Akka has been learning to write Sinhala letters. She picked up where she left off with Achchi last summer and is practicing her handwriting at the daycare next door. Her teacher started her off with ‘ra’ because it’s one of the simplest letters:
On each page, the teacher draws a picture, then writes a letter with dashed lines for Akka to copy, leaving a few spaces for her to try the letter herself. Starting with ‘ra’, she drew a bunch of red balls and said “Ra is for rambutan”. Akka looked perplexed. What’s a rambutan?
It’s a fruit, very much like a lychee, that happens to be in season right now so we’ve filled our tummies with them and the kids still shriek “rambutan!” when they see the red spiky peels discarded on the ground.
for mala. Flower: easy. Akka recognized the drawing and set to work tracing the letter.
for tire. The teacher drew a black tire. No problem.
for udella. The teacher drew a tool, like a large hoe, with a shovel piece at a right angle to a long wooden handle. It’s for digging. There’s really no translation. Thankfully a new house is being built on the daycare grounds and the workers dig the foundation pits with udella. We showed her one, and off she went to draw her curly letters. Next was A for ala (potato).
So it went. Some letters stood for things she knew, and some stood for words specific to Sri Lanka, or to hot climates. Fruit are a favourite letter-teaching tool but where we Canadians use grapes for G and peaches for P, here it’s rambutan for Ra and labu (papaya) for La.
A is for apple. B is for baby. Or ball. Or boat. But not bank and never bum or bait. They’re always nouns and I suppose they’re words that we know young children will recognize. Even in English there are variations. When I was a kid in a British-English-speaking school, T was for flashlight (torch) and L was for truck (lorry).
Leafing through some alphabet books at the shop, I was made to realize that my Apple Ball Cat Dog Elephant Fish assumptions for letters in English are not necessarily widely-held. In two different books I found that A is for ass (ahem – donkey), G is for gun, P is for pistol and T is for tank. I was a little surprised; weaponry being mostly excluded from children’s books back home. U can’t branch out from uniform or umbrella and Q only ventures from queen to quilt or sometimes quill. X-ray feels like a stretch and I draw the line at X-mas tree. Xylophone gets no relief.