Studying English While Learning Tamil

One of the great things about living in India is the opportunity to learn a new language. In India you have over 14 different languages to choose from, but it makes sense to learn the local one 😀

I’m living in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the main city called Chennai (it used to be called Madras before they decided to get rid of the connection with their colonial past). The city is fast filling up with British expats like myself and international students from organisations like AISEC.

One of my main goals while living out here is to learn the local Tamil language.  However, the interesting thing is, that as I’m learning Tamil, I’m studying English more and more.

For example, until recently I didn’t even know what the origins of the English language were. A quick bit of research and I’m able to give you a condensed history of the English language…

English is based on the Germanic language brought to the UK by the Saxons of what is now North-West Germany. However, even this Germanic language is a sub-category of the Indo-European language which can be traced to Northern India. When the Normans invaded the country in 1066, Old French was the language of the law, courts and administration. Even when it was changed to English, many words and phrases remained.

In the 16th and 17th century, many words were borrowed from Latin. Modern English that is spoken today can be traced back to the Elizabethan era.

There is a very interesting diagram showing the classification and evolution of languages here: History of Language Diagram

Where English is quite a modern language, Tamil is credited as being one of the oldest languages, that is still widely spoken, in the world, with a heritage that can be dated back over 2,200 years – this makes it one hell of a difficult language to learn! Take the letter ‘L’. There are three ways of pronouncing it!

Back to English.

Even though many educated people in Chennai can speak English (well, I like to call it Indo-English because the sentence structures and word usage are different), I’m able to understand them quite well, but often they are unable to understand me.

This is because I would use slang, abbreviate (don’t, do not) words, and more significantly use idioms, metaphors and similies when I’m speaking.

Time and again I would have to go back and explain a slang word or saying, and in the true Indian fashion of wanting to learn and understand, they would ask why we use such words, what the orgins are etc. Since we don’t pay much attention to what we’re saying in the UK, we never really get a chance to study our own language or the origins of words and sayings.

Take this saying:

Straight from the horses mouth

A bit of research tells you that the origin of this saying comes from horse racing and the only way to accurately tell the age of a horse is to look at it’s teeth and mouth. Hence, “this horse is 3 years old, I got it from the horses mouth” ie. the information came direct from the source.

Other sayings and slang that I’ve been asked to explain include…

  1. Raining cats and dogs
  2. Come down on you like a ton of bricks
  3. Went down like a lead balloon
  4. Stuck between a rock and a hard place
  5. Chavs
  6. If you can’t beat em, join em
  7. Hard as nails
  8. Sweet FA
  9. Scot free
  10. Cushty
  11. This time next year…
  12. Bent as a nine bob note
  13. Cool beans

And many more sayings besides. There are also some sayings that don’t seem to have any origin, they are either a play on words which have different meanings or slang meanings, it can confuse the hell out of my Indian friends…

  1. Let’s make like a tree, and leave
  2. Let’s make like a banana, and split
  3. Let’s make like a donkey’s d***, and hit the road

There are also occasions where I have to give someone a better way of saying something. For example, on our help desk, a phrase that was often used was:

  • Please be in patience

I explained to them that although any English speaking person would understand exactly what they meant, the accepted way of politely asking someone to wait would be:

  • Please be patient

This was taken with a certain amount of skeptism, because “everyone knows that patient means someone who’s undergoing healthcare, like a Doctors Patient.

I think that’s long enough for my musings on the English language. It’s an interesting subject for me and it’s a shame we don’t learn more about the history of our own language in school history lessons.

For further reading on the history of English, Tamil and words and phrases in English, check these sources:

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