Kannada Academy: Weekend 1

I have waxed eloquent on this blog about my desire to learn the Kannada script before. My ambition in the past two years has remained unchanged. The unfortunate part is that I have done nothing about it. That is not entirely true. I have tried. My mother and my chikkamma taught me the script briefly in 2019 winter. There was a brief window where I could write out the script from memory, but could not read anything. Since then I’ve been start-stop with the copywriting books. One of my second cousins tries to motivate me, but I lose this pretty fast. It hurts when you can’t really read anything. Since I’ve come to Cambridge though, my sense of identity has heightened. While this is a bit of a joke now at home (I’ve watched more Kannada films in the UK than I have in India), the Cambridge University Kannada Society, and colleagues here make me really want to learn everything I can about the language and the people.

Realising that my attempts (modest ones) were not going to get me anywhere, in March, I started hunting around for teachers. It was around this time I saw the Kannada Academy website. With my current income, I live a relatively frugal life. Ambitions I have are added onto my ever-expanding bucket-list, and become goals I save toward. I knew I had a pay day in the week after I first noticed the website, and so, I saved it to Pocket, and set a phone reminder to return the weekend after. So I did and sent through the fees – explaining clearly what my ambitions were with the course, and being fully aware that the course outlines seemed to teach the spoken Kannada before the script, knowing I needed help with the script predominantly.

It took just one nudge, but fifteen days later, when I was about to ask for a refund, someone from their team got through to me. We exchanged a brief call over WhatsApp, and I was set up for classes this weekend. These classes took place yesterday and today over Google Classroom.

What a joy they have been. Easily the best two hours of my weekend. I do not say this lightly, it has been a particularly wonderful weekend: some golf was played, friends were met, excellent food was consumed. I have been unable to contain the smile on my face while being taught these concepts.

Here is what I have learned so far: the five main sounding vowels (this has a corresponding Kannada word I am forgetting now), and five consonants with their forms (short vowels & long vowels both + the glottal stop).

While this may sound dry, the Kannada script is so unique to my eyes (although I’ve seen it before), that the shapes becoming familiar to me has been a very fun process. Today at the start of class, my teacher asked me to read some words aloud (they mostly had no meaning), but the heart suddenly gaining the knowledge and appreciation that the brain could recognise the script – phenomenal.

The last bit that I think deserves commendation and is noteworthy is that my teacher is a pop-culture machine. Several of my colleagues here have a deep appreciation for Kannada pop-culture. I’ve heard lots of new songs and stories of the film industry from them. My teacher is adding to this growing knowledge, and I’ve now got a new Spotify playlist where I am documenting the different songs he tells me about. My notes jot down where the references come up. I will share that maybe when it’s populated.

Now onto keeping this momentum by practicing through the week. I am motivated now by the external accountability these classes present, but equally by the absolute fear of embarrassment. My teacher’s very kind: in some struggles today, he laughed along and commented, “that’s what learning is all about!”

I tend to agree, but not putting in the practice to learn, and having to go over things again in class – that’s where the real embarrassment lies.

Exploring Languages

This post stems out of a new course of study I am undertaking: the study of German. This is new for me.

I have some background to German and Germany. My father studied German for a short amount of time while in primary school and was fortunate to visit the country for work (he’s retained quite a bit of his knowledge today). My best friend’s mother taught us both how to count till 10 in German when we were younger, and I joined his family in affectionately calling his grandfather Opa. I can recall other bits and pieces, the 2006 FIFA World Cup being held in Germany definitely prompted an exploration into their history and culture, especially because it overlapped with being introduced to Adolf Hitler in our History lessons at school. I represented Germany at a Model United Nations conference once. Subsequently, in more recent history, I was lucky to be extended the same good fortune of visiting Germany and meeting some friends there.

Additionally, my study of the language is aided significantly by the years I spent studying French and the excellent teaching that I had which grounded my fundamentals in the subject and gave me the confidence to express myself in a tongue foreign to my own make-up. I cannot discount how much of a role that background in a prominent European language from the Romantic school has played in my exploration thus far.

At this moment, I’m roughly two weeks into lessons. So no, I am not a native German speaker, nor am I anywhere close. I do, however believe that if I apply myself appropriately in the next few months, I can gain the skills necessary to go on a lifelong journey of picking up the language. That’s the insight I have at the moment.

