My efforts to learn Malayalam have been pretty minimal. In two years, I know maybe 100 words and about three points of grammar. This isn’t because it’s one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, as I am often told; it’s because everyone speaks English. Thinking about my (lack of) Malayalam ability led me to consider its wider value, and also to think about how there is one language I have picked up since being here: Kerala English.
If I speak with my normal accent – Kiwi with flat vowels and mumbling at a mile a minute – very few are likely to understand. Instead, I’ve adopted a kind of attempted Malayali accent, and often seek assistance from my colleagues in perfecting it. For example, the number ‘twelve’ more closely resembles ‘toll’, while ‘po-TAY-to’ becomes ‘PO-te-to’ (needless to say, these are very rough approximations). It’s a source of great amusement for the others at work, and a genuinely valuable communication tool when speaking to a stranger or asking for something in a shop.