In todays post and podcast I share some of the tips I used to overcome some challenges I faced in learning Tamil in India. I shared the challenges in a previous post which focussed on not being able to properly create sounds and 'musical qualities' of Tamil. (Read and listen to the recount here.)
Some may wonder, how did I come up with these tips? Did someone tell me what to do? Did I read a book? Did I consult a language coach? Nope, none of that. When I was faced with the situation somehow instinctively I created ways to overcome the problem I was facing. I don't know how I did it. I am sharing my remedies as tips and advice for you, but really for me, this was just a day walking my shoes in India learning Tamil and trying to figure out what worked best for me learning to relate to people on an everyday basis. Sometimes something worked, sometimes they did not. Not all these tips worked in every situation. With only three that I am recalling, I am sure to be missing some other techniques I used. Feel free to listen to the podcast and read the (partial) transcripts below. If you have any thoughts or tips on overcoming langauge learning challenges, I'm happy to hear your experience on your life's Authentic Journey!
These situations obviously frustrated my ability to learn, talk in and understand others speaking Tamil. Of course there were situations I was in where I needed to speak and understand on my own, so how did I overcome my challenges?
I did three things:
1. I replied in English.
There are a multitude of languages in India. I quickly came to realize that people understand many languages though they may not be able to speak them. This was my situation with Tamil, and for many locals this was their situation with English. When I met someone who could understand but not speak English, just as I could understand but not speak Tamil, they would talk to me in Tamil and I to them in English. It was a winning combination. In these cases, believe it or not, understanding between us was much better than if I tried to talk back in Tamil or that person tried to reply in English.
2. I would repeat the word, sentence, phrase many, many, many times.
This of course was very frustrating for me. I did not like having to do this because I felt I was saying and sounding out the same set of sounds over and over again. But, I guess maybe repeating it many times may have refined my way of talking (improving my accent) or possibly it refined their ears to understand my accent! Either way, this method was not very much enjoyed by me.
3. I would write it down in Tamil.
This worked very well when I could spell the word in Tamil and when the other person could read Tamil! There is one very funny story regarding this strategy. I came upon this strategy totally by accident when I had gone to the ‘recording studio’ to get a copy of my favorite Tamil film songs. I went to the counter and asked for the movie ‘Duet.’ This is clearly an English word. I quickly realized I could not pronounce this word in the Tamil English accent. I used technique #2- I repeated the phrase with ‘Duet’ in it maybe 10 times. I and the employee there were frustrated. I then realized I could spell this out! I took out a paper and pen from my bag and wrote ‘Duet’ in Tamil. Stupefied doesn’t fully describe how the employee reacted to this: seeing a foreigner write in Tamil then him not only reading it but finally understanding my request! This technique became a last resort in situations where I could actually correctly spell some words in Tamil when talking just wasn’t working out.
Because I have had such experiences learning how to be understood in another language in another country, I empathize and appreciate your situation coming to America and learning to be understood. It is clear to me that learning a language and learning to be understood in a language are very different arenas of language learning. I am here to help you learn to be better understood as you already understand the English language but may not always be understood by others or understand others.
That being said, this podcast is an introduction not only to what I am doing and why I am doing it- but a special series on tuning your ear to American English sounds. Look forward to this podcast in the very near future!
As a side note, before saying good-bye, I’d like to normalize this situation for everyone. Sometimes when learning another language we feel we are being misunderstood because we are not native speakers. Sometimes we may feel that locals understand each other because they grew up with the language and are experts at it. I can appreciate this feeling, as I am sure to have felt this preventing me from talking more Tamil when others were there to talk on my behalf in Tamil. This is an emotional response because intellectually we know that when we talk our native language we are not always understood by others nor do we always understand others 100% of the time. I am sharing this just to keep this in mind while learning another language- it will help us to normalize the situation and remind ourselves that everyone makes mistakes sometimes even when talking or interacting in their native language in their native countries.
Thanks for listening and have a great day!
For me, it wasn't only learning sounds in spoken language and the 'music of the language' but how to spell words- read the English Alphabet- Tamilized!!
Jennifer Kumar is a cross-cultural teacher, trainer and lifestyle adjustment mentor helping people feel more comfortable in cultures far from home. Are you worried about making friends, adjusting to a new job, raising children, conversing in a new language or everyday lifestyle changes when moving to a new country? She can help you explore these topics and more before you leave or after you arrive. She was educated in India as a social worker and in America as a life coach. Feel free to see her website - Authentic Journeys - Lifestyle and Cultural Transition Services.