History & Culture

Breaking the language barrier: Getting the ‘zh’ right

Daksha Sheth   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Learning a new language can be fun and open various possibilities. And while some languages are easier to learn than others, according to Google, Malayalam is one of the most difficult Indian languages to pick up. To discover if Malayalam is really as tough as they say, MetroPlus speaks to a few non-native speakers who have made the State their home

Daksha Sheth

Daksha Sheth admits that when it came to learning Malayalam, she was rather laid-back. The danseuse from Ahmedabad, who did not know a word of Malayalam when she moved to the city in 1993 to learn Kalaripayatu, says: “I was lucky my guru Sathyanarayanan Govindan Kutty Nair of CVN Kalari Sangham spoke English and so did most of my students.”

She, however, had to pick up the language as her then domestic help could converse only in Malayalam. And so from a few basic words like nanni, vishappu, vellam, po and vaa, she began stringing small sentences. Daksha chuckles as she recalls how her son, Tao, was her “walking Malayalam vocabulary,” whenever she was stuck for a word or a phrase, as he had picked up the language with ease.

“The fact that some of my students did not know English spurred me into learning basic Malayalam too. I find Malayalam musical. And although there were several instances of miscommunication, I was never disheartened. I believe that if you truly desire to communicate something, it will be done despite a barrier in language,” says the 67-year-old.

Having learnt Sanskrit in college helped her remember words with Sanskrit roots such as sukham, dukham, vedana, shareeram...easier. “And although I tried learning 10 new Malayalam words a day, it was those with a Sanskrit root that stuck.”

Maryse Noiseux

Maryse Noiseux

Maryse Noiseux   | Photo Credit: Vikram

According to Maryse Noiseux, while she can converse fluently in Malayalam, her French accent tends to stick out like a sore thumb. A Kathakali dancer, it was her fascination with and her research on oriental theatre that led Maryse to enrol at Unnayi Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam, a Kathakali school in Irinjalakuda in the 1980s.

“Our guru spoke English, so it was easy to manage at first. We hired an elderly man to teach us Malayalam. He, however, left in a huff when his false teeth flew out when he was pronouncing some of the consonants and we accidentally burst out laughing. And while that brought an end to our lessons in Malayalam, I continued persevering, especially when I began training with Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair, whose knowledge of English was limited. I had no choice; I had to learn the language, be it spoken to communicate, and written, to learn the Kathakali texts. What I did not know the words for, I used mudras to communicate,” says Maryse, co-founder of Satsangam - International Centre of Art and Culture near Chowara beach.

Maryse chuckles as she says how Malayalis tend to ask her to pronounce mazha when she claims she can speak the language. “The ‘zh’ in mazha seems to be the litmus test. They feel if I can say it right, I can rightfully claim I can speak the language.”

Maryse who conducts workshops in Kathakali and yoga and holds cultural exchange programmes at Satsangam, says people were encouraging and, at times, over enthusiastic about her learning a new word and would flood her with synonyms too. “And so for a word like love for instance, I would be taught premam, ishtam, sneham...”

Paris Laxmi

Paris Laxmi

Paris Laxmi   | Photo Credit: Umesh P Nair

“I am very upset when I get the grammar wrong while conversing in Malayalam,” Paris Laxmi says with a laugh. French by birth, the dancer-actor says she has had quite an adventure with the language ever since she got married to Kathakali artiste, Pallippuram Sunil, in 2012. “Not many people around me could speak English and so I tried to speak Malayalam. But my main concern was whether people understood what I said. I myself couldn’t understand everything what I spoke! In fact, initially when I used to give interviews, I took the questions before hand, prepared the answers and learnt them by heart. My husband also spoke to me only in English because that’s was what we did before we got married,” says Laxmi, now a resident of Vaikom in Kottayam district. Later, she decided to spend more time on learning the language. “I did it on my own, especially through daily conversations. I forced my husband to speak only in Malayalam. My students, friends and neighbours also helped me out,” she says. As for writing and reading, she is “out of touch” since she has not been doing that regularly. “But I am planning to concentrate on that from now on,” she says.

Even though pronouncing ‘zha’ as in pazham (banana) was a cakewalk for her, Laxmi says that she often falters while speaking the consonants that sound the same, for example, the ‘ta’-‘tta’- ‘da’- ‘dda’ sequence or different intonations of ‘na’. “Malayalam has its regional variations. I enjoy listening to the Thrissur dialect, it has got a melody of its own,” she says.

Nina Menon

Nina Menon

Nina Menon   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

American-born Nina Menon, married to Thiruvananthapuram-native Ram Menon, says she first set foot in Kerala in 1976. “We first met in Madras (Chennai). He was a student at IIT and I was part of the Chennai Snake Park that I co-founded,” she says. Though born in California, she grew up in Mumbai where her parents moved to when she was a toddler.

“I started learning Malayalam when I met Ram. First, I would listen to him when he spoke to his mom over phone. I slowly picked up the words though I’m still being corrected all the time,” says Nina with a laugh.

So how much of the language has she picked up? “It’s still broken. Kurachu budhimuttundu. But I understand Malayalam quite well when I hear it but if you speak fast, I may not be able to follow completely. I can speak, say, some 40 per cent, though I’m told that my accent is good,” she adds. Nina says she is lucky to have had “an early introduction of sorts” to the language as her family had Malayali domestic help in Mumbai.

Despite accent not being much of a hurdle, Nina, who’s settled in the city, finds the ‘zha’ sound tricky. “When I try to pronounce kozhukatta (snack), everyone says it’s not the city (Kolkata). Another tricky word is Alappuzha. So I suppose ‘zha’ is a little hard for me,” she says with a chuckle. However, Nina perfectly nails pazham.

Elizabeth Keyton a.k.a. Elikutty

Elizabeth Keyton, aka Elikutty

Elizabeth Keyton, aka Elikutty   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Elizabeth Keyton, better known to her Malayali kith and kin as Elikutty, has not just made it a mission to learn Malayalam but to teach it as well on social media. She has been posting free beginner-level tutorials on her eponymous Twitter handle and YouTube channel as she’s convinced that the best way to learn something new is to teach it. Born in Georgia in the United States, Elikutty tied the knot with Kochi-native Arjun Ullas whom she met in Dubai. “I would say I'm still a beginner. I make do with basic grammar and everyday phrases. I can order food, ask for directions and express when I like or don’t like things,” she says.

Elikutty says, ironically, what has been trickiest is “finding words that are actually in Malayalam.” “I find that most common words have been replaced with an English word, or there are regional differences and each district or community has their own word for it. I recently asked about ‘custard apple’ on my page and got at least six distinct words for it,” she explains.

She recollects an instance when her Malayalam came to her rescue. “One time, my husband was having dinner with a few colleagues and one of them was meeting me for the first time. He smiled and told him in Malayalam “Oh, you got yourself a madamma” and I replied “Athe, njan madamma aanu. Preshnam undo?” He froze and looked at my husband, saying “Oh! she knows?”

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 6:41:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/non-native-speakers-of-malayalam-on-breaking-the-language-barrier/article29841228.ece

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