Nine researchers from North America are learning Malayalam to pursue their studies on various subjects related to Kerala, reports Garret McAuliffe

While the ranks of Malayali youth learning English in the classroom continue to swell, a growing trickle of students of anthropology, researchers and scholars, from North America are crossing oceans to immerse themselves in Malayalam.

Most of these learners come to study at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). The institute, which is headquartered in Chicago, connects dozens of South Asia Studies Centers in the United States (U.S.) with a handful of language programmes spread across India, each providing instruction in one of 14 of the country's 23 official languages.

“There are no other programme like it teaching Malayalam in India,” said AIIS Language Committee Chair Martha Selby on a recent whirlwind tour of India to evaluate each programme's development.

Intensive study

This summer, nine American and Canadian students, have made the trip for 10 weeks of intensive study and cultural immersion, the highest number in the programme's 46-year existence.

Instruction is held each weekday morning in small, tidy classrooms decorated with the typical language aids – posters of vegetables, body parts and animals. On a brief tour one of the students, Lauren Terzenbach, stopped at a pictorial depiction of the Malayalam alphabet.

“It's kind of ingenious,” she said. “The order of the alphabet is based on where your tongue hits your mouth, and also whether it's aspirated or not.” “Malayalam is really understudied,” she continued. After spending time in the U.S. Army before currently pursuing a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas, Lauren has chosen to focus on Malayalam for her research.

On a recent Friday afternoon, after a short cookery demonstration and reminder of Malayali eating etiquette – “from left to right across the leaf” – Aaron Sherraden, one of two students at the intermediate level, remarked on the rigours of trying to learn one of the world's “more difficult languages” in such a short period. “After class we eat lunch. Then we basically go to sleep, wake up and start studying again.”

The heavy workload seems to be paying off. Classmate Julia Yezbick, the only student to arrive with no experience in Malayalam, proudly reported: “I can read and write after two weeks,” before a slight pause, “not very well…. But I can say ‘This chair is blue.'”

In the U.S., only a handful of colleges have classes in Malayalam. With such limited opportunities, many like Devika Wasson, the lone Canadian student here, are forced to hire private tutors to practice the language. “I learned the script and some vocabulary, but it was hard because there was no structure,” she said of her one-on-one lessons. Devika is studying the culture and dance forms of South India, specifically female performance in Koodiyattam.

As a dancer herself, she has also practised Bharatanatyam while a PhD student in Hawaii, and so wished to learn the language to eventually further her studies in India.

The female students in the programmes stay with volunteer host families. The two men have rooms at the centre where instruction is held, down a small lane near Statue Junction.

V.K. Bindu, in charge of the programme in the city, and three other instructors have studied extensively at the University of Kerala's linguistic department, where the AIIS programme was initially launched in 1963, and remained located until 2003.

Instructional plan

At AIIS, each day's instructional plan is strictly laid out on the organisation's website. Although classes are generally over after lunch, homework is assigned daily and students are expected to interact only in Malayalam with the community. Tests are given at the end of the week to assess each student's grasp of the material.

“I hope to be conversant by the end, maybe not fully conversational, but enough to interact,” said Devika, who plans to return to Kerala next summer for field research.