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When in Sri Lanka I would like to use a few words of either Tamil or Sinhalese with the locals. How can I tell which language I should try? Are there cultural appearances that I can go from? Of I get it wrong would anyone be offended?

If so I could be better off sticking with English.

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Not an easy task if you are planning to know the difference by looks, they both have the same skin color (some say Sinhalese have lighter skin color, but this is not true).

The easiest method to know which language to use is geographical distribution. Most Sinhalese live in south, west and most of the middle parts of Sri Lanka; while Tamil live in narrow strips in the northern and eastern part of Sri Lanka.

Other fact, Sinhalese are 75% of the population in Sri Lanka (15 millions), while Tamil are only 25% (5 millions).

Here is a map showing the geographical distribution of Tamil and Sinhalese:

Sinhala vs tamil

Image from Wikipedia

Another good method to distinguish between the two language is the language itself, Sinhala is of an Indo-Aryan origins, it sounds like Hindi, while Tamil is a Dravidian language which makes it sound like Malayalam or Kannada languages or any other southern Indian language. If you are familiar with any of these languages or at least know how they sound, you will easily know the difference as they are totally different in everything especially pronunciations.

If you are not sure, just use English. If the person does not understand English, use Sinhala as it is widely understood even among the Tamil.

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Since the author of the accepted answer does not seem to be from Sri Lanka (no offense, sir), I'd like to add a Sri Lankan answer to this.

Most of the Sri Lankans (Sinhala or Tamil speaking) can speak English to some degree. If you are in Colombo or Kandy, there is a very good chance that the person you are speaking can understand English. English is a requirement to hire for sales department in most of the super markets and other shops so go ahead and speak English. Just try to maintain a slow and clear accent.

There are 3 major "races" (although we don't really use that word) here - Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Muslims usually speak both languages. Overall, Tamil and Muslim people can speak Sinhala just like other Sinhala people do. Both Tamil and Sinhala languages, however, are difficult to understand and how you pronounce the word will also make a difference.

MeNoTalk's answer is just perfect and just refer the map. However, even in the areas that the map says Tamil speaking people are a lot, you will find people who speak Sinhala fluently.

When in Sri Lanka I would like to use a few words of either Tamil or Sinhalese with the locals.

That is great. Speak with anyone in their own language and don't be surprised if they do their best to help you or make friends with you. Everyone here is very friendly.

Are there cultural appearances that I can go from? Yes. Tamil people, in most cases in the morning, go to their religious places. They have some dot in the forehead and Tamil women usually have white color decorations in their head (and relatively darker skin color compared to the rest).

One easy way would be to look at the sign boards of shops. If that's a tamil only board, or have the tamil version first, that's a sign and Tamils are there or many of them speak Tamil. But that's not the case everytime. I'm a Sinhalese and I go to Tamil shops and their religious places (known as "Kovil"). They do the same.

I get it wrong would anyone be offended?

Not at all. Just use your hand gestures and make them feel that you really need to speak their language. Don't forget to smile. I have seen many tourists speak a little louder which is not really necessary. If a girls has a Mulsim scarf (I don't know the actual name), and is with her mother of father, speak with their parents and not their daughter - that's kinda offensive to approach such girl but overall, you'll be welcomed everywhere.

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Thank you for taking the time to write that. – WW. Mar 16 '14 at 7:34

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