By Carol Velandia
I don’t know how to read, write or speak Malayalam. It has been a new feeling, a total challenge for a person who once dreamed of being a polyglot and now is a professional interpreter and a fervent language access campaigner. This palindrome of a word (Malayalam) is the language of Kerala, one of the six classical languages of India and one of its 22 official languages1. It has 56 phonemes and an intricate, curvilinear alphabet. The locals say confidently that Malayalam is “the most difficult language to learn in the world,” but I have heard the same thing about a few other languages, so, upon arrival to Kochi, Kerala I set out to disprove that local stereotype.
I moved to India nearly six months ago and it has been a fascinating, albeit frustrating, experience to try to learn Malayalam. This attempt is as futile as trying to catch the seeds after blowing them off a dandelion. When I hear a word I am trying to learn, I repeat it a couple of times and then, if any other thought or sound even so much as crosses my mind for a second… poof! It’s gone! Gone with the wind, just like those fuzzy dandelion seeds. I have to make a tremendous effort, use mental pictograms or some kind of an association, in order to remember what the word sounds like, but it is nearly impossible to capture the true sound. Very few of the words resemble anything I know (I speak Spanish, English and some Korean). Spanish only has half of the phonemes that Malayalam uses. I am able to borrow the letter “r” for at least one of their “r-like” sounds. English helps with the vowels, and for the consonants, I have borrowed some from Korean.
My learning process is a mix of associating words and borrowing sounds from other languages. When you are learning a language that is somewhat similar to your own, let’s say French and Spanish, you can fetch new words from your brain because you either associate the word with another word from your own language, or with a sound, or the spelling. With Malayalam, there is nothing: it’s a totally new alphabet and set of sounds. There are very few words that I can easily associate with anything I know. The one that comes to mind is “puta” (phonetic). Yes, “puta,” which means whore in Spanish! Yet in Malayalam, it is the word for a breakfast food. I will never forget that word! As I was approaching the breakfast buffet, on my first day at my new school, a very gentle old man started calling me “puta,” or so I thought. I was startled! His benevolent face seemed so incongruent with this apparent insult. He must have understood my bewildered facial expression because he immediately pointed at the white powder-like food. I was relieved to realize that my integrity wasn’t under question so early in the morning and very happy to have learned a “new” word. I told to myself, at least I won’t starve. If nothing else, I can have “puta” for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I don’t learn anything else while I am here.
I was feeling really proud of myself about a month into my semester here because I was able to greet people, ask how much this or that that was, and answer VERY simple questions. So, I decided I was fit for traveling. My interpreter identity gushes out of me almost involuntarily, so even if I just know a few words, I try to read the context, faces and use all the possible available tools to communicate, to make myself understood and understand what I am being told. So in a way, I was the group interpreter for that trip. After all, “in the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king…”or so I thought. We made it to our destination unharmed. I was feeling very confident about my language “skills” when I realized that we had just barely crossed the border to another state. So when I tried to show off my language skills, I was brutally reminded that India has 22 official languages and that my recently acquired, brand-spanking new, beautiful words and phrases in Malayalam were of absolutely no use in Tamil Nadu. They speak, Tamil. I was back to square one: “how do you say ‘hi’”, “please”, “thank you” and “how much?” How do you address each person? Yes, the same questions that I had asked just a month earlier. A slap in the face does not describe how it felt at having lost my only currency.
The great thing about Malayalam, Tamil, Canara, and perhaps other languages of this subcontinent, is that you can call people older brother or older sister if you know their age, or just as a sign of respect. This makes things easier because trying to learn the names of people you meet for just a very brief period of time is just as hard as learning any other word. And, it is a good idea to learn people’s names, as it is not only culturally competent but also just common courtesy.
As a former British Colony, you can find many people that speak English here, and many English words in the language. However, the privilege of speaking English is reserved mostly for the upper echelons of Indian society with access to higher education. Kerala is a communist state and the most progressive in the entire country. It has a 100% literacy rate, but not everyone understands or speaks English. Outside of my university, I barely encounter English speakers. Learning Malayalam gives you freedom and a greater ability to function as a normal member of society, not to mention the doors that learning the local language opens up. The moment I say anything in Malayalam beyond the greeting, people open their heart and let it shine through a beautiful smile. There are no words to describe that feeling of connectedness at having touched someone else’s heart (literally, I don’t have those words in Malayalam yet).
Working in Kerala is a completely different ball game. I have had to use ad-hoc interpreters. I moved to India for six months as part of my master’s program in Social Work. I am completing a semester at Rajagiri College of Social Sciences (Autonomous). The classes and papers are taught and written in English, but the practicum is in Malayalam, as the populations we work with are children or adults that don’t speak English. My first experience in the field had all the uncertainties associated with using untrained interpreters. I asked if we could have an interpreter for the session. A couple of students were recruited to help us communicate. It was fascinating to observe my own discomfort about having to use an ad-hoc interpreter. The only reassuring thing was that the volunteers were social workers in training, just like me, so there was a common understanding of the concepts we were trying to convey. I had the rare opportunity to be the limited language proficient part of the equation.
With all the multiplicity of languages and with internal migration, some parts of India face language access related problems very similar to those in the U.S. Kerala, is the best example of this. According to the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT)2 Kerala’s migrant population is approximately 2.5 million. This population does not speak Malayalam and very likely won’t speak English either. Language access to healthcare in particular has some limitations, which are being overcome by creating signs in Hindi, the official language of the government, along with India’s. It is important to keep in mind that India does not have a national language. It has 2 government languages: Hindi and English. The problem is that Hindi is not necessarily spoken by everyone either.
Living as an illiterate has taught me a powerful lesson. I am humbled by the struggles faced by immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers anywhere in the world. Learning another language is not always a matter of choice. No matter how hard you try, you may not be able to succeed at this lofty endeavor.
Carol Velandia, M.B.A., C.H.I., P.M.P. Is the Interpreters Division Administrator. Her passion is to advocate for social justice by promoting access to language services for populations whose language is not English. She is an Interpreter, Social Worker, Academic, Entrepreneur, Flamenco Dancer and Consummate Traveler.