Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reading I: The alphabet!

The Malayalam alphabet comes in two basic parts - the consonants and the vowels:

This looks like a lot of letters (and, as my father commented, "they all look like curly m's!"), but, luckily, they're arranged into some sensible patterns that makes it easier to keep them straight. Let's go through the basic ones, starting with the consonants.


First off, you'll notice the consonants are written as two blocks. The first one is the most structured - in fact, it's arranged as a grid. As you move down the grid, the consonants move from the back of your mouth to the front:

So, as you can see in the image, the first letter in the top row (ക) has a "ka" sound - and if you try saying this aloud, you can feel that it starts with your tongue coming off the back of your palate. In contrast, the first letter of the bottom row (പ) has a "pa" sound - and when you try saying this one aloud, you can feel that it begins with your lips (so, the very front of your mouth) parting. The intermediate rows start in intermediate places in your mouth: for example, the first letter of the second row (ച) is pronounced "cha" - which starts with your tongue leaving the mid-front region of your palate, just where it starts to flatten out as it heads towards your teeth. The first letter of the fourth row (ത) is pronounced "ta" (it's also sometimes written "tha"), and starts with your tongue leaving the flat area of your palate just behind your teeth.

There's also a pattern as you move from left to right - this time, in fact, there are two patterns on top of each other. First, as you move from the far left row to the far right row, you have an increase in what I think of as "N-ness", but which is better described as moving from a "hard start" to the letter to a "soft start":

So, as you can see above, the last letter on the left (പ) starts with a burst of air ("pa"), whereas the last letter on the right (മ) starts with your mouth/lips in almost exactly the same position, but because you don't include the burst of air as you start, the sounds comes out as "ma". Similarly, in the row directly above this one, you can feel as you say them that "ta" (ത) starts with a burst of air just like "pa", whereas the last letter in that row (ന) is pronounced "na" - again, your mouth starts in just the same position, except you leave out the burst of air. Intermediate between these two sounds is the letter ദ, which is pronounced "da" or "dha". Following the pattern, it has a softer start than "ta", but a harder one than "na".

There's another pattern as you move from left to right, also, hidden within this one. As you go from the first column to the second (or from the third to the fourth), the sounds are almost the same, except with more exhaling involved. Literally, you just say the same sound, but you push more air from your lungs as you do it, making it more forceful:

I have to admit, this is one of the parts of Malayalam I don't like - it's hard to make myself say the higher-airflow letters! Particularly when I'm trying to speak in a language I'm not comfortable with, I'm pretty shy, and my instinct is to speak very quietly - but you just can't do that and say these letters correctly. I'm working at it, though....

The other block of consonants isn't ordered like the first one - it's more just a random (to my eye) list. A majority of them fall into just a couple of groups, though, so, just for the sake of orientation, here are the three main groups I think of them as falling into:

There are three letters (ശ, ഷ and സ) that are some form of "sa" or "sha" sound; there are three letters (ര, ഴ and റ) that are "ra" sounds (at least, that's how they sound to English speakers - ഴ isn't actually thought of as a form of R by native Malayalam speakers); and there are two (ള and ല) that are forms of "La". How are there multiple Malayalam letters for roughly the same English letter, you ask? Well, we'll get to that part, later in this series of lessons! First, though, let's do the vowels.


Like the first batch of consonants, the vowels are arranged into a grid. Here, each row contains a related sound, arranged with the "short" version of the vowel sound to the left, the "long" version of that same vowel just to the right of this, and, for some vowels, a third version where the sound is slightly changed is tacked on to the far right:

It's a little bit hard to figure out how to indicate long and short versions of vowels in English, but the concept is for the most part very simple - you really do just sustain the longer vowels for longer, and with a bit more emphasis. You'll see when we get to some examples in the next couple of lessons. The "other" column is different for the two rows with members in it - for the example shown above, you can try saying "oh", "Oh", and "ow" and you can feel how the last one is sort of like the first two, but blended with some other sounds. Again, you'll get the hang of this when you start learning words.

