Wednesday 17 February 2010

To be or not to be - a rambling about language

Language is a competancy we all take for granted as we communicate in the spoken and written word everyday. It is not until we encounter someone who doesn't speak our particular language that we even think about how we learnt our own as children. Learning another language has never been an easily acquired skill for me. And if I'm honest the root is because is I'm lazy, without a real motivation to understand and to speak another tongue as everyone speaks bettter English than I do their Spanish, French, Italian, Hindi, etc etc I also think I started comparatively late in life

My breakthrough came having got the best reason ever to learn French :)  So I made a real effort, to the extent now that I can happily converse with Ahmed albeit every so often we encounter a word or phrase I just don't know, can't work out what it means and don't understand. In which case we go "small small" and go back to simple words and short sentances to explain and exemplify the word, phrase and its meaning. We get there, it may not be perfect French, but the name of the game is communication not academic achievement. afterall.

Which brings me back to education and learning. At school I only started to learn a second language, French, at aged 12/13 in my first year at secondary school.The sole purpose was to get you through the exam. No way was I competent at speaking the language. Then of course I never used it, so I lost it. Although actually a lot was retained sublimibly and comes back easily when it returns to being used. Also with a language like French you hear French words and phrases being banded about - merci, bon appetit, rendevouis, mon cheri, avante guard, je ne sais pas, n'est pas? moi? and restaurant menus are full of French - sauce mutard, duck a l'orange, etc etc

At least nowadays language education has changed for the better. Children can be starting a second language at primary school, usually French or Spanish, but also many more children are growing up in mixed families where mother and father speak different languages to each other, or where their parents speak a language other than English at home, so kids can be coming to school and learning English as a second or even  thrid language at age 5 yrs. Also with the advent of language laboratories, then language tapes, cds and more recently the ubiquitous MP3 player or ipod, language learning has become very oral and of course big business. The choice of courses is enormous, and even personal tuition is not out of the world expensive, certainly comparable in cost to to other personal services eg fitness trainer, chiropracters, reiki, refloxology etc although probably not as costly as ladies hairdressing in major salons is in the UK! All this is great. Although everyone still keeps saying Englsh is the world venacular for business, with the opening up of China especially the world is getting bigger/smaller, ordinary people are travelling much more and further afield than when I was young and more importantly people are living and working in more places. And that's where learning the language comes in. How much easier it must be to settle in and learn about a new culture when you can understand what's being said, and can speak it back. Language and culture are so intimately linked. I have a saying on my facebook favorite quotations from Mano Dayak who said “Must a people disappear for us to know they exist?”  - the classic example being the 38 words for snow in Inuit - but certainly even Auld Scots words and phrases are a distinct representation of Scottish culture that is no found south of the border in England - just read Rabbie Burns and you'll see what I mean. Another example would be desert, In English a desert is a desert, not so in Arabic - erg, hamada, reg, chech, raoui, tenere.

I'm just starting to read Chimanada Ngozi Adichie's book Half a Yellow Sun which is set in Nigeria at the time of the Biafran War. Nigeria like many countries is multi-ethnic, with multiple languages drawn across these ethnic divides. The story shows at one point how some armed militia think a person is Ibo, until she turns and speaks Yoruba to them fluently - speaking Ibo only would have cost her life. I can imagine similar situation ocurring in other racial conflict such as Rwanda and Bosnia. At least only speaking English has never had that outcome attached to it for me, thank goodness.

Africa like much of the world is full of people who are mulitlingual. My friends in Algeria are Tuareg. There native tongue is Tamashek, they learn Arabic at school, start French as 12 and only learn English if they are lucky enough to stay on after 16 yrs of age. Their conversation migrates in and out of these 3 languages with great rapidity and ease. I'm in awe.

In Vanuatu, each of the islands have their own languages and it is a pidgen tongue with is the common method of interisland communication. Bislama is an interesting concoction. It came back to me recently as I was reading Alexander McCall Smith's Scotland Street series, where in one of the book Dominica, the anthropologist goes of to the Maalacca straights to study modern day pirates and finds herself taking pidgeon with the locals. "Nam blong me Sheila. Wat name blong you?"  But the best one is the word for piano "black fala box we igat black teeth, hemi gat white teeth you fatem hard I singout" Amazing!

Here in India, most people speak 3 or 4 languages to some extent. The local language here in Orissa is Oriya, but across the state border into Andrah Pradesh the local language is Telugu. There are many Telugu speakers living here in the southern part of Orissa so many folks here speak some of each. For folks who made it into the education system Hindi is the next language to be learnt, and then if you stayed on at school and went to university English is the language of business and of the educated classes. But status and class aside, everywhere one goes one encounters people who think nothing of conversing in multiple tongues.

Now many of these folks can't read or write their native tongue never mind their second or third. And of course some languages are not written at all their tradition is purely oral, or their script has been lost. The more I encounter such people the more I think that the way their memory works is different than mine and the way they learn is different.  I 've heard of  a spatial memory test which clearly shows that Australian aborigine children have a much superior level of spatial and visual memory than their western white conterparts - the test involves the items on a tray game where a number of articles are laid out on a tray, the person gets a small amount of time to look at the tray, which is then taken away,some items are removed, some new items added, and some items change position on the tray. The aim is to say which items did what. Whether this is sound scientifically or not I don't know , all I do know is that my short term memory is no where near as strong as some peoples. Say something to me such as a new word and I've forgotton it tomorrow, no matter how many times I make myself say it over and over again. Whereas if I can also write it down, I've a better chance of recalling it. Without the ability to write, illiterate people are much more dependent upon their memory to learn - it is almost like taking someone's sight away and finding that their hearing becomes much more acute to enable them to make sense of what is happening round about them without the visual cues.

