Gina writes:

In this entry more than a year ago, we discussed our Oriya lessons. Our neighbor and friend Binu was coming over once or twice per week to teach us. She was an excellent teacher, exceeding our expectations, but we only continued lessons for a few months. She taught us enough that we could practice on our own, committing vocabulary to memory and practicing verb conjugation. Eventually we fell behind on our end and her lessons were just adding more new material for us to feel guilty about. So we quit. I know, I know...

At this point, we have enough vocabulary to ask for things in the market, to direct rickshaw drivers, and to answer the most common questions that we get (where are you from? how long are you in India? what are you doing here?). Since our lessons with Binu, we've only learned a little, for a number of reasons:

1. Beyond the basics listed above, the ability to have a more advanced conversation in Oriya is a HUGE leap. The amount of words and verb conjugation that we'd need to know is a demotivating factor to learning more.

2. The language itself is relatively simple grammatically, but phonetically VERY difficult for our American tongues. For instance, many sounds have a hard and soft sound that we have difficult differentiating. I was at a shop just yesterday and asked if he had badam (peanuts) about 10 times. It's a simple word and I don't know what I was doing incorrectly with my pronunciation, but he never did end up understanding that I wanted peanuts! Another problem is that there are slight variations in the vowels that we can't hear. The main vowel sound in Oriya is kind of an o sound, but more approaching an aw sound. If you don't make the sound correctly, the word is sometimes not understood or means something different than what you intend.

3. It's not really possible to just "pick up" the language by listening to native speakers or living in a society with Oriya as the main language. People just speak it way too fast to really differentiate specific words. I can understand whether they are speaking Oriya or Hindi (the secondary language of Orissa and the main language of Northern India) by slight differences in vocal pattern, but I can't pick up new words.

4. When we speak Oriya to a shopkeeper or to a passerby on the street, the reaction is inevitably one of shock. Then there are one of two responses. Either they show appreciation and answer your question with a smile. This is nice and is a motivator to speak it when we can. Or...they giggle and repeat our words like we're 5 years old and often call over a nearby Indian to hear the foreigner speak Oriya. That is a demotivator, something that feels disrespectful and bothers me to no end.

5. If we take the time to think of the Oriya words and verb conjugation of a more complex sentence than those we use every day, the answer comes back to us in lightning-speed Oriya, usually with words that we don't know, sometimes followed by multiple sentences of incomprehensible language! The division between speaking it and understanding it is so vast, it's easier to just not communicate at all or speak in a way that makes it obvious that our knowledge is VERY basic.

6. Apart from our 2 years working in Orissa, we will never use or hear Oriya. We could have studied Hindi instead, since it's used in more parts of India and understood by many people in Orissa, but I think our knowledge of Oriya helped us connect better with the villagers who don't know Hindi and the business owners in Koraput who speak Oriya as their first language. If we were going to learn the basics of a new language, it made more sense to learn our community's first language (Oriya), not second (Hindi).

Could our Oriya be better if we worked harder at it? Yes, of course. But I'm happy with the level of knowledge that we've reached.