Saturday, December 24, 2011

Speaking in (on?) tongues in Chennai

Towards the end of the term, a student, "G," came to my office to chat. Yes, to simply chat.  "I don't know anything about you" he said, consistent with his excited and curious nature in the classroom.

When chatting, I told him about my Ecuador trip, and he asked me whether I knew Spanish, which, of course, I don't.

"It is that much more exciting to go to a place where I don't know the language" I told him. 

Here in Chennai in India, often I feel like I don't know the language. 

Even the Tamil language I know seems to be dated--there are newer expressions and cultural references about which I don't have a clue.  To complicate things, people seem to talk way too fast.  Well, speed is all relative, said Einstein; I suppose I talk way too slowly, much to the frustration of the local folks :)

But, it is not merely the Tamil language.  As I noted before, overhearing people converse in Sanskrit was quite a serendipitous moment. 

However, it doesn't even have to exotic as Sanskrit.  The morning brisk walks in the neighborhood park provides me with enough sounds to humble me about how much I don't know.

A couple of days ago, while walking in the park, I was stuck behind a group of four men, who were clearly not there for the physical activity as much to talk and have a friendly time. 

For a second, I was pissed off--they had blocked off the entire path, and they seemed not to care about those of us who were there for some serious walking.

In my mind, I contrasted this with how we behave on the bike path back in Eugene.  We typically walk maybe two abreast, and three or more means that the group splits up with some in front and the rest behind. 

Anyway, here I was stuck behind them.  Turned out that it was a neat experience as well.

The four of them were talking not only in Tamil.  They were casually mixing in English, Hindi, and Telugu. 

I am always impressed with that kind of casual mixing in of different languages--perhaps all the more because I am language-challenged :)

Many of the old high school classmates, too, are fluent in speaking more than a couple of languages.  Learning by the good old immersion approach, I suppose. 

That kind of language learning through a combination of schooling and cultural immersion is one wonderful advantage that India and Europe offer their peoples.

Now, if only I could at least learn English, eh!

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