Having previously studied Greek, Latin, French and Italian, British journalist Hugo Williams recounts his efforts to learn Tamil in two weeks.

It all started with a banana — “Vallah PallAm.....Varrah ParrAm...Vada Padam,” I repeated. The words gargled around in the back of my mouth as I tried to replicate the correct pronunciation of the famous Tamil sound known to phoneticists, but few others, as the retroflex consonant. The result sounded like someone calling for help with a pair of socks lodged in their throat. I caught the eye of my teacher, who was observing my efforts with a mixture of confusion and amusement. Midway through my next unsuccessful attempt, the tension became too much for either of us to bear. We both dissolved into laughter at the sheer ludicrousness of the task that I had set myself: learning Tamil in two weeks from scratch was clearly not going to be easy.

Blending in

Having spent three months living in Chennai, I felt like I had adapted well to my life in this new city, a place so unimaginably different from London, the hometown I had left behind. But there still remained one glaring chink in my cultural armour, blocking the path to my true integration in Chennai — my complete ignorance of the Tamil language.

Dr. Andavar, a professor of Tamil at Pachaiyappa College, had agreed to help me set this right, and to give me an hour of lessons each day for the duration of my challenge. He was a wonderful character: bright-eyed and bushy-moustached, with a voice that boomed around my small apartment, and a tendency to release great belly-laughs in the middle of our lessons without any real provocation.

After three days, I had committed 300 Tamil words to memory, and decided to venture out from the safe haven of my apartment to engage some Tamilians in real conversation. The owner of my local teashop gave me a look of astonishment when I asked him for two teas and a matchbox in my finest Tamil. “Tamil therymaa?” he asked, his face spreading into a wide grin. “Amaa, Enake TamiZH konjum theriyum”, I replied, milking the final syllable of the word “Tamizh” for all it was worth.

Over the past few days Dr.Andavar and I had finally made a breakthrough with the elusive “banana” sound, which had caused so much hilarity at the start of my challenge.

Each day that passed I was learning more and growing in confidence. Waiters at the vegetarian restaurant where I ate most days no longer asked me for my order in English, but in Tamil. Chennaites at the local wine shop seemed equally enthusiastic to talk to me, despite the fact that my I could still only hold the most basic conversations. Another couple of weeks like this, I thought, and maybe the “token tourist” brand that had been stamped on my head for my first three months in Chennai might just begin to fade a little.

Daunting task

Fortunately, Dr. Andavar was on hand to make sure that I didn't get too pleased with myself after these small initial achievements. “There will be a launch for my new book next Thursday”, he said, at the end of our next lesson. “The Minister for Information and Broadcasting, among others, will be attending. I would like you to make a short speech before I take to the podium — in Tamil, of course.

With the new and somewhat terrifying prospect of having to make a public speech in Tamil, I stepped up my learning programme with a will. There were five days left to prepare, and unless I was going to repeatedly ask everyone in the audience for two cups of tea and a matchbox, I had a lot of work to do.

I decided to supplement my diet of Tamil with some extra activities, restricting myself to only watching Tamil TV at home, and abandoning Hollywood for Kollywood on my cinema outings. But all too soon, and with A.R.Rahmann's hopelessly addictive “Hosanna” still ringing around my head from the previous evening's film, speech day was upon me.

I sat down to plan the first draft in my flat. The customary hellfire seeping in through the windows was compounded by a morning power cut. Globules of sweat poured down my face and chest, and onto the increasingly soggy sheets of paper, smudging the first lines that I had planned out.

But gradually and painstakingly, the shape of a short speech began to emerge from my panicked mind. There were now two hours left till the start of play. I paced around the kitchen, chanting my speech over and over, in the hope that some of it might just successfully penetrate my addled brain.

Two hours later, I sat in the front row of the meeting room at the Palm Grove hotel, looking at the row of speakers lined up on the stage — a distinguished gathering of poets, politicians and academics. In the audience behind me, at least a hundred people sat waiting expectantly. I had been hoping for no more than a dozen.

Several speeches came and went, but just as I was beginning to doze off and prepare myself for another hour's wait, Dr. Andavar suddenly jumped up onto the podium. I couldn't understand much of what he was saying, but I recognised the last two words of his speech: “Hugo Williams”. He signalled me up onto the platform. The audience applauded. I swallowed hard.

The next two minutes passed in somewhat of a blur. The fear of public humiliation managed to prevent me from fluffing too many of my lines. The audience gave me instant reassurance by meeting my opening Tamil line (“Hello, my name is Hugo Williams”) with a resounding cheer. I explained, painfully slowly, who I was, what I was doing in Chennai, and how greatly I had enjoyed the experience of attempting to learn Tamil, a language so completely alien to the Westerner's ear.

It wasn't a long speech. Afterwards, I folded up my papers, and returned to my seat to the sound of some unnecessarily generous applause. A feeling of intense relief immediately surged through me. It was over.

The aim of my challenge had been to learn Tamil in two weeks. Of course I hadn't done that. Not even close. But even if I only scratched the surface of the language in that time, the very act of trying had allowed me to see Chennai in a completely new light: not yet as an insider, but at least as someone with one foot wedged in the door. I received this text message from Dr. Andavar the following morning: “Thanks for your inspiring Tamil speech. Very good. Andavar.”

It occurred to me that in the end, there had been just one aspect of the challenge that I cared most about: not letting down the world's greatest Tamil enthusiast.

To see the video of Hugo's speech, search for “Hugo Williams Tamil” in YouTube.