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Saturday, January 24, 2015

My God, You Speak Telugu?!

With only intermittent opportunities to learn and practice Telugu over the years since my first lessons with a tutor in the 1960's, I am pleasantly surprised to find myself able to speak solely in Telugu, going with the flow in  my clumsy best, within the first few weeks of this year's trip to India. It's a relief, after years of straining to keep up in a conversation, only to find myself taking a 'concentration break' and missing something addressed directly to me.

Telugu is the language of the people of Andhra Pradesh as well as of Telangana, a new state sliced away from Andhra after years of protests and demonstrations. Even though foreigners visit these regions, few if any have mastered the language beyond the traveler's minimum essential vocabulary, not to mention the nuances of Telugu pronunciation. So there are often gazes and/or comments of amazement, not only that this white lady speaks the language, but that she can make herself understood.

Whiling away the time in a large Hyderabad store while my family finished their business, I came to the attention of a supervisor who sent a very young clerk to wait on me,  The young man seemed hesitant at the prospect of communicating with me. When I assured him, in Telugu, that I was only looking, he moved closer, and we struck up an easy conversation, beginning with the by now familiar, "How is it that you know how to speak Telugu?"

His slightly older colleagues a few counters away jibed, in Telugu, "Array (hey), 'you having a nice time talking with the American lady?" to which he replied with cautious alarm, "Hush, she speaks Telugu!"  "

"Yeah, right," they shot back.

"No, really, she is speaking Telugu!" and in sotto voce to me, "Don't mind them, Madam, they don't know anything..."

Our short conversation ended there; only the young clerk and I knew why we were grinning as we parted, saying,  "Namasthe."

My speaking advantage is having been brought up in the company of speakers of Finnish; the language of my mother's immigrant parents. Regrettably, I never learned to speak Finnish, but its sounds are familiar as nursery rhymes, its rhythms written on my heart. From time to time a memory surfaces of my grandmother's voice, calling me for 'supper,' or 'buttermilk' (still a favorite!)  In any case, linguists have pointed out the amazing and still unaccounted-for fact of distinct similarities in the pronunciation and organization of the Finnish and Telugu languages.

Though my Telugu vocabulary is still pretty slender, years as a teacher of first graders gave me good practice in conveying more meaning with fewer and simpler words. It is also helpful that everyday Telugu is like a vocal version of texting, the verb 'to be' omitted from its proper place at the end of the word at the end of the sentence,  multiple words combined into one in a sort of elision, and sentences collapsed when one word, or even a slight nod of the head will do. Less is more.

Another comment I frequently encounter, however, is that I tend to use the full, correct form, unlike everyday casual parlance.

(Last year in a Minneapolis Indian grocery store, I overheard a young, evidently Telugu, couple discussing the pros and cons of purchasing a certain Western vegetable.  Eager to be the hospitable American, I made what I hoped was a helpful comment in what I thought was pretty clear Telugu. This young man replied with a not uncommon Indian male dismissiveness, "You can't understand us, we're speaking in our language." I didn't correct him, but thought better of it, and shopped on.
Touche' for him, or for me?)

After relishing Telugu conversation more freely on this year's trip, I revisited some of the Telugu lessons abandoned several years ago.  PTL, now they make sense! 

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