Elizabeth Keyton is from the United States, but she is popular among instagram-hooked Keralites living in different parts of the world. Reason: she does something that even experienced Malayalam language experts were reluctant to do for many years.
She harps on graphics, hand-drawn illustrations, memes and movie dialogues to teach scores of people the nuances of Malayalam language. The unconventional teaching methods have earned her close to 30,000 instagram followers, including members of Kerala diaspora who lost connect with their mother tongue.
Her instagram handle goes by the typical Kerala name Elikutty (@eli.kutty) that proudly professes that she is into creating Malayalam language resources.
During the lockdown, Elikutty has taken her pet project to the next level to explore umpteen regional Malayalam dialects. She now curates local slang videos from native speakers, and seeks their help to explain words and sayings unique to their area.
She has already covered Malappuram, Kannur, Kasaragod and Wayanad. She calls it ‘celebration through comparison’. “There’s nothing called pure Malayalam. Being a bunch of kingdoms, which has cultures and dialects that are not lost through development over centuries, it’s amazing that the dialect is different in each district. That needs to be preserved.”
An English teacher for 11 years, Elizabeth has always been in love with languages.
Having started off as a teacher in South Korea, where she lived for two years, she learnt Korean talking to cab drivers. Then she moved to Japan and enrolled in a ‘language exchange programme’ where she taught English to the Japanese family she lived with. In return, they taught her Japanese.
She learned Spanish to communicate with immigrants in her homeland, the US.
Now a teacher in Dubai for five years, she is picking up Arabic.
But the best so far has been Malayalam, which she speaks confidently. She has also done vlogs in Malayalam.
Elikutty’s Malayalam vlog during Maharashtra trip:
Learning Malayalam, the Kasaragod way:
Married to Kochi native Arjun whom she met online three years ago, Elizabeth says becoming part of his family had a huge impact on her learning process. “Malayalam being a unique and complex language, my interest in it grew. I couldn’t find simple online language tutorials on Malayalam, and that’s when I thought of learning on Instagram by sharing my notes, with feedbacks to support the process.”
Not only did her venture earn a huge fan following, but she was approached by many to teach them the language too.
Introducing words through illustrations:
Most of her learning happens with the help of her husband and Malayalam films.
She uses famous film dialogues to point out certain words and explain their meanings. “I keep listening to dialogues over and over till I get it, especially the jokes. To get the pronunciation right, I play it on YouTube reducing the speed by 50 per cent to isolate each syllable and then learn the word,” she says.
Learning the word ‘kaal’ (leg) from a movie dialogue:
Though she considers her project as an attempt to preserve the language and its dialects, Elizabeth is glad that her project is helping the Malayali diaspora that has lost connect with their language and culture.
“Many Keralite students outside India told me that they wanted to learn to read and write Malayalam, and my notes became a study guide for them. Yet, it’s funny that every single day, I receive messages from Malayali parents asking if I could teach their kids English!” she laughs, amused by people’s obsession with English language by demeaning their native language. “Raising children as multi-lingual actually helps them become confident. There’s no need of shame in not knowing a language either. Let them study by making mistakes comfortably.”
Teaching the word ‘pole’ to make comparisons:
Learning the dialects is a personal project for Elizabeth. Born and brought up in Georgia, she says she knows how dialect is part of one’s identity. “In my part of the world, everyone makes fun of Southern accent. Even movies make fun of our ‘unintelligent’ accent, which I tried to hide for a long time. Now I regret losing it and for the same reason, I can very well empathise with accented Malayalam speakers. Each part of Kerala has a different dialect, and people even wage wars on each other saying theirs is the best, making fun of the others, and they are okay with it. With this collection of dialects, I want people, especially those who know Kerala only as the land of backwaters, beef, banana chips and coconut, to know about the diversity of the language.”
Last year, she went on a three-week solo trip from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram – a journey that taught her a lot of Malayali’s warmth, love for food, hospitality and much more. “It is my people-powered project. I talked to common man on the street, clicked photos at notable landmarks posing with a new word I picked up while talking to people.”
Elikutty at Jadayuppara, Kollam:
Elizabeth says that even Arjun hasn’t travelled across Kerala so much. “He is so jealous. I have told him that next time, I will show him around when we fly down to Kerala.”
Ask what else she learnt from Malayalis, Elizabeth quips, “Sarcasm. To know Malayalam, one has to become sarcastic by default.” She also notes that Keralites are quite prejudiced about Westerners’ being ‘less’ family-oriented. “We interact and reach out differently. Among Malayalis, asking questions mean that they care so much. People keep track of others as part of caring for them. That’s why they just tell you at the face, ‘oh, you got fat!’. I get it now.”
Elizabeth also adds that one has to be smart while dealing with Malayalis. “I tread very cautiously online. It’s just the difference between being smart and being too smart. Any moment a pop-up can pose the query ‘Jadayano mwoloose!,” she laughs.
Elizabeth has started a YouTube channel ‘Learn Malayalam with Elikutty’ to document the language styles, accents and regional peculiarities of the language. “It’s not for myself and this generation alone. For the coming generations too, documentation of a language would be helpful.
How to say “no’: