy local accent. Once again, I remind you that my pronunciation of the handful of Sinhala phrases my old brain retains is atrocious by local standards. I love trying to decode the repeated insistent shouts of the bus conductors at the bus station as they try to drum up trade.

I changed my plans a bit for today and instead of going north to Hikkaduwa I took the bus south to Unawatuna, a shorter journey. The other evening, after I’d given V my very poor lesson on Powerpoint – that’s another story – he and his dad showed me a video clip with some rather unlikeable young American dude, all back to front baseball cap and surfer shorts, who was touring SL. At Unawtuna, amongst all the grungy music and bizarre camera shots, he went to a Spice Garden and I thought it might be worth a visit. My attempts to check it out online were thwarted by the lack of Internet access, but that’s the direction I went anyway. On the beach, over a Lion ginger beer – apparently local but actually made by Coca Cola and carrying a “high sugar content” warning – I managed to get online and the reviews of the Spice Garden were so bad that I decided it wasn’t worth the bother. (For clarity, the best ginger beer out here is Elephant Ginger Beer (EGB) and the best proper beer is Lion (unfortunately made by Coca Cola). EGB is made with “actual real ginger”, whereas today’s stuff only has “nature identical” ginger.)

I had a very lazy day on the beach and didn’t even go in the sea, partly as I’d have had to leave my stuff unattended and partly through inertia. A pleasant though uninspiring lunch of calamari and French fries was followed by a doze on a sun-lounger and a bit of reading

When I got back to Sera’s, Internet access was still off. Apparently the local service provider Dialog was having technical problems. I would say they themselves are the problem: the service has been unbelievably bad for a couple of weeks now: it can take ten minutes – no I’m not exaggerating – to access a web page and generally the system crashes long before that. If I were Sera, I’d be complaining vociferously, threatening legal action or finding out how to make a bomb! I don’t understand how the house can have access, but the apartments don’t. Across the road, the school – mouse damage aside – has no problem. The upshot of this is that not only can I not communicate with Sonia, but I’m not managing to make reservations for the forthcoming long weekend. At times I feel murderous; at others I’d be satisfied with merely tarring and feathering someone. At least with two classes worth of kids away in Saudi I should get time to make arrangements in school tomorrow.

My session with Venushka this evening was a mix of French and English, after which Poornima presented me with a plate of Rotti, a sort of flatbread laced with spicy things. She’s a very good cook. As soon as I left the house, Sera called me over to join him and his two friends who were socialising over arak, egg hoppers, a fiery “sambol” and more arak. I joined them for a wee while – long enough for one arak and an egg hopper, but left them to it as I didn’t want to intrude and didn’t fancy a hangover either.


2 responses to “Mind Your Language

  1. Oh I do love a good Roti and also egg hoppers! You mentioned a curry with aubergine. What was it like? Lattha made us an amazing curry which, according to her, was aubergine (she showed us the word in our phrase book) but we never saw it again after and even google searches are no help. It was a rather sweet curry where the aubergine appeared to have been cooked down and caramelised so it was dark and sticky but it was so good. Sound similar?? Hope you’re having a good week. xxxx

    • No, this was thin strips – like Macdonald’s French Fries in size – of rather dry aubergine, along with bit of onion?. I think it had been brifly fried. It was nice, but more of an accompaniment than an actual dish in itself. The recipe you pm’d me looked good. Maybe I should try to source some of the ingredients before returning?

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