Mastering Malayalam with Elizabeth Keyton

Language is the thread that binds us to the culture of our society. We live in an era where parents prefer to speak in a foreign tongue with their children in their homes, just to prepare them for the international audience so that they do not miss out on the plethora of opportunities that this foreign language opens to you and somewhere down the line we forgot to catch up with the beauty of our mother tongue.

Here is an amazing language enthusiast, helping people learn Malayalam through her Instagram pages. Here you’ll find the right resources to make your journey with the language easier. In conversation with Elizabeth Keyton, on her journey of mastering the most difficult language in India.

Tell us about yourself, your background, and your previous ventures.

I am an Academic Coordinator and English teacher. I’ve spent 12 years traveling and teaching in various parts of the world, including South Korea, UAE, and now Vietnam. I grew up in the US in a small town and from an early age found myself interested in languages, culture, art, and literature. 

What inspires you to take up different languages and how important do you think it is to take up regional languages as students in countries like India?

Language is entwined with culture and identity. It helps us describe things unique to our values and environment. The idea that other people can interpret and describe something in their own unique way is fascinating, and tracing the lineage of languages shows how connected we all really are. 

Regional languages do need more attention as they are not promoted much outside the states that they are spoken in. These languages not only should be studied by those outside the region, but there should be a more robust curriculum inside the state. Unfortunately, as a result of the push to learn English to be competitive in today’s global climate, there isn’t enough funding or interest to improve mother tongue curriculum. This makes many people concerned about the future of these languages. 

Could you tell us the story of your decision to learn and eventually teach Malayalam?

My story is somewhat simple- I met a Malayalee, fell in love, and decided that since he and his family are fluent in English and know so much about my own culture, that I should make some effort to do the same. 

A common misconception is that I ‘teach’- what I do is create Malayalam resources that others can use to help them as they are also learning. There are many wonderful Malayalam teachers I have featured on my page to help those who need a proper mentor. 

What are some of the challenges you faced while taking up a new language? How did you overcome these?

Typical challenges of any language learner- making the time to study, finding language partners, memorizing new vocabulary, and of course making tons of mistakes in front of friends and family members! But this is all part of the process and it’s worth it. When I get frustrated I take a break and then find something fun, like watching a movie or listening to a Malayalam playlist, this brings me back to why I started learning.

Could you brief us about your TED Talk and how the experience has been for you?

My TED talk was an amazing opportunity- I had originally been contacted by GECT in Thrissur, and unfortunately due to COVID the event was postponed. After I relocated to Hanoi, I reached out to the local TEDx Organizers and they welcomed me on board. The talk was something I am very passionate about- social media being the tool to preserve our cultures- and I hope that others realize that they now have the power to organize, educate, and immortalize their own traditions.  I hope to speak one day in Kerala, and I am grateful to those who have reached out to me to request me to speak. 

Do you have a role model you look up to? If yes, what are the qualities that you admire of that person? If no, then why? 

I’ve always been a strongly independent person, and while I do find qualities in others I do look up to, I’m not necessarily elevating them to a role model- I think it’s unfair to make a person a standard to live up to, as we are all humans and make mistakes or have imperfections. I think one downside of social media is we build up people to something more than what they are, and when they make a mistake, there is this collective disappointment that negates all the good things that this person has created. I don’t like the idea of hero-worship, as it puts both the admirer and the ‘role model’ in very difficult situations. 

Being a language enthusiast, you get to read stories from different cultures that move people. Do you have a particular story that affected you deeply?

I receive a lot of messages from people who have been afraid to speak their mother tongue simply due to the fact that they are mocked for it. It’s been difficult to read about how others have been doing their best to adapt to a culture and language outside their own, then feel rejected as they try to connect to their native place. Stories of Third Culture Kids are really intense, and there are so many different and varied experiences of having one foot here and one foot there. I think that there needs to be more empathy, compassion, and opportunities for such people. 

What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself in five years?

These days, it’s difficult to plan even one year in advance! To be honest, I’ve been considering a shift in my own career- to what exactly I’m not sure, but I want to delve more into language preservation, making resources, and giving platforms to minority and under-represented cultures. I want to find a way to contribute more to these projects. As much as I love teaching and working in the English field, I’m becoming more disheartened about the way that English Testing has grown into an exploitative industry, and I want to spend time unpacking my own privilege and identifying how I can use it to help others.

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