Tamlish and Operant Conditioning

Tamlish, noun: Tamil + English, a word to describe my attempts at forming cohesive sentences in Tamil with a heavy American accent and severely lacking vocabulary

Positive reinforcement is a great way to convince children to listen to their parents, to make pets to behave, and as I recently discovered, to encourage me to use my practically non-existent Tamil, or more accurately, Tamlish, skills around the office. For the past 6 weeks or so, Hepsiba, Nithya, and Sakthipriya have been teaching me a few Tamil words or phrases each day. While I’ve generated a lot of laughter with how awful my pronunciation is, I’ve picked up on smaller nuances in their day-to-day speaking (which is why I sound remarkably like Hepsiba when I mimic Tamil expressions).

Whenever we have visitors to the office or go to the cafeteria for coffee, Hepsiba enjoys when I demonstrate my new vocabulary words/phrases to her friends or colleagues. I’ve learned that my show and tell almost always leads to food. She told me that it was a friend’s anniversary one afternoon, so I told the friend “congratulations” in Tamil. She was tickled (and likely shocked that this American yahoo said something correctly) and invited us for homemade baked goods in her office. On multiple occasions, guests in the office have been amused by my rudimentary attempts to communicate, and I often get lollipops, carrots, biscuits, etc. This “conditioning” has been very effective, as I now use my small set of known phrases around people and end up receiving treats. The only issue with this is that while those close to me can recognize what I’m attempting to say with my American accent, others find it far more confusing. Despite the fact that I routinely butcher it, Tamil is a beautiful language. Multiple people have said that they love hearing someone else try to speak it, despite inevitable flaws. I enjoy listening to people around me chat, even when I have no clue what they’re saying (which is most of the time) because the language is so melodic and unique to this region of the world.

Recently, we hatched a brilliant plan to show the world my Tamil abilities with a scripted conversation. It makes approximately no sense, and involves a discussion of the following questions: How are you? What’s up? Where are you from? What’s your name? Do you like carrots? Do you want to get coffee?. We made a list of the things we wanted to say, and the conversation was so random I had to stare at my computer every few seconds to remember the next sentence. Regardless of the very low production value and budget of our 1.5 minute film (we only had so many carrots), it’s hilarious to listen to me try to speak Tamil. I end up sounding exactly like Hepsiba.

The best part about this little “project” is that it gave her the fabulous idea to use me for an orientation presentation about telephone etiquette for the new trainees. I have absolutely no idea how this plan is going to work since I don’t actually speak Tamil, but we are jumping headfirst into making clips and planning scripted scenarios to present in front of over 100 girls. If they didn’t think Americans were strange before, they definitely will now!

Enjoy the video; I hope you laugh as much watching it as we did making it.

Anbudan from India


Me and a goat

Me and a goat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

About oliviamhess

I interned at Aravind Eye Hospital-Madurai as a CASI Student Programs Intern in 2015, and I am returning to Aravind in Pondicherry to conduct research using CASI Summer Travel Funds, the Association of Alumnae Rosemary D. Mazzatenta Scholars Award, and the Gelfman International Summer Fund.