Sunday, March 17, 2013


** Note to all my Tamil readers. Please forgive me for any misspellings or misunderstandings of your native language.

When asking for input on a name for this blog, my dad suggested something along the lines of “Say it Tamil.” His reason for the suggestion was, “You’re going to be saying ‘How do you say that in Tamil?’ frequently, ya know?” I should have listened to him.

The local language here is Tamil, however, due to the popularity of CMC, there are about seventeen different languages spoken at this facility. In fact, a large number of the staff confess that their Tamil is not very good as it is their second or third language. Because of the variance in the spoken languages, I didn’t really attempt to learn Tamil. That was before I really started to love this place. A few weeks ago I decided to make a concerted effort to learn as much Tamil as I possibly could before leaving. I have learned a lot more about Tamil, and speaking a foreign language, than I thought I would.

Learning the correct pronunciation is one of the hardest challenges in learning the language. I think there are a few reason for this.

          1.)    I am learning the language from a variety of people. And not all of my tutors claim Tamil as their mother tongue. I will learn a phrase or word from someone and proceed to work hard to perfect the pronunciation. Then I will try out my new vocabulary on someone else and will get a grimace, confused expression, or laughter as a response followed by, “No. No. No. You say it like this…” I perfect the pronunciation again, and then try it out on a new person who generally responds in the aforementioned manner. Rinse and repeat.

          2.)    I am convinced that my ear has not been trained to pick up the subtle differences in the words. I will be working on perfecting my pronunciation with someone and it will go a bit like this:
Tutor de jour: “It’s pa-ning- ga.”
Me: “Pa-ning-ga.”
Tutor de jour: Smirk and head shake. “No. No. Pa-ning-ga”
Me: Thinking what the HECK is the difference in what they said and what I said… “PA-ning-ga. Wait. Spell it.”
Tutor de jour: “P-a-n-n-u-n-g-a.”
Me: Well I would have NEVER spelled it that way… and…. That didn’t help much. Tries again. “Pa-ning-ga.”
Tutor de jour: Yes! That is correct. Again.
Me: Seriously? That sounds, to me, EXACTLY the way I said it the first eighteen times. “Pannunga.” (Please note that this word has been spelled four different ways for me. I don’t really know the correct spelling. I do know that it means “do it.” Oh, and don’t even get me started on the difference between “shirt” [sattai] and “whip” [saattai]. That combination is just dangerous!)

          3.)    Not only has my ear not been trained to hear the difference, but the musculature of my tongue and mouth is not in a condition to form the correct sounds. I came this conclusion one evening after a particularly long language lesson. I couldn’t figure out why my lips, tongue and mouth were so sore. Then I tried to say something in Tamil. All those muscles I had been stressing that afternoon during language lessons screamed out in pain as I tried to form the words. After thinking more about it, it makes sense that the muscles would be sore. I had been asking my tongue to flip itself inside out and contort into positions it has never had to before just to nail the pronunciations.

          4.)    Tamil has some of the strangest letter combinations. Take “zh” for instance. Tell me, how would you pronounce that? Unless you speak Tamil, I can pretty much guarantee that you are wrong. In this letter combination, the “z” is silent. So is the “h.” To properly pronounce this sound, you have to swallow the middle portion of your tongue, then flick the tip of your tongue to the front without ever bringing it close to the roof of your mouth, all the while relaxing the cheek muscles and contracting the neck. The sound you are supposed to end up making kind of sounds like someone saying “weird eye” with their mouth stuffed full of no less than thirty-five grapes. If I was given the job of creating a letter combination for this sound I, too, would probably just pick any two random letters and call it good.

I have had some successes in my quest to learn the language. Most of my vocabulary is therapy related. Here is a very small sample:
-          Kai kudunga= (with respect) give me your hand
-          Medhuva= slow
-          Thirupi (or is it tirapi?)= again
-          Inga vaanga= (with respect) come here
-          Ukarunga= (with respect) sit

One of the defining moments for me with regard to my language accusation happened at the train station just before leaving for Kerala. We were standing on the platform and Sunil, a native Tamil speaker, started verbally attacking me with some animated Tamil verbiage. (He probably wasn’t really attacking, but excitement can be mistaken for violence in this language.) Without a second thought, I looked him in the eye and shouted back at him, “English le pesu!” Now, Sunil has agreed to help me learn Tamil, but up until this point hadn’t really had the opportunity to teach me much. He wasn’t aware that I had picked up a few key phrases already. I knew that I nailed the usage and pronunciation when his voice abruptly quieted, a brilliant smile flashed across his face, he started shaking my hand, and speaking to me in English. In his own language, I had told him to speak mine. I use that phrase a lot, but more often I listen to their words then ask them what they mean. I am trying. My head and mouth both hurt, but I am trying.

Despite trying, my successes seem to be met with just as many failures. Let me give you an example from earlier this last week. After an afternoon of errands in town, I had hopped on board a government bus to ride back out to Bagayam Junction. It was an afternoon bus, so there was no place to sit. I am used to this, but I’m also used to having both hands free while standing. As I had a parcel in one hand, my remaining hand was called on to stabilize. I was fine until the ticket taker man came by. I had to let go with my free hand to dig out my loose change. As I did so, I lost balance a bit and started doing a little jig around the back of the bus to maintain the upright position. Though I was bouncing around a little, I was fine; however, the back half of the bus did not think so. In one accord, all the passengers in the back half of the bus started talking to me loudly, quickly and with great animation. Without thinking about it, I quickly spat out, “English le pesu.” I’m not sure what I was expecting in response, but I didn’t expect what I got. There was a brief moment of silence before an uproar of laughter broke out followed by the same onslaught of verbiage, only this time more loud, more quick, and with greater animation. Tamil fail.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. That is pretty much my motto when it comes to learning Tamil. Someday maybe I’ll be able to communicate at an elementary level with my Tamil speaking friends. 

1 comment:

  1. Hats off Emily!! The vocabulary you have gained over your three month stay in Tamil Nadu is amazing! You have worked hard and have got most of the pronunciations right. Now you've also learnt a Tamil song! I love the way you say 'vadai' and I will always cherish your sincere efforts to learn the language.

    Divya Paul