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!  EDIT:  On my first go at this, I found this last step to be where I fell down. I don't live in Kerala, and it was very hard to get enough ongoing exposure to the spoken language to begin to actually pick up grammar - and the few simple primers I had were from the 50s, such that when native speakers saw them, they laughed and laughed and then told me noone actually speaks like that anymore.  So, the new strategy is going to be to aim all of the above learning directly at being able to start reading simple - and then gradually more complex - kids' books.  The biggest wrinkle here is that these are of course copywrited.  I will probably recommend that if you're following along you just order the ones I'm using, but I will also try to excerpt as much as is legal to get you started, too.  
Ok, enough planning - on to the first real lesson!


D said...


Anonymous said...

This has given me confidence to continue my lonely struggle to learn Malayalam and I can identify with all you have said to date. How can I get more tips from you? I cannot find an email to reply to you and I am not on any public website like Facebook, nor want to be.