Is This Life?

Some background: Over the course of the past few months, I have been providing technical support (related to survey research design and analysis) for an interdisciplinary team of academic fellows at my school undertaking a pretty big sustainability project based in South India. (How in the world did this happen, you ask?! I did a very similar survey for my master’s project exploring things like behaviors and motivations, and no one else on the team had ever done survey research before – and after some informal consulting over several coffee breaks, I found myself officially absorbed into the team.) Anyway, in my spare time, usually in the wee hours of the night, I have been informally researching the languages of South India – mostly Telugu but also a bit of Tamil. Just for fun.

These two languages – so, so far away from English on the language family tree (Tamil & Telugu, part of the Dravidian language family, aren’t even on that one) – are impossible to learn, right?

I won’t be the first to admit that yes, they definitely do seem impenetrable at first blush. They seem to have almost nothing in common with English (this guy at the Economist is probably the only one who will disagree with that).

So then: Where to begin?

At the beginning!

As a  person with a background in education who is familiar with learning theories, I know one thing: always start you (or your students) know and love. It seems like a good approach, then, to collect words and phrases related to things I like, know, or think will be useful and cross-translate them.

(Side note: This is a great activity to do when you are too brain-drained to do anything else, but still want to do something productive and mentally stimulating – kind of like crossword puzzles or sudoku.)

Okay, enough navel-gazing.

Below is one such thing I’ve collected – it’s a verse from a song. A person recently posted it on r/tamil, asking for a translation – it was written by the person’s father just before he passed away.

The lyrics are from this moving song, கனவு காணும் / Kavanu Kanum / “Dreams of Life”.

Even if you don’t understand the words the singer sings in the video (like I don’t), chances are you will still “get” what the song is about — the music and scenes convey more than enough.

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இது தான் வாழ்க்கையா?
“கனவு காணும் வாழ்க்கை யாவும்
கலைந்து போகும் கோலங்கள்
துடுப்பு கூட பாரமென்று
கரையை தேடும் ஓடங்கள்”
ஆம் இது தான் வாழ்க்கை!

Is this life?
“This life in which you dream
is like a kolam which will be erased.
Feeling even its oar to be heavy
boats long for shore.”
Yes, this is life!

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