Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Learning English in Marathi

When learning a new language, students are often encouraged to use that language as much as possible. As a beginner to Marathi, the language I’m studying this summer in India, daily I proceed through a slow slog to find the words I want to say in Marathi when the English words are on the tip of my tongue. So, knowing that I should try to speak the new language as much as I can, I’m finding it both a blessing and a curse that English is used so much in Marathi. One example is that the word for “table” in Marathi is “table.” Table is just one of hundreds of English words that have found their way into the daily speech of Marathi speakers.

On the one hand, because there are so many English words is Marathi it makes communication easy. Since I am learning Marathi I am told to use as much Marathi as possible. The Marathi words that I use most are usually conjunctions or connecting words like “and” and “but.” Then, if I do not know a word in Marathi, I can use the English word and most likely the other person will still understand what I am trying to say. The result is that my speech is a mixture of intentionally chosen English and Marathi words that I use to show that I can in fact speak and understand a little Marathi.

On the other hand, speaking so much English in a language is a hindrance because I have become very used to replacing words I may not be certain of in Marathi with their equivalent English words and I may never be corrected as to which of the words are more commonly used- the English word or another word in Marathi. One example of the confusion of how and when to use English in Marathi is my struggle with the word “interesting.” I am one of many Americans who pepper my speech with the word “interesting”: “That’s so interesting!” “I find it interesting that…” I realized that these are phrases I use a lot. I have asked a number of Marathi speakers how to say “interesting” in Marathi and I was told to just use “interesting” in English. I have gleaned that there are words in Marathi that mean something similar to how I use the English word “interesting” in various ways but in these instances Marathi speakers also seem to use the English word.

Another challenge to learning how to use English correctly in Marathi is learning Marathi syntax. Marathi speakers may easily use English words in their speech but their syntax, or word order, is distinctly Marathi while using those words. In what I have been learning, at least in simple sentences, the verb should come at the end of the sentence. Linguistically, Marathi is mostly a subject-object-verb (SOV) language. Simple English sentences place the object at the end of the sentence, so English is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language. So while using English in Marathi, speakers stick to the SOV format and the result is a Marathi sentence with Marathi construction with some English words. This is interesting because it means using words familiar to me in unfamiliar ways for communication in a different language.

Lastly, as I’m becoming more and more familiar with reading Devanagari script I’m finding many English words written in Devanagari. A great deal of what is written on signs was really intimidating to me at first because many words were in Devanagari. However, now that I can slowly read when I begin to sound out a word there is a high probability that the word will actually be an English word. The example below is something commonly seen here- Devanagari script (of English words) with the Roman alphabet translation.

In this picture the blue “State Bank” in the Roman alphabet is exactly the same as the last two words written in blue in Devanagari. And the first word in blue is the word India, but not in English. This mix of multiple languages and multiple scripts makes learning Marathi and Devanagari script an exceptionally challenging but enlightening, and interesting, experience!

Photo credit: http://www.financialexpress.com/news/sbi-may-sell-assets-to-aid-recovery/1125820. June 6, 2013

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

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