Monday, June 24, 2013

Contextual Language Learning

Namaste! I have now been in my home away from home in the city of Pune, India for two weeks.

My name is Jessica Chandras and I’m going into my second year of the PhD program in Anthropology at the George Washington University. I plan to do research on the fascinating intersections of language and identity in the state of Maharashtra, India. To prepare for my future research I am spending the summer learning Marathi in Maharashtra- a state in India where Marathi is spoken. I am acclimating well to the rigorous American Institute of Indian Studies Marathi language program. I am gratefully able to attend this program through a grant for Asian language study in Asia from the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the GWU’s Elliott School for International Affairs. In just two weeks I am pleased to say I have made progress from almost no knowledge of Marathi to a beginner who can speak, read, and write basic sentences! It is a short time that I have been here so far, but living with a host family and studying the language where it is spoken speeds up the process of learning both the language and also about Punekar* life and culture.

Studying a language is an exceptionally rich way to learn about the people who speak that language. Often the first words learned in a new language tell a great deal about what is important to locals for daily interaction as well as their shared values and beliefs. This may seem like common sense, but I think that recognizing why you learn the first words you do in a new language provides an interesting window into the culture. For example, I notice that much of the vocabulary that I am learning at the beginning of my studies is related to temples and religion. In the US you would not learn this vocabulary in a classroom, let alone in the first weeks of learning English. Yet vocabulary related to temples and religion is extremely important here and the people who live where I am studying. I have also found that knowing some basic words related to these topics, while seemingly random, has come in quite handy!

A day or two before I arrived in Pune the monsoon season began. In my first days here I often got caught outside soaking wet in the heavy, warm, but greatly needed rain. Understanding how important the rain is and how welcome the rainy season is makes it easy to understand why I quickly learned the word for umbrella. I also learned a useful phrase that translates to “a big rain came” and the word for monsoon. However, even after two weeks I do not know the word for “good morning.” I’ve listened to how people greet each other and either people say Namaste or nothing at all. Therefore, it is not extremely important that I know how to say “good morning," although it is a phrase I use daily in the US, since it is not used in the cultural context of morning interactions here. Therefore, it is important when learning a new language to not just try to speak English in the new language, but to speak the language in its cultural context.

I also found that I use the words “here” and “there” quite a bit. These words were not the first words I learned in other languages but I did not need them as much as I need them now. Each morning I take an auto rickshaw to class and this provides an excellent opportunity to try out new words and phrases. Then I realized that I had probably learned these words and phrases specifically because the people I interact with knew I would take rickshaws and they did not want me to get lost. A lot could happen when I put myself in an old, rusty automobile by myself for a relatively great distance and time with a non-English speaker, so I thank my local teachers for arming me with a basic rickshaw themed vocabulary. In addition to “here” and “there,” my vocabulary also includes “stop,” “change,” “left,” “right,” and “thank you.” "Thank you" is difficult for me because locals do not frequently thank one another, and if they do, the English word is used. I incorporate the word for thank you (dhanyavad) into my speech because it is a distinctly American habit to say thank you to everyone for everything. I think this is an excellent example of how hard it can be to speak the culture and not just the language.

Apart from vocabulary, another linguistic concept impressed upon me early as a beginner in Marathi was the honorific tense used to speak respectfully to older individuals and those of higher status. Through this linguistic construction I have come to understand my place in relation to other individuals and that there is a rather rigid social hierarchy in place that one must abide by to avoid offending anyone. These social rules are acted out behaviorally and also through language. For example, just to ask someone how they are feeling I first need to go through a mental checklist to arrive at what is hopefully the correct linguistic expression for the number of people, the gender of those people, and level of respect they deserve.

I know this is still very early to comment profoundly on the new language and culture I am immersed in but this post can serve both as a record of my introduction to life and language in Pune and also assist others who may be beginning a new language abroad. I look forward to continuing to learn and document my adventure learning the Marathi language and culture while in Pune this summer!

* What someone from Pune is called.

Jessica Chandras, PhD Anthropology
Sigur Center 2013 Summer Language Fellow
AIIS Pune, Marathi Summer Language Program, India

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