Additionally, of course is the fact that I am in love with foreign languages and the kind of things they expose you to. Outside of professional utility, I think studying foreign languages has opened up this window to culture and media consumption like not much else has. It was in school that I read Persepolis on the recommendation of my French teacher, and discovered Corneille, Jean-Baptiste Maunier (of Les Choristes fame), and managed to read Le Petit Prince too. Translated media rarely has the same impact that the original text does, particularly because I do believe there are no perfect translations. The meaning and connotations of words arise out of historical contexts and circumstances that are unique to individual/common cultures, and that is irreplaceable, as much as we strive to make it so.  

Turning back, however, to why I think I’ll gain skills to begin a lifelong journey into the language. I don’t think we will ever fully know languages. There are differing levels of proficiency ascribed to the skill at which one can use their ability with the language, and naturally other markers (exams and certificates to proof proficiency, and so on). However, even with our mother tongues and native languages – we will know how much we choose to know, and how much we each individually choose to explore. For the most part, my thinking happens in English. Taking that as my illustrative example, I’m on a continuous path of learning the language more and more – I learn new words even today, words I’ve never come across before. I understand the diverse manner in which these words can be employed to create differing effects. The ordered systems that make up a mode of linguistic communication are things I explore each day I think and use it. That’s true for every language I am exposed to.

Developing that proficiency in German, to consume more media, to carry out more conversations, to use it more frequently – I’m not sure where it will take me. I’m excited to see where it does lead to. I’m very fortunate to have a teacher who understands why I’m studying the language, who encourages me by pushing me to take to the language quickly, and more crucially points out my errors immediately and repeatedly. I am finding out that the classroom is the place to make mistakes and gain confidence. You’re just less likely to make those mistakes in regular conversation that way.

Finally, I’d also like to admit how much this lockdown has helped me brush up and rediscover languages I lost fluency in, while learning new ones. As I’ve chronicled before, the Kannada project is the big one I have going on at the moment. Side projects however, have included Spanish, Italian, and figuring out why on Earth I can read and write the Arabic script but not speak it beyond saying a few phrases. All I hope for is that I tick off more languages off my list.

This is not a sponsored advertisement of any kind for Duolingo, but I need to give credit where it is due. They’ve developed a fantastic, gamified platform that has so much additional content to make the learning enjoyable. The community side of things on the application is also testament to how much languages can connect us all. I’m glad it exists across platforms, and that I’m discovering that too.

Learning the Kannada Script

So tomorrow is International Mother Language Day, as declared by UNESCO. No, this isn’t a WhatsApp forward – and even if it was, it would be one of those rare ones which were true. Tomorrow is also a holiday at University, and as a result, one of my professors decided we’d celebrate the designated celebration day today. The best part about this is that he didn’t reveal his master plan to us immediately. Usually, he begins class with a positive thought for the day – something to catch our attention. Today, however, he played us this video at the start of class:

I’ve enjoyed listening to this song for a few years now, ever since I discovered it. Ever so often I learn some new trivia about it. As soon as it started to play, I discussed with my deskmate how it was written by Piyush Pandey: someone whose work at Ogilvy I admire a lot. We weren’t really taken aback by this change in routine by our professor – although he felt we should be. Once he declared why he had done it though (to show off the kind of diversity of tongues we have in India), we were stunned, and rapturous applause could be heard in our section. He then asked us all to greet him in our mother tongues: initiating a competition between the classes in our batch. We indulged him. I had to be prompted to speak in Kannada because I was put on the spot and I wasn’t entirely sure how to say “have a nice day” in Kannada. It was something that bought me some shame for a few seconds before my brain switched wiring to think in the language.

I love Kannada. It’s given me so much over the years. I don’t think I held an affinity or love toward the language till I moved to University. It was here that I discovered how much I missed hearing the language being spoken all around me. That led to some excellent things, including friendships in which only Kannada is spoken. I picked up Kannada because I heard it being spoken around me on one of my vacations, and my Kannada knowledge is limited to my ability to speak it in bits and pieces. I can’t speak the fancy Kannada – the spashtu version that the literary figures in my family talk in. I weave in English whenever I feel like and rarely follow the traditional grammar rules.

I can’t read or write though, so the script looks like flying popcorn to me too. Most Devanagiri scripts do.

However, I was adamant to change that. Today seems like a good enough day to announce this to the world, but I’ve been teaching myself how to read and write the language. I purchased a few copywriting books – the ones that kindergarteners use, and started to follow a few Kannada accounts on Twitter. I’m also indulging in my family group a little more and reading through random Kannada messages they send. I can’t understand most of the letters yet, but identifying the shapes I do know, and making their sounds, is enough for now.

The goal is to be able to gain enough proficiency with the script so I read Kannada literature one day. Then I’ll move onto another language.