In a hot room on the third floor of a dusty building on North Usman Road, Senthilnathan S. pores over an Arabic dictionary, filling his notebook with English meanings of strange words. Across the city, on Nelson Manickam Road, an entire classroom reads aloud from pages of transliterated Japanese conversations discussing markets, produce, bargains and discounts. At Ashok Nagar, Tibetan-born-China-educated Jampa Lhakyi teaches Class XII students the first strokes of over 5,000 Mandarin characters, just before they set off to China for MBBS degrees. In R.A. Puram, a lawyer and a taekwondo practitioner gush about the slick production values of Korean television dramas at their Korean language class. And in Poonamallee, Selishia Freddy dictates the opening verses of Hebrew psalms. In small, but significant, signs of a changing world order, Chennai is now shifting gears from learning French, Spanish and German, to a host of non-European languages.
Better employability is the largest driving force behind young graduates and mid-level employees opting for unusual languages, says M.R. Ranganathan, chairman of ABK-AOTS Dosokai Japanese learning centre. With Japanese, it’s software and automobile companies, over 500 of which operate from Chennai, that have locally pioneered the language interest. “There are also over 25,000 Indian expats in Japan, and since the Japanese visa is easy to come by and the country safe to live in, many of our students are those looking for jobs there.” Almost 1,000 students have taken the JLPT qualifying exam in 2013 at Dosokai alone and are taught by four native Japanese teachers and 30 former Dosokai students who now volunteer their time. The Japanese language, says Ranganathan, is much like the Japanese sumi-e ink paintings that line the centre’s walls, “Just as the large empty spaces in the paintings speak to you as much as drawing does, Japanese is a contextual language, that reveals through the unsaid as well.”
Languages obviously come immersed in their cultures, and at INKO, films, television soaps, food, martial arts and picture cards are modes of learning Korean, says Nandini Menon, manager, teaching and information. Seo Hwa In, INKO’s present Korean teacher from Sangmyung University, speaks little English. “That’s actually an advantage, because then my students learn Korean through Korean,” she says. Her pupils include intellectual property lawyer Nithya S. who came to Korean class because South Koreans are leaders in her field, and S. Kartikeyan, who hopes to someday continue his six-year education in taekwondo in Korea. “Besides engineers and college students, we have many who want to experiment with a new language, learn several languages parallely, or just understand the hugely-popular Korean pop music and films they love, better, ”says Nandini.
Literature, proverbs, poetry and scripture are vital to the intensive course, Arabic scholars A. Sathar Khan and M.R. Thameem Ansari teach at their Chennai Arabic Institute.
Their most-demanded course though, is the 50-hour spoken Arabic one, which has takers from 25 nurses at Apollo hospital who treat Arab non-English speaking patients, to electronics engineers at Tata Communications who were headed to Riyadh for a project. The course familiarises learners with conversational terms at airports, restaurants and telephonic conversations, while introducing them to basic reading and writing skills as well. As the number of families migrating to West Asia for jobs grows, Sathar and Thameem also introduce children to basic Arabic through home tuitions, just before immigration.
Sathar adds that one of the largest needs for non-European language speakers today is for translation and interpretation, an observation that Shiv Shankar Nayak, who runs the Confucius Institute of Chinese, agrees with. Shiv began his school in 2009 to iron out linguistic requirements at his e-publishing firm’s Hong Kong branch. Most of the school’s former students, especially homemakers, now freelance or work part-time with local industries that import everything from plastic bottles and pens to electronics and furniture from China, and require understanding of Chinese contract, legal and financial documents. “Our most recent students are a batch of doctors who want to learn Chinese as they procure the majority of their surgical equipment from China or Singapore,” adds Shiv.
Business aside, there are learners of unusual languages for spiritual and tourism needs. At Salishia Freddy’s school of Biblical Hebrew, Horeb, a majority of the students are theologians desiring to read Jewish scriptures in the language it was written in. As most also eventually plan to visit Israel, the course includes a conversational Hebrew section, besides grammar, vocabulary (agricultural and biological terms in particular), history, script and pronunciation studies. It’s the joy of learning languages that Salishia speaks most of, though. “Hebrew is a language of the specifics, unlike Greek that deals with the abstracts. It’s a language you can hold close to your heart,” she says. And that, essentially, is what most new languages give you, a different way to express who you are.
Words that open doors