Sorry, njan Malayalathil fluent alla (I am not fluent in Malayalam) is one of the phrases frequently used by Malayalis who stay out of Kerala. There is a criticism that some people even consider it as a credit to say that they don’t know their mother tongue. They say they never got a chance to learn it as they live far away from their homeland and English comes handy everywhere. This could be because some of them wouldn’t have an idea of how to go about it as Malayalam is a complex language to understand, or some just don’t find it important to learn their mother tongue. Naturally, the effort shown is zero.
On the contrary, we have also heard about people from other states and countries trying to learn Malayalam as they genuinely love the language. Elizabeth Keyton, however, has a mix of reasons which persuaded her to learn Malayalam, the primary one being her Malayali husband and in-laws. But, wasn’t it enough just to learn some frequently used words and get away with it? For Eliza, it was a no, because being a teacher herself she has always been open to learning things. The effort has paid off, with Eliza starting an Instagram page called eli.kutty, the tagline of which says, Njan oru Amerikkan pennaanu. Malayalam padikunu. Namuku onnichu samsaarikam (I am an American and I am learning Malayalam. Let’s talk together.). There, she uses unique techniques and explanatory images to get the nuances of the language. She has basically made Malayalam learning easy for everyone who would like to give it a try.
Born in the US and brought up in Georgia, Eliza is an English teacher who now lives in the U.A.E. with her husband Arjun, hailing from Kochi. Explaining how she got connected with Kerala and Malayalam, Eliza says, “I met my husband online and we met in person after I returned from a long vacation to Australia. Before moving to the U.A.E., I had little knowledge of Kerala or even the diverse states of India. After moving here and meeting some friends from South India, I learned about Tamil and Malayalam. While meeting my husband, who is from Kochi, I decided to take a look at his language and try to learn it, as I have a hobby of learning languages and already know Spanish, Korean, and Japanese. Once I realised the unique nature of Malayalam, I accepted the challenge and decided to aim to be fluent one day.” To begin with, Eliza approached a teacher who could help her learn the language. But she had a fair share of disappointment as well.
“I was frustrated in my early efforts to learn Malayalam. Due to the U.A.E.’s Skype ban, I was unable to continue lessons with my online teacher. I had done some research and found a grammatical analysis of Malayalam by Dr. Ravi Sankar Nair. I messaged him for more resources. At this point, I realised that Instagram could provide me the motivation to maintain regular habits. Once I started getting a small following, I got great feedback from native speakers and made some friends whom I could chat with regularly,” she says, adding that her efforts are to help every person wanting to learn the language.
Though an English teacher, Eliza now teaches Malayalam also and has a bunch of Malayali students coming to her to learn their mother tongue. “I have always kept my Instagram page as a study guide so that others who are sharing my struggle can easily find and take my notes as their own. My initial intention was not to be a teacher, but to be that classmate who took really good notes! Again, with my language teacher training, I can connect the grammar points to my own language and make it easier to see the patterns involved with languages and present them in an easy-to-follow way,” she says.
Eliza is totally in love with the process of learning new and complex languages and constantly keeps updating herself. Asked to cite a memorable experience as a teacher who teaches various languages, especially Malayalam, she says, “I love getting messages from people similar to me who are friends with or married to Malayalis and have been trying to find a way to learn their language. I equally love those in the Kerala Diaspora who have lost touch with the language and are finding it again through me. I feel strongly about preserving the mother tongue, especially in an age when English tends to dominate classrooms and offices. In America, many immigrants have felt shame and not taught their children their native tongue in order to boost their English, however, it is proven that being raised bilingual and multilingual is truly better for children. I don’t want anyone to feel shame in not knowing their native language, but feel like they are able to study without fear and make mistakes comfortably.”
The American-born, Malayalam-loving English teacher hopes to start a YouTube channel in the near future, as well as push to publish materials to help those outside Kerala who want to get back to their roots. With this exposure, she hopes to reach some publishers who will help make this dream a reality. Eliza adds that she loves visiting Kerala and that she is mesmerised by the natural beauty of the state. As she types the email, Eliza rewinds the recipes of various dishes from Kerala that she is trying to learn – yet another task that she hopes to accomplish very soon....