There's one final wrinkle to this - the vowels as shown above are how they're written on their own, at the start of a word. But anytime they're following a consonant, they're thought of as "modifying" that consonant (which makes more sense when you realize that consonants are thought of as having a built in default vowel of "a" - so when I say that മ is pronounced "ma" I really mean it: as written, that letter indicates both an "m" sound and an "a" sound following it). And when a vowel is modifying a consonant, it's written differently. So, for each of the vowels, you actually need to keep in mind two different notational forms:

In the modifying forms, the dashed-circle indicates where the consonant that's being modified would go. So, if you want to turn മ ("ma") into "mo", you would write it as മൊ. The first vowel listed (അ) corresponds to the short "ah" sound, which is the default, and so it doesn't have a modifier form - if nothing else is indicated, this is the sound you use.

And, that's it! Remember, this was just an orientation - I'm not expecting you to remember any of these letters in particular; this is just so that as we learn them in depth one by one, you'll have a framework to think of them in.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Step 2: Reading.

Why learn to read if you mostly want to speak?

It is much more important to me to be able to speak and understand spoken Malayalam than it is to be able to read and write. Because of this, I agonized a bit about whether to spend time learning to read and write Malayalam at all. There are two major reasons I ended up deciding I did need to learn the written language:
  1. There are more ways to learn. If I were trying to learn Malayalam while living in Kerala, where I were surrounded by the spoken language, things might be different. But as things are, even living with a Malayalam-speaking spouse, I really need to be able to learn and practice words and phrases without him there, sometimes. Looking up words in a dictionary, making lists of words that I've learned and reviewing them, practicing reading simple stories - all depend on learning to read.
  2. It helps you get the pronunciation right. I didn't actually expect this one, but it's turned out to be a big deal for me. A lot of the sounds I can only sort of hear - but I can mimic them if I know which one I'm supposed to be saying, and I can learn that best when I learn how the word is written along with how to say it. For example, there are two basic "N" sounds in Malayalam, one that's like an English N, and one where you curl your tongue back in your mouth to start. I can (more or less) say them, but I can't hear which is which very well. So the best way for me to learn which word has which kind of "N" turns out to be for me to see the word written out.

How do you learn to read?

Learning to read only works as a way to help you learn to hear and speak if you make sure that as you learn to read, you from the very start integrate in learning the proper pronunciation.

In the next series of lessons, I'll lay out one path to doing that. It's not necessarily the best one, but it's a mixture of what worked for me with what I now wish I'd done, looking back. Here's the plan:
  • Introduce the alphabet. Malayalam has a lot of letters, but they're not just a big long list; there's structure to them. I'll go over the basic patterns for you, so as you learn individual letters you can fit them into the big picture.
  • Learn individual letters, a few at a time. When I started learning the alphabet, I tried to learn all 50-some-odd (depending on how you count them) letters straight off, plus the even larger number of extra symbols that you use when you write them next to each other in different combinations. I then moved on to learning words - and was rather discouraged to discover that half of these letters were rarely used, and most of the other half I'd been mispronouncing in my head as I learned them. I then went back and used the strategy I'm giving here: learn a handful of letters, learn them well, learn words that use them, and then move on to some more.
  • Learn words that use each new letter. I guess I gave this one away just above, but, it really does help - until you hear it in a couple words, it's hard to really get ahold of what the letter sounds like. Plus, it's more fun this way. And by the time you're done with the alphabet, you've got quite a bit of vocabulary under your belt, too!
  • Gradually introduce complex notational issues. Malayalam has a number of ways in which its writing system is different from English. For example, vowel signs can either be written independently or can be used to modify a consonant; consonants can be combined together in ways that use different symbols and have different meanings than if they are just written next to each other. All of these wrinkles we'll introduce gradually.
  • Gradually introduce simple phrases and grammatical patterns. The grammar in Malayalam is in many ways quite different from English (or so I gather so far... and I have a feeling it's only going to get worse as I go further!). For me, the most productive way to transition from learning vocabulary to learning to actually understand and say things with my vocabulary has been to mix in learning at first simple and gradually more complex phrases and sentences. So, really, by the time you get through with the learning-to-read primer, you'll be well on your way to being able to speak and understand simple words and sentences, as well!
Ok, enough planning - on to the first real lesson!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Where to start: listening

The best way to learn a language, of course, is to live somewhere where it is spoken as the primary language. But what if you're trying to learn something like Malayalam from afar?

