Apr 1, 2013

Language Barrier in Tamil Nadu

An unofficial flag of Tamil Nadu, in use since the early days of India when the dispute over official language started
Language barrier is a common challenge for traveling in many Asian countries and India is no different. But Tamil Nadu poses a greater challenge. The official state language and mostly spoken language is Tamil. It is one of the classical languages of India, belonging to the Dravidian family of languages. Which means its very different from the national language, Hindi which belongs to the Indo-Aryan family.

There is often a decent level of mutual intelligibility between Indo-Aryan langauges, for example between Hindi and Bihari and Bangla. But nothing like that between Tamil and the Indo-Aryan langauges.

On top of that a long standing notorious socio-political divide between north and south of India adds a political dimension to the communcation challenge. In the early days of India, the central government's attempt to promote Hindi as the official language was not received well by the Tamil speaking population. Incidents of violent uprising and revolts eventually lead to Tamil being given the official status and higher priority. As of today, many Tamils prefer English to Hindi as a lingua franca. But in the country side, English does not work with common people. Learning Tamil is therefore recommended for traveling in rural Tamil Nadu. At least a few basic words and phrases. Bellow is a list of useful words which I used in combination with sign language and English to communicate with local during my stay in Tamil Nadu.

Greetings : Vanakkam
Food : Sappadu
Watter : Tanni
Yes : Ya
No : Illa
Thank you : Nandri
I am not Tamil : Naan tamil illa

Somehow very basic phrases comprising of English and Tamil words made sense on a number of occasions. For example, to say that I don't have a scooter, "Scooter illa" works.