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.