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Do You Understand Malayalam?

Do You Understand Malayalam?

December 14, 2010

In Kerala, English continues its steady march, but the local language retains its charm.

I’ve always thought it sensible, if moving to a foreign land, to at least try and learn the language. Before coming to Kerala I lived in Japan, and in the months leading up to my departure from NZ, I became addicted to hiragana and katakana study software and took every opportunity at work to practise my paltry Japanese. Once I made it to Tokyo, I maintained the effort and, while far from perfect, my ability to communicate to local non-English speakers became pretty solid.

With Malayalam, it’s been a different story. I’ve been here for more than two years now, but my vocabulary of Kerala’s first language is still limited to about a hundred words. I can count up to 6; I can tell someone my age; I can say “I don’t speak Malayalam”. But when it comes to verbal communication of any substance, I remain shackled to English. The reason is simple: it’s all my daily life demands. I work in an office that does outsourcing work, and live in a tourist town; everyone around me, from the boss at work to vegetable seller and laundry man up the road, can communicate well in English.

Perhaps I would be more motivated to learn Malayalam if my friends and neighbours were strict with me about it. In Japan, there was always a guilt associated with not learning the language, like you were just another outsider who didn’t make the effort. One of the first questions a stranger would ask me was whether I spoke Japanese. (Paradoxically, foreigners who speak Japanese fluently are regarded with some suspicion by locals.)

In Kerala, questions are of a more personal nature – what is your good name, your native place, are you married, how much salary – but when I do on rare occasions get asked “do you understand Malayalam?”, and I answer sheepishly that I only speak a little (if I’m being generous with myself), the inquirer inevitably responds by assuring me that English is much more important and that I shouldn’t worry. And among those close to me, most are more interested in picking up native English speaking habits from me than offering tuition.

I, too, have ended up studying English most days, but in a different way. If I speak with my normal accent – Kiwi with flat vowels and mumbling at a mile a minute – very few are likely to understand. Instead, I’ve adopted a kind of attempted Malayali accent, and often seek assistance from my colleagues in perfecting it. For example, the number ‘twelve’ more closely resembles ‘toll’, while ‘po-TAY-to’ becomes ‘PO-te-to’ (needless to say, these are very rough approximations). It’s a source of great amusement for the others at work, and a genuinely valuable communication tool when speaking to a stranger or asking for something in a shop.

Though it isn’t conscious, one of the reasons for my laziness in learning Malayalam is undoubtedly the fact that it is only spoken in this small corner of the world. English is the most prominent lingua franca of the world, and after decades of Hindi domination, India appears ready to shift to English as a cross-cultural communication medium. Still, it would be a great shame for a local language like Malayalam to die out, as it contains some wonderfully succinct and beguiling phrases; athreye ullo, for example, which literally means 'that much only?' but can be used in many different situations.

Ultimately, I think whatever small knowledge of Malayalam I learn in Kerala will be put to best use elsewhere. Just as joking about ‘fush und chups’ drops a few barriers when I meet a travelling New Zealander, a phrase like ‘athreye ullo’ would be an even greater asset if I happen to meet a Malayali in another part of India or in another country. That ability to communicate and identify with someone at the same time is one good pointer to suggest that despite the spread and dominance of English, a language like Malayalam is unlikely to die out any time soon. Anyway, I’m not ready to leave Kerala yet, so perhaps it’s time I hit the books.


  • Kirklops
    21.09.11 11:08 AM
    I recently moved into an address that had '12' in it and each time I change the address on file of the different services, the american customer care representative found it difficult to follow what I was saying. Haven't had much problem with accents before and so this problem with twelve confused me.
    Now I can say - athreyo ullo, I might have been saying tollth instead of twelfth.
  • Ranjini Hannah
    Ranjini Hannah
    25.04.11 02:02 PM
    regret the very un'fashionable' typo !!!
  • Ranjini Hannah
    Ranjini Hannah
    25.04.11 02:01 PM
    Your efforts at learning our language are commendable Barnaby(all the best with that!!), especially when compared to other youngsters out here in the UAE and part of the malayali diaspora elsewhere, who think its 'fashionbale' or a big achievement/status of sorts to say "I don't know how to speak/read/write malayalam".Similarly,Suzanne, really appreciate the fact that you took the effort to learn your mother tongue.I've heard my elders say "malayalam nannayi samsarikkan naaku vadikanam", meaning, to speak malayalam properly you should clean your tongue!! Barnaby, I think the next peculiar thing you'll notice is the use of 'tongue-cleaners' which we use alongwith the toothbrush(Ask of one of ur colleagues to help you out & buy one....its a good investment) and laast but not the least, if you need tuitions, feel free to write to me :D
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    17.01.11 05:32 PM
    Thanks Suzanne. I think your last line about sums it up. :)
  • Suzanne Thomas
    Suzanne Thomas
    17.01.11 09:31 AM
    Yea more people speak English everywhere nowadays. However, don't feel the guilt of it. I'm of malayalee background but I was born and brought up in the USA so English is my native language, however I learned a little malayalam on my own when I went to Kerala two years back as my grandparents don't know English and I just tried my best to speak with them and eventually grasped a bit. My cousins in India and me mix in malayalam and english when speaking to each other. I had fun learning a bit too, and no one criticized or judged me nor my brother for attempting to speak, unlike some other countries and b/c of that we were made comfortable to which we really wanted to learn the language. So now I can speak a little bit mallu and understand really well. But I'm very comfortable with English b/c it's my native and prefer to speak it w/ everyone, unless they don't understand English at all. I guess it's a bit useful to know a bit of the language when you have to speak with someone who doesn't know English or the language you normally speak..helps you get across haha. But if you really want to learn it, there are alot of tools online like Fokana that will help broaden your knowledge of the language. I really don't think it matters what language you use among with each other, as long as you can bond w/ each other and respect each's all good :)
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    16.12.10 01:19 PM
    Mathew, that's so true - there's such a pride in English here, and an envy among those who don't speak it. As for your experience in Bangalore, maybe it's expected that brown-skinned folks should learn the local language? Honestly, nothing like that has ever happened to me - and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

    Evelyn, thank you so much for this feedback! I'm glad to hear that snippets of language have gone a long way for you too. Moments like that can really make a difference in people's lives.
  • Evelyn
    15.12.10 09:20 AM
    Dear Barnaby
    I really liked your post, one of my friend in fb had posted this link,so i just happen to visit this.. yes you not be able perfect the language but the little phrases you pick up will go a long way in establishing relationships in the asian context.

    am an indian,a tamilian but brought up in delhi and now in singapore,happen to pick up mandarin..and once i had a bunch of mainland china (new recruits) to singapores largest supermarket.And i had to train them !!!! huh..but the my little phrases of "ni hao ma"."wo hen gao xin" helped me to create a rapport with them and served as ice breaker. keep writing.bye

  • Mathew Mathew
    Mathew Mathew
    14.12.10 10:42 PM
    A saipe or for that matter a visitor may never be ridiculed in Kerala for speaking in English. You may not be that lucky with some people in a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru or Mumbai with your English.

    Once I was scolded by a bus conductor in "Bangalore" (early 1980s) for asking, "May I have the balance?" He shouted back, "Kannada mathadu!" ("Speak in Kannada").

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