26 June 2013

Why learn Kannada?

Wherever you decide to live long-term, it’s always good to learn the local language. Learning at least a few rudimentary basics can take you a long way and help you connect with the local culture.

Many newcomers to Bangalore don’t bother learning Kannada, the local language. Many people come to the city from North India and can get by easily by speaking Hindi. English is also spoken by many people here. This ease of communication is also due to the Kannadigas’ amazing flexibility: many speak several South Indian languages, Hindi and English in addition to their native Kannada. As a result, many Indians from outside Karnataka living in Bangalore for a long time don’t speak Kannada at all. My landlady (who’s from Kerala) said she never learned Kannada in the almost 30 years she’s lived here because there are so many Malayalam and Tamil speakers living in our neighbourhood.

I also have the feeling that many North Indians don’t bother learning Kannada for chauvinistic reasons. The impression I get is that since they already speak Hindi, they think they don’t have to learn Kannada, a Dravidian language which they consider ‘inferior’ to their mother tongue. “Kannada sounds like the noise that’s made when you shake a tin can full of stones,” I’ve been told, or: “Why are you learning Kannada? You should learn Hindi instead, they you can use it all over India.”

Of course knowing Hindi would make practical sense, especially when travelling in North India, and this is the reason why many foreigners living here learn Hindi when they decide to study an Indian language. However, since I spend 90% of my time in Bangalore, it makes sense to me to learn the language spoken by its locals.

I’m glad I decided to learn Kannada. It wasn’t easy though. The first step was finding a teacher, which was not at all easy. Government officials make a lot of noise about outsiders who don’t know Kannada, vehemently declaring that they must learn it. But if the government is so adamant about this, then the Department of Kannada and Culture should organise Kannada language courses and provide proper training and support for aspiring teachers. After trying a few classes with teachers who turned out to be inexperienced or clueless about grammar or how to teach languages (I wrote about one experience here), I did finally find an excellent teacher who gave me a good grounding in the language. Unfortunately, after two years of weekly classes with her, she suddenly suffered a heart attack and passed away.

I couldn’t bring myself to find another teacher after that. But I did try to use my Kannada as much as I could. Our domestic help doesn’t speak English so I use Kannada with her. She even called up her brother one day and handed me her phone, telling me to say something to him in Kannada! Then there are many opportunities to speak Kannada in the neighbourhood with shopkeepers I deal with almost on a daily basis. They know I’m learning so they always make it a point to speak it to me. There’s the market sellers, the courier lady, the photocopy man, the ironing man, the man who runs the taxi company I sometimes use, the lady security guard in the metro, and of course the auto drivers.

There are indeed many good reasons to learn Kannada and knowing the language has often worked to my advantage. The fruit sellers at the market often give me extra fruit. Either they’re charmed by my Kannada or they’re overcharging me and feel bad so they give me an extra guava or banana – I’m not sure which is the real reason!

Then there was the time I was able to avoid a traffic fine because I said a few words to the police officer in Kannada. When the right turn from Old Madras Road onto 80 Feet Road was suddenly no longer allowed, a police officer stopped our car. He explained the new rule and then said: “So what to do?” This was the signal for a bribe. Then for some reason, he asked where we were going. When I answered: ‘Manege hogthaiddivi’ (We’re going home), he laughed, and then waved us on. No fine or bribe paid!

At the airport, the immigration officers can be difficult for no reason. When I was last leaving India on a trip, the stern-looking officer looked at my residence permit and asked me in a very gruff way why I wasn’t registered. If he had taken a moment to look over my documents he would have seen that I am indeed registered at the FRRO and that everything is in order. I answered simply: “I am registered, Sir.”

“Who are you in India with?!” he barked at me next. An unaccompanied woman must be a cause for suspicion – what would she be doing in India alone? I answered that my husband is employed in India. I then repeated the same thing in Kannada: “Nanna yejmaanru illi kelsa madthare.”

The stern officer’s demeanour suddenly changed completely and his frown literally turned upside down.

“Oh ho! Very good!” he said, beaming me a big smile. “Kannada mathadthira?”

“Howdu, naanu Kannada kalithaiddini”, I replied.

“Kannada kalithaiddira?! Tumba chennagide!”, he declared, stamping my passport with a flourish, no further questions asked.

Then just yesterday I was trying to catch an auto-rickshaw from MG Road to Racecourse Road but the pesky auto drivers didn’t want to use the meter for such a short distance and were all asking me for an inflated price. In these situations, I just keep trying and eventually find an honest person. The fifth driver I stopped also wanted extra fare. When I answered "Tumba jaasti" and walked off, he called me back: “Baani, Madame!”.

“Meter haktira?” I asked before climbing in.

