How to overcome the language barrier whilst volunteering in Sri Lanka?

In this video, past SLV Coordinators Aaron and Zuber provide an insight as to how volunteers can overcome the language barrier whilst you volunteer in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a diverse country with many religions, ethnicities and languages. There are two main ethnic groups: the majority Sinhalese (who speak Sinhala), and minority Tamil (who speak Tamil).

It’s really easy to find English speakers in the capital city, Colombo and in tourist destinations. However, don’t expect English to be spoken by most people that you meet, especially whilst on projects. This can present a language barrier which volunteers do have to work to overcome. Volunteers won’t be expected to learn to speak the language but it’s great if you pick up some commonly used words to break the ice when you meet new people in the local community.

"The main challenge is they speak a different language, so it's really good to try and learn a few words. Even if you just know please, thank you and hello it just goes a very long way and they really really appreciate that you've taken the time to learn a few words. " - Aaron

Remember, a lot of communication can be expressed through tone and body language. It can be amazing to see how this allows you to interact with another person who doesn’t speak the same language as you by using gestures, facial expressions and movements. Volunteers also have a big focus on therapeutic activities such as arts and crafts and games. With these, it’s easy to get service users involved by acting out activities and copying each other.

"You don't understand it but somehow it just works. Because a lot of communicating is not actually through words. From what I know, 60% of communication is through body language, tone and not actual language." - Zuber

As well as learning the odd phrase, a good way to make a great first impression is to remember to remove your shoes and hats when entering temples or houses. You’ll be reminded by the piles of shoes outside of most doorways. Doing this is a way to show respect and keeping your shoes and hats on indoors is a big faux pas.

Lee MLee