This, of course, has a big impact on how one therefore sets about learning a language. The best language courses I ever found for me are the ones which follow the Michel Thomas method. They are purely audio, they have no written material other than a tape transcript, there is no rote learning, no learning verb drills. The secret is in the teaching, he believed the teacher is responsible for your learning. On the tapes he works with two students, a man and a women, to give different voices. One picks things up more quickly than the other, and so inevitably you feel you are somewhere in the middle - clever!. The approach is one of building ever increasing complexities into a sentance, taking a building block approach, using the same blocks then adding one new one in at a time eg Would you like to have dinner? Would you like to have dinner with me? Would you like to have dinner with me tonight? Would you like to have dinner with me tonight in a restaurant?

For someone who always thought I absolutely had to have a visual element to my learning these courses were a revelation to me. So much so that I bought the Arabic one to start before I ended up getting my placement here in India.  They would definitely be the way to learn a language written in another script. Sadly no Michel Thomas Oriya, not surprisingly, but more of a surprise was the fact that there was no Hindi - the 5th largest language community in the world behind Chinese, English, Arabic and Spanish for all of these there are Michel Thomas courses. There are ones for Japanese, for Greek, but alas no Hindi and no plans for one because I even contactedthe publisher! Perhaps it is a question of getting the right teacher to record the material now the man himself is dead.

So yes I'm rambling on again, but at least it is not about food this time! The reasons for this ramble is that having come to Rayagada with the expectation of hearing and being able to speak very very little English but finding that that was by no means the case I have had a lazy first few months language wise. But one of the challenges of this placement was for me the opportunity to learn another language and if I'm being honest more than one was my target for the two years I am here. For now I'm working in English, speak French with Ahmed when we phone, manage to get around with a bit of Hindi and have only a few words of Oriya. Not good enough I tell myself!  Knuckle under and get started! Again I don't expect or need to get fluent, I just want to be able to converse on an everyday level in Hindi and Oriya, or even a mixture of both.

So this week it has been out with the Oriya book VSO gave me in Delhi - not that our language lessons were Oriya as I had thought they would be. We got Hindi lessons instead. Were they useful? Who knows. I certainly didn't learn much more than I had come away with from 6 or so sessions of Pimsluer audio Hindi.

However, I did start to plough through the Oriya book in Delhi even though I only managed to hear a few words of the language via a man who was in the administratve office of the Institute where we were staying who spoke some Oriya. What I find I have remembered is the basic verb structures. Learning grammar has never been a problem that's just rules, for me it is all a question of having the confidence to speak. Having a 1-2-1 tutor for a couple of lessons a week for a month helped immensely with my French, and having the motivation of course, and speaking with someone who is very patient and isn't forever turning to Englsh when I struggle with French is great. So I will be trying to get a tutor here for Hindi and/or for Oriya, but for now its me and my book for Oriya and me and Pimsleur audio for Hindi.

Tonight I spent a hour just reminding myself of what I know of verbs. And when I think of it I know quite a bit  - in theory at least I know more than I thought I knew - I know the present continuous, the past continuous, the present perfect, the past perfect, the future indefinite, the present indefinite, the past indefinite. For those of you who never did grammer at school that means I can say I am coming, I was coming, I have come, I had come, I will come, I come, I came.

Feeling confident that I can practice some of these with the verbs I know (eg my landlady's daughter always asks me what I had for lunch, she's practicing her English, so I must now get ito the habit of asking her in Oriya - tame kana khaiba? = what will you eat?) I thought I better tackle negatives. In Hindi it is simple nahi means no, nahi means not. In Oriya it is not always so simple.
For example,
Santosh ghare achi = Santosh is at home
Santosh ghare nahi = Santosh is not at home


Mora swami ghare achanti = My husband is home
Mora swami ghare nahanti - My husband is not home

Seu nahi = There is no apple
Sue nuhe = It isn't an apple
Mrs Das ghare nahanti = Mrs Das is not home
Mrs Das nuhanti = It is not Mrs Das
ie when it is a point of identity nuhe or nuhanti is used not nahi

Mitha amba nahi = There is no sweet mango
Amba mitha nuhe = The mango is not sweet.
ie when it is a point of equality nuhe is used not nahi.

Best summed up with
Chini achi-ki? = Is there sugar?
Chini nahi-ki? = Is there no sugar?
Chini nuhe = It is not sugar.

Likewise with verbs
mu asuchi = I am coming
mu asuni = I am not coming

and when refering politely to someone eg Mr Das
se asuchanti = he is coming
se asunahanti = he is not coming
se asithili = he has come
se asinahanti = he has not come

So not so straight forward as adding a not or a ne...pas or even a nahi in Hindi. Oriya negativest will need lots of practice to come quicky and naturally.

But the best is "power asuni" ... yes you guessed it power cut! Literally power is not coming!


  1. Hello Sheila! Enjoyed catching up with your blog this evening, especially the wedding you went to. What a fascinating experience. I liked your fridge story too, funny how these smallest things are the most challenging when you're learning the ropes in a new country.
    Take care - look forward to following more of your news.

  2. Robin, Tx. It is always good to know that folks are reading it and more importantly enjoying my ramblings.
    And yes you are correct in that it is often those small things that make adjustment difficult, often also because you don't realise why something isn't working or happening and it is because you are missing out on a nuance of ettiquette or proceedure.
    How's the pelvis mending? Walking without that zimmer frame yet?

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience with speaking other languages. I enjoyed all the details and thought you put into this post. I am so impressed with the way you are learning there in India. ( In school we studied French because we have two national languages in Canada). I can't imagine how you navigate through the various languages there, well done!

  4. Candy, Dhanyivad! Glad you like the post. As for the Oriya, Mu chesta karuchi - I am trying