“Neevu Kannada mathadthaiddira, adakke meter haktini!” he replied. (Since you’re speaking Kannada, I’m going to use the meter.)

We drove off and I got the usual questions fired at me: Where are you from? Do you work in Bangalore? How long have you been here? Do you like Indian food? Isn’t it too spicy for you? I have heard and answered these questions a thousand times so can answer them easily. He seemed impressed. When we stopped at a traffic light, he called out to the auto driver stopped next to us: “Anna! Nodi! Foreigner Kannada mathadthiddare!” The other driver gave me a smile and head bobble in appreciation.

When we arrived at Racecourse Road, my auto driver shook my hand and thanked me for learning Kannada. I paid him and told him to keep the change, but he refused. “I told you I would go by the meter!” he said, and drove off.

Free fruit, traffic fines avoided, frowns turned upside down, auto drivers who use the meter, appreciative smiles and head bobbles. Many good reasons to learn Kannada!


Veganosaurus said...

Haha I really enjoyed reading about your experiences with Kannada. :) I've said this before and I'm going to say it again, thank you so much for learning Kannada, Isa. :)

Isabel said...

Dhanyawada Susmi!

Anonymous said...


Alexandra said...

Great article. It is so true that it helps to know the local language. Having a language barrier from the actual locals makes it harder to connect with them. They must love and respect that you're making an effort to learn their language.
My husband is Tamil and I find his language to be extremely difficult to pronounce (as a Westerner, but I won't give up!

Isabel said...

It's definitely worth making the effort Alexandra. Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Isa thanks for the nice article on kannada , please correct your location. It is bengaluru (wrongly known as bangalore). bengaluru is the real name, bangalore is mis interpretation:)

Viz said...

Nice article. First of all i appreciate you for learning Kannada,worth it. Yup most of people who knows Kannada will definitely help you in Bangalore if they listen to you talking in Kannada, that's for sure. But the fact is people who are from karnataka (esp. Ladies,young women in college ) think they are considered as low or inferior when they speak Kannada.i've experienced lot about this, kobbu jaasti avrige,they should read such articles. Nice article by the way :)

Isabel said...

You're absolutely right Anon! But who says 'Bengaluru'? No one I know!

Viz, that's truly sad. No one should feel low or inferior about speaking their mother tongue!

Deepika said...

Truly impressed and touched !

Shiv said...

Well documented experience, Isabel.

The fruit/veggie vendor giving you one extra is a norm. It is called "kosaru" in Kannada. "kosaru" means "in excess". This is a practice that most of the local vendors follow. If you buy in more quantity, a kilo or more, the "kosaru" some times would be a hand full or couple of fruits/veggies!

Enjoy your stay. shubhavaagali :)

Isabel said...

Thank you Deepika!

Shiv, you've taught me a new word!

siddeshwar said...

:) odi kushi aithu :)

Ajit M B said...

Salute your regardness for other language, I once met an Austrlian during travel and he said "People in India learn English because they respect english language better than their mother toungue. At the same time 'WE' should learn their local language since respect should never be one way!". You truely met this criteria. All the best.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! Truly touched my heart reading all the reactions from the locals. Tells you how rare it is for them to hear kannada these days. DhanyavaadagaLu!

SUMANTH4U said...

Hi Isabel,

This is a true inspiration about how one can learn the language by self, when we do it by heart we can do deliver the unbelievables.

I'm gonna share your post in a popular facebook page if you are ok. Do let me know.

Isabel said...

Dhanyavada to everyone who has left comments in the past few days!

Sumanth of course you're free to share this post.

Sumit J said...

Nice post.
It'd be awesome if you could share some pointers on good sources to learn Kannada from your experience. I've tried a few CDs/books in the past, but no good. Does watching Kannada films/channels help? Any other tips?

Anonymous said...

Odi kushi aaytu isabel.

Vinay said...

Good one :)

Nagesh R said...

Thank you Isabel for being a inspiration for all others out there who say "Why Kannada, Hindi hai naa"

Venkatesh Mokashi said...

Hi Isabel,

Thanks for learning kannada, Hudson is the person who started many kannada schools in karnataka, thats why, to show him respect we have hudson circle in bengalure. even more surprizing is that kannada dictionary( "Kannada Nighantu") was written by a Foreigner called "KITTLE" .Nimma article Odi tumba khushi aayitu .keep learning.


Isabel said...

Dhanyavada Sumit, Vinay, Nagesh, Venkatesh!

Sumit, the best way to learn is just to speak with as many people as possible. Don't worry about making mistakes, your effort will be appreciated.

Raghavendra S Nayak said...

'Thumba danyavadhagalu nimage' we kannadigas appreciate u....