Why start with listening?

The biggest issue with trying to learn a language in this kind of a situation is that the most convenient medium for teaching yourself a language is written - but if you want the language to be a tool for in-person communication, this just isn't going to be enough. Somehow, you have to train yourself to make a real connection between the written letters and the sounds.

I found this to be true from the very start. Although it seemed like a good idea to just jump straight in with the alphabet, I found that that I at least couldn't even hear many of the differences in the sounds right away - and trying to memorize all 51 letters when their pronunciation wasn't particularly clear in my head was a pretty painful beginning. Even when I managed to hold them all in my head for a day or so, I would very quickly forget and have to start over.

A better way do things, then, at least for me, was to get used to hearing and processing Malayalam words as my very first task, without worrying about how those words were written.

How do you actually go about starting with listening?

There are, I'm sure, lots of ways that would work to do this - the key is just to make sure you're actually processing the sound, not just passively listening. This means having the Malayalam internet radio station running in the background is nice and all, and might do some good (I do it while I work, often), but it's nowhere near as good as having a task where you actually have to remember and distinguish the sounds.

The way I did this was to use a cheap commercial product: Talk Now! Learn Malayalam - Beginning Level. It doesn't seem to be for sale at Amazon any more, but I do see it floating around still - I'm sure you can find it somewhere or another. It's simple, and it won't give you a huge vocabulary, but its interface is easy and its games are stupid but kind of fun, and after playing around with it for a while you'll be a whole lot better prepared to launch into actually taking a stab at reading and writing the language.

A bit more rambling on why it makes sense to start with listening

Although I didn't think of it this way at the time, this may actually make some sense in terms of science. In my real life, I happen to do Neuroscience research, studying the neural mechanisms of sensory processing. There is strong evidence that for a number of different sensory systems, such as vision or your sense of smell, your brain cells actually rewire themselves over time in response to the stimuli they hear - making the sense that "wow, last month that phrase sounded like an indistinct blur, but now it actually sounds like words!" one that may well be due to an actual physical change in your brain that takes place below the level of your conscious awareness. So, you might as well sit back, play the silly little games, and rest easy knowing that your brain's doing most of the hard work without any attention on your part, at least for now!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Why learn Malayalam? Why blog about it if you do?

What is Malayalam?

Malayalam is the language of Kerala, the southwest-most state in India. It is spoken by almost 40 million people, which is approximately the population of Spain, and is larger than the population of Canada.

Malayalam has both Dravidian and Sanskrit roots - it closest living-language relative is Tamil (a Dravidian language), but many words have both Dravidian-derived and Sanskrit-derived versions. The repertoire of sounds includes those from both language groups.

Why learn Malayalam?

There are a lot of different reasons someone might want to learn Malayalam. Perhaps your parents or grandparents are from Kerala, and didn't grow up speaking the language but would like to. Perhaps you are a student of South Indian history. Perhaps you are are thinking of living there for a time. Perhaps you really like Malayalam movies!

In my case, I have just married a Malayali man, and I want to be able to communicate with his family. I also want to be able to understand the language well enough that when we have children, he will be able to speak to them in Malayalam without my being excluded - so that they can grow up knowing both Malayalam and English.

Why blog about learning Malayalam?

While this seemed like a noble sentiment, it has proven harder than I had expected - not the least because of the incredible dearth of materials available for English speakers who want to learn Malayalam (without learning Hindi first...!). There are some... but they can be hard to find, and hard to cobble together into a coherent strategy.

Thus, the purpose of this blog:

  1. Collect the resources I have found useful for learning Malayalam, in the order in which I found them the most useful.

  2. Add some additional materials for learning Malayalam to the public domain. In particular, I am finding computer-based flashcards which contain an audio file (kindly recorded by my husband) to be an invaluable tool; I would like to make these available for others to use.

  3. Keep myself motivated!

Leave a comment! Send me a message!

If you happen to stumble across this blog and learning Malayalam is something you are interested (or working on) trying, please feel free to contact me! If nothing else, I'd love some company on this journey. I'm also happy to provide any materials and advice I have that might be useful. Also, any and all suggestions for new materials or learning strategies are of course welcome, as well!