Why can't Sri Lankans speak Hindi?
Differentiation between Tamil and Sinhala speakers in Sri Lanka
Since the author of the accepted answer does not appear to be from Sri Lanka (no offense sir) I would like to add a Sri Lankan answer.
Most 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 the person you speak will understand English. English is a requirement for employment in the sales department in most supermarkets and other stores. So speak english. Just try to keep the accent slow and clear.
There are three major "races" here (although we don't actually use that word) - Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. Muslims usually speak both languages. Overall, like other Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims can speak Sinhala. However, both Tamil and Sinhala languages are difficult to understand, and how you pronounce the word will also make a difference.
MeNoTalk's answer is just perfect and just points to the map. But even in the areas where the map shows a lot of Tamil speaking people, you can find people who are fluent in Sinhala.
Whenever I am in Sri Lanka I would like to use a few Tamil or Sinhala words with the locals.
That's great. Talk to someone in their own language and don't be surprised if they do their best to help you or befriend you. Everyone here is very friendly.
Are there any cultural phenomena that I can assume? Yes. Tamils go to their religious places in the morning in most cases. They have a point on the forehead and Tamil women usually have white color decorations on the head (and a relatively darker skin color compared to the others).
An easy way would be to look at the shop signs. If this is a board for Tamils only, or has the Tamil version first, that is a sign and Tamils are there or many of them speak Tamil. But that's not always the case. I am Sinhalese and go to Tamil shops and their religious sites (known as "Kovil"). They do the same thing.
I get it wrong, would anyone be offended?
Not at all. Just use your hand gestures and make them feel like you really need to speak their language. Do not forget to smile. I have seen many tourists speak a little louder, which is not really necessary. If a girl has a mulsim scarf (I don't know the actual name) and is with her father's mother, talk to her parents, not her daughter - this is a bit offensive when approaching such a girl, but overall you will be greeted everywhere.
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