Language Troubles

“Malayalam?” I asked the clothing store employee across the counter. She shook her head no. Disappointed and slightly frustrated, I switched back over to English to continue our conversation.

From the moment we landed at Madurai International Airport, I heard the familiar sounds of mothers scolding their children for trying to run around and tired travelers chatting as they waited for their luggage to emerge at baggage claim. Even though all these conversations were happening in Tamil, and I do not know any Tamil, the inflections, pace, and sounds of the language felt so recognizable to me. I wanted to join in on these conversations and take part in the joy of finally almost reaching my destination, but I couldn’t because the language that I know, Malayalam, is not the same as Tamil.

Tamil is unsurprisingly the main language spoken in Tamil Nadu (the state that Madurai is located in), and Malayalam is the primary language of Kerala, a neighboring state. My parents were born and raised in Kerala, so I know how to speak enough Malayalam to get by (although my family never fails to tease me for my accent).

Here’s a map of South India!

Although these two languages are different with different vocabularies and alphabets, they are, as the employee at the clothing store put it, “sister languages.” Many words and sounds overlap, and sometimes it almost feels like they are the same but they aren’t.

This closeness but distinctness has been one of my biggest challenges here in Madurai. I feel like I should be able to communicate with those around me easily, but I can’t. Locals here often assume I’m from the area and will speak Tamil to me, so I’ll try to keep up the façade and respond using Malayalam, but eventually at some point, one of us uses a word that isn’t shared across languages and the conversation breaks down. At that point, we switch over to English, but it always feels like a small failure, this inability to communicate when I myself feel like I should.  

This kind of interaction happens with nearly everyone: autorickshaw drivers, store workers, the head of the patient feedback team at Aravind. But, I’ve realized that as frustrating as it may be, I’ve learned a few lessons.

One: I shouldn’t feel bad about not being able to communicate because the language I know is Malayalam, not Tamil.

Two: It’s an opportunity for me to learn a new language! Since I already know the basics of Malayalam, hopefully I can pick up on Tamil pretty quickly! (If anyone knows any good ways to learn Tamil, hit me up please)

Three: There’s something so unique about this experience of knowing and not quite knowing a language. I can pick up on slightly more than some of my fellow interns, but I still go through the special experience of being abroad in a new place.

I think this last point can be pretty well-captured in my interaction with the clothing store employee. After I told her I only knew English and Malayalam, she turned to fellow employees and started speaking in Tamil. Although they didn’t realize I could understand, they talked about how impressed they were that I managed to get around without knowing Tamil. They talked about how I got an auto to the mall, found a store, and shopped for what I wanted, all without knowing the language. They seemed pretty proud.

Maybe I should be proud of myself then.

P.S. Here are some random pictures from my time in Madurai so far!

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About Nadha Illikkal

Hi! I'm Nadha Illikkal, and I'm a rising junior studying Health and Societies. I'm a born-and-bred New Englander from Andover, Massachusetts. This summer, I'll be interning at Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, where I hope to learn about compassionate and high quality care. In my free time, I love doing puzzles (jigsaw, crossword, sudoku, you name it!) and watching sports!