Tuesday, August 13, 2013

24 Weeks and Counting...and Counting...and Counting...

Before I begin, I would just like to say I am NOT complaining.

As far as gigs go language training isn't a bad one. The hours are good. No, correction. The hours are great. Most days I am home by 2:30. I don't know if I should be advertising this fact in a public forum, but spending six hours a day learning a new language is about as much as anyone can take. Your brain can only absorb so much new information at once.

That being said a thirty week language course is lllloooooooooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnggggg. At this point...24 weeks....in my Portuguese class, I was reasonably fluent and was finishing the class and taking my final test. At the same point in Tamil, 24 weeks, we watch a newsreel from Tamil Nadu state and the instructor doesn't ask us what the news clip was about or what the newscaster said, she asks us what words we understand. I've been in Tamil class for 4 months and I only pick out a handful of words. *sigh*

This is my second time learning a new language for my job. This experience has been much more difficult and much more frustrating for a variety of reasons than learning Portuguese was. Learning Portuguese was vitally important for me to be successful in my position in Brasilia. Every meeting I attended over my two years there was conducted in Portuguese. Furthermore, knowing Portuguese is crucial to daily life. Though I could expound fluently on nuclear non-proliferation in Portuguese, knowing how to order coffee, get our internet hooked up, and buy a car in Portuguese were skills I had to learn in Brazil. Conversely, in my opinion, knowing Tamil is of dubious utility both to my future position in Chennai and to navigating daily life.

Chennai Tamil, or colloquial Tamil, is sprinkled with English. And one can easily get by knowing only English. Sure, knowing Tamil pleasantries helps indoctrinate yourself to the local population, but this knowledge comes at a high price. Do I really need to know how to describe Obamacare in Tamil?

Each week, we are given a new topic to learn. Last week it was terrorism. This week, it is health. During the week on natural disasters and accidents, we were shown video of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which devastated huge swathes of the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. There are only so many times you can watch people, buses, and train cars being swept out to sea before it starts to adversely affect your psyche. Last week, terrorism week, we were shown a video of the Twin Towers collapsing.

There was no Tamil in the video.

I asked my instructor why we were watching the video, how watching the video enhanced our comprehension of the Tamil language. She turned the video off.

These are but two examples. The week on crime brought equally horrifying imagery and stories. I have since concluded that Tamilians specifically, and perhaps Indians in general, have a unique relationship with death. It is very different from most Americans' relationship with mortality. I believe given how far our country has advanced in areas of safety and health, most Americans feel well nigh invincible. I don't know a lot about Hindu beliefs, but don't doubt they play a huge part in Indians' acceptance of death has an intrinsic part of the circle of life. Furthermore, death just seems much more prevalent and familiar in India. Maybe just the simple fact that having a population of 1.2 billion people means you will experience 1.2 billion deaths makes one less adverse to facing death. I respect how the few Indians I know can see death and remain unfazed, and perhaps, a belief in reincarnation demystifies death enough so to glimpse the Grim Reaper becomes as comfortable and familiar as afternoon tea.

For some reason, many Tamil words just won't stay in my brain. And there is no rhyme or reason to the ones that do. I remember the word for "renewable energy" but forget the word for "door".

I think part of the problem is that there are no cognates, words that sound similar to the same word in English. Fortunately, in Portuguese there were many cognates, especially as the vocabulary become more technical. Tamil words are just random syllables lumped together. I know of only a few cognates and they are actually, interestingly enough, Portuguese cognates, carry-overs from Portuguese colonial trade, especially around Goa, on India's east coast. Tamil and Portuguese share the word for "window" and a few others.

Daily the following scenario will play out: Our instructor asks, "'Responsibility' is?"

I reply, "Peru-mai?"

"No, that's 'pride'."


"No, that's 'patience'."



Or, She will ask, "'Oo-weir? What does 'oo-weir' mean?"


"No, that's 'Ooo-weir'. I said, ''Oo-weir'."


"'Oo-weir is 'life.'"

Got it. But not really. Argh! Only six more weeks.

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