Malayalis take pride in our ability to learn foreign languages, but you seldom hear of a non-Malayali, let alone non-Indian, learning Malayalam. So when the Malayali world heard of eli.kutty, everyone stopped to take notice.
Elizabeth Mary Kate (aka Eliza) is an American who lives in Dubai and teaches at Ajman Applied Technology High School. As someone who loves travelling and exploring cultures, as is evident in her blog, she was drawn to Malayalam through her Malayali friends in Dubai and decided to learn the language. Not a stranger to learning new languages (she’s learnt Spanish, Japanese and Korean earlier), Eliza went about looking for resources to learn Malayalam. Only to realise that there were very few resources available. So she decided to create one!
She created her Instagram page, Learn Malayalam, not just to document her journey with Malayalam, but also to serve it as a resource bank for people who wish to learn our beautiful language. And that’s why she won Malayali hearts and turned into eli.kutty.
We had the opportunity to speak to her and hear her perspective of Kerala and Malayalis, and we’re extremely excited to share with you. So here goes…
What tips would you give to someone who is setting out on a path to learn a new language?
Consistency is more important than any book or resource or program you follow. You have to make a daily effort to speak, listen, and make a lot of mistakes!
Are the regional dialects obvious when you speak to Malayalis from different parts of Kerala?
Kasaragod and Thrissur are the most distinct to me. My driver in Thrissur had me giggling with his lovely sing-song dialect. Kasaragod has a different flow considering the influence of regional languages. I will say since my husband hails from Kochi I find the southern accents more ‘familiar’ just due to the exposure.
Have you noticed any similarities between Malayalam and other languages? How hard is it to learn Malayalam when compared to these (and other languages that you’ve tried learning)?
Korean and Japanese have the SOV structure, meaning that instead of saying “I eat pizza”, it’s literally “I pizza eat”. A lot of other grammar markers are similar to, like how we indicate subjects, objects, or counting things. Also, traditional Korean houses are almost identical in structure to the ancestral Kerala home.
Spanish is more similar to English but shares a link in the Portuguese influence of Malayalam like mesha/mesa (table) and vinja/vina (wine).
Fun note: Arabic has influenced a bit of Spanish due to the presence of the Islamic empire in Southern Spain. Arabic shares a lot of sounds with Malayalam, and even grammar structures in Khaleej Dialect mirror Malayalam since the countries share close proximity and a long trading history.
What is one thing that you like about Kerala and Malayalis?
Kerala itself is so gorgeous and green! Coming from the Gulf it’s so wonderful to be surrounded by the hills, forests and winding rivers. Malayalis are hilariously sarcastic and hospitable. You will always know what they really think, and will never lack for a cup of chai!
What’s your favourite Keralite dish?
I am obsessed with seafood meals from Malabar Coast now. Kannur and Thalaserry exposed me to the freshest seafood ever and I love matthi fry, koonthal, and meen curry.
For breakfast, I really like poori masala, though I get really anxious about pronouncing it correctly.
As for sweets, palada paayasam makes me super happy.
What’s the funniest case of miscommunication that you’ve faced? (with anyone, can be a non-Malayalam story too).
I have a Tamil friend and I met her aunt, who we called periammai. When I was messaging Arjun’s Aunti I mistakenly greeted her as “Pariamma”, which resulted in Arjun’s mother getting some concerned text messages about my Malayalam lessons.
I also cried from embarrassment!
People from the West are usually taken aback when they hear of Communism in Kerala; they seem to picture a small USSR within India. Was that the case with you? Is there anything about Kerala that was a culture shock to you?
A lot of milestones in our relationship are around communist propaganda. I mean, we got engaged in a Yugoslavian commie nostalgic restaurant in Belgrade! Still, despite knowing about the party’s influence, it is funny seeing the hammer and sickle in plain sight and the occasional face of Lenin or even Stalin!
More culture shocking is the moral policing. I have to think about so many more things when going out, especially if Arjun isn’t with me. My last trip across kerala was solo, and many people were really concerned/nosey about where I was going, who I was seeing, and where my husband was. I also felt I had to be more aware of my appearance and my actions than I ever was in Dubai.
What’s your favourite Malayalam word?
I enjoy saying Paavam. It has so many uses and it comes off very sweet generally.
Mammooty or Mohanlal?
Mammooty. Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (also Tamil classic Thalapathi).
Props to Mohanlal in Vaneprestham, though, that was mindblowing.
If you had to introduce your friends in the US to Malayalam cinema, which three movies would you recommend to them?
- Bangalore Days: Not too many cultural references needed to appreciate the film, upbeat, variety of characters and a good introduction to the new-gen of Mollywood.
- 22 Female Kottayam: To show the darker side and also some turn of Mollywood female portrayals.
- Keeridam: A classic to show family dynamics and the webs that are woven by the actions of a community.
3 books that you’ve gifted the most
- Homo Deus (and its predecessor Sapiens): We need to know where we came from and where we’re going.
- Tuesdays with Morrie: As a teacher, I find this a short but intense lesson for students that are moving on and looking at life ahead.
- Sputnik Sweetheart: Murakami is a favourite author and this specific book captures alienation and loneliness like no other. It helps those who are in the midst of their own grief find comfort in parallels.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self if you could go back in time and speak to her?
Just keep doing your thing, cause people think you’re weird regardless.