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Nilgiris Field Learning Center

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NFLC Student’s Blog: Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues

By Shaalini Ganesalingam


Don’t avoid all awkward moments…they can be the most revealing.”

–Andrew Willford, Cornell NFLC Faculty to my partner Devi and myself during a skype conversation

This week, at NFLC, we practiced conducting surveys and analyzing data, using a prewritten questionnaire on the experience of Keystone staff travel to work. The questionnaire, however, had been written in English and needed to be translated into Tamil.  During the process, the word “stress” was translated using Google into mana alutham. Except mana alutham didn’t mean stress at all. It meant depression.

NFLC students presenting results of Travel to Work survey to Keystone Foundation staff

“Stress” — at least having a word to denote that feeling– was alien to my Keystone student partner, Devi, as well as the other Keystone students. When I attempted to explain stress to her, I started by using a word I would use back home: anthiram.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this word was unfamiliar to the Keystone students as well as the staff. It turned out anthiram was a Sri Lankan Tamil word.

I then tried to explain what stress was by describing things that could cause stress. Our class translator explained one cause as an overwhelming work load. I added that it was having to cross the busy road in Ramchand Square in Kotagiri, or finding a big spider in the bathroom.

Stress is felt in knowing just enough to recognize that stress isn’t mana alutham but being not knowing enough about the culture or language, as its exists here, to find the right word.

Stress is found in the sudden emboldening of divisions within identity. Stress is feeling like being American but also Sri Lankan is conflictive. Stress is in recognizing that even within language, identity is broken down into categorizations with lines that are thick, yet blurred.

Here at the NFLC, the nuances of my identity matter and I know even less than I thought I knew.

The words I use here are more than just words; they give voice to a divided identity. The tongues that I speak in- in English, in Tamil- are anchored to two different shores. They are rooted in two different cultures. Born and raised in Queens, New York, I live in the world of the first. The roots of the second are frost bitten, frozen in time to the point in which my parents had fled their island home. Yet they stubbornly grasp onto salt-saturated shores, managing to tunnel below two oceans to live, but let live memories of another home.

When I speak, my language gives me away. My Sen-Tamil has been described as “full of raagam (melody)”. It implores me to take time to complete each sentence, refusing to cut any word short of the count it deserves.

When I speak, my language gives me away. The quick pace of my New Yorker English bleeds into my Tamil, making up for the lost time of long sentences with a fast tempo.

When I speak, my language gives me away. It is tarnished by poor pronunciation. La, la, Zha. Na, Na, Na. Picking up the subtleties is like trying to find the coconut with the sweetest water in a push cart. I press my ear up against the hard shell and I strain to hear any hint of sound and movement. Distance has disconnected my tongue from my mother tongue.

So stress.

Stress is knowing two complicated halves make a whole. Stress is having two languages to communicate with but not being able to find the words in either to measure the depths of intersectionality.

Stress is resolved in  listening to the punchline: the best Tamil translation of the English word “stress”  is the Tanglish (English + Tamil = Tanglish) word “tension”.

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