Meet 'Eli Kutty', American woman on Instagram who's learning and teaching Malayalam

Elizabeth decided to use Instagram to learn Malayalam and get feedback from Malayalis, when she found no other resource to pick up the language.
Meet 'Eli Kutty', American woman on Instagram who's learning and teaching Malayalam
Meet 'Eli Kutty', American woman on Instagram who's learning and teaching Malayalam
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On a notebook spread before her, she writes her name in full: Elizabeth Marie Keyton. A line below, she writes the shorter 'Eliza' by which people call her. There's an order and method to all her little actions, from writing the name to making a post on her Instagram account Eli.kutty. A name her Tamil friend gave her in Dubai where Eliza works as a secondary school teacher. She had gone there four years ago from her home in the United States. When Eliza decided to create an Instagram account to learn Malayalam, the language of her husband, she put down Eli.kutty, knowing very well that "eli" meant the same thing in Malayalam as it does in Tamil – a mouse. But kutty, like her friend said, just made it a cute name.

Eli.kutty, as this is written, has 1,42,000 followers. There is a clear and simple pattern she follows on her Instagram posts, to not just pick up Malayalam, but also create a resource for those who want to learn it. Words, written neatly on a white piece of paper, held against a picture to give the background, added with a short video where Eliza asks someone to put the word in context. Madhyamam – meaning media – for instance, is held against a bunch of newspapers, and Eliza asks this reporter what kind of media Malayalis use the most.

“I have always been fascinated by languages. In high school and at university in the US, I studied Spanish. When I was teaching a Japanese family English, I studied Japanese. Then I moved to South Korea as a kindergarten teacher, and was picking up the language of Korea as well,” says Eliza, sitting at a café in Thiruvananthapuram. She is on a three-week visit to Kerala, to meet the Malayali fans she seems to have won through her Instagram account. It is when she met her husband – who is from Kerala – that she thought of learning his language.

It was not easy. “With Japanese, Korean and Spanish, you can find these books easily. But when I was looking up Malayalam, there was nothing,” she says. At least nothing that was easy enough for an outsider. Even on Instagram, a hashtag called LearnTamil would take you to so many accounts, but Malayalam hardly had any. Eliza realised that she’d have to do it herself, create a resource for people like her. But she discovered it was not just helping outsiders, but also Malayalis living away from the state, who could speak the language, but not read or write it.

Her methods are an English teacher’s. “I am a language teacher. How do I teach kids? I could use the same method to teach myself. I used Instagram to get feedback from Malayalis.” But of course it became a lot more.

After a media report, Eli.kutty’s followers went up from 1,,000 to 11,000. Most of her followers are from Kerala, she says. There were communities reaching out to her, even Kerala government’s Malayalam Mission programme approached her to volunteer. When Eliza came to Kerala, therefore, she visited several schools and interacted with students. “A year ago, it was a humble self study thing, now it’s grown into this identity,” she says.

She’s visited Kerala before, got married in Kochi last December. Earlier, like a tourist, she visited the usual spots in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Munnar and Alappuzha. Now she knows there’s a lot more. “Most of the Malabar coast is not publicised much,” she notes. She also observed the different dialects of Malayalam spoken in these parts. “I am trying to pick up the generally recognised forms. But there are so many dialects. For ‘enthu cheyukayanu’ (what are you doing), my husband would say ‘entheyya’, and I heard my taxi driver in Thrissur say ‘enthoota’.”

Eliza was also surprised to see that many are not familiar with Malayalam terms of commonly used expressions, such as ‘good morning’. She went to a class and said suprabhatham and the students were surprised. “Purse is another word. No one uses the Malayalam term for it, which is panakeesha,” Eliza says. There was a whole debate on her Instagram on the difference between aitheehyam (myth) and ithihaasam (legend).

Added to all that, there is the famous Malayalam pronunciation – what sounds the same to an outsider would be two entirely different Malayalam letters. “There are two ‘la’s and two ‘sha’s, one where you touch your tongue to the teeth, and one to your upper throat,” Eliza says expertly. On her posts, she draws small diagrams to show this difference. She has observed that with so much focus on English, young students in Kerala find it hard to read Malayalam. “In the university and in high school, it is English medium. In home it is Manglish. I am not trying to say you should learn your language or you should be ashamed. I am saying if you want to learn the language, there should be resources available.”

Eliza also likes to travel – recently she did a solo trip to Jordan, and another trip to Armenia with her husband. She also writes (runs a blog called Perpetually Eliza) and plays music.

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