Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tamil 101: Week 1

Below are a few impressions and thoughts on my first week in language class. I am in a class of five smart and capable professionals and we study with three wonderful instructors for five long hours each day. Whoa, I thought six hours of Arabic a week was more than I could handle; now I am up to 25 hours a week. This is definitely an intense and unique language experience. 

I can best describe my language abilities in two ways; extreme natural ability combined with a terrible work ethic. I enjoy language study and possess an innate ability to pick up subtleties of inflection, pronunciation, and grammar, however I am a terribly lazy language student – I just don’t study enough to capitalize on my natural talents. My husband is the exact opposite, language study is hard for him, he does not really enjoy it, but he has a serious comparative advantage over me – man he works hard! He sits there and studies for hours and all the hard work pays off in big ways. I marvel at his commitment and hard work. I wish I was more like him in that respect.

Tamil is hard, really hard. The alphabet has lots of vowels and consonants. Both letters are somewhat hard to pronounce. In the vowel section, there are distinct vowels for long and short sounds; such as e and eee, u and uuu, o and ooo. Tamil also has some sounds that we take for granted in English, but don’t assign distinct characters to; like ay and aw. There are five N characters/sounds, all distinct according to my instructors, but tend to sound the same towards hour five of language class. There are also three distinct L characters/sounds, and at least two R characters/sounds. Did I mention that in Tamil, you don’t read in a linear fashion? When combined with consonants, vowels look completely different than in the alphabet. Tamil uses punctuation very sparsely, making this language one of the most rapidly spoken languages in the world. Lastly, at least to my ear, Tamil sounds a bit tonal. I think technically, Tamil does not fall into a tonal language category, such as Cantonese, Mandarin, or Korean, but it sure sounds tonal to this student. 

I succeed in using every major and minor muscle in my mouth, leaving my mouth and jaw tender and painful at the end of each day of class. I think I met my linguistic match. I will need to work a lot harder than in the past. At the end of this week I asked my husband, “so when you first started learning Tamil, did you feel like you somehow ended up in a special education class?” He responded, “Yes and what’s worse is that I felt like I belonged there.” I think that just about sums it up. Although, I am currently sitting in the back of the short bus, but am enjoying (almost) every minute of language study.

In other news, the Hebrew class is right around the corner. During a break, I started chatting with the students in Hebrew. They started asking me if I was one the teachers. Score! My Hebrew is still alive and kicking, hidden somewhere in the recesses of my tired brain.

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