Neroth van Vogelpoel, Alex

Neroth, Alex

Name: Alex Neroth van Vogelpoel
Language: Malayalam
Location of Study: India
Program of Study: The Summer Language Program in Malayalam, offered by the American Institute of Indian Studies
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures

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A brief personal bio:

I’ve just started my doctorate in theology at Notre Dame, and I specialize in liturgy – Eastern Christian liturgy, to be specific. My research focuses on the East Syriac tradition, which is used by the community of St. Thomas Christians in Kerala, India, where I’ll be studying. My father comes from this community, but I don’t speak Malayalam, the language of Kerala. So, this grant is a great opportunity for me both to explore my own cultural background and to further my research!

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

While there are thousands of opportunities to learn common languages such as French or German in America and abroad, the number of opportunities for learning Malayalam as a second language can be counted on one hand. A few summer courses exist within the US, but these are only offered sporadically, and they also lack the immersion component of living in the culture of the target language. I am extremely grateful for the financial opportunity that the University of Notre Dame offers in the SLA grant. The grant provides me with the unique possibility to learn Malayalam; without it, I am not sure when I will ever be able to learn the language. In fact, I know of no other program or grant, offered through Notre Dame or externally, available before or after I finish my doctorate, that will fund me to acquire Malayalam. I am thus very excited to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

I applied for the SLA grant to study Malayalam in Kerala, India, in order to gain access to the liturgical tradition used by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church in communion with Rome) in Kerala, where Malayalam is spoken. On a basic level, speaking Malayalam is vital for communicating with most Syro-Malabar Catholics and for learning about their tradition. Moreover, since my research focuses specifically on the forms of prayer that the Syro-Malabar Church uses, I need to learn Malayalam if I want to understand how Syro-Malabar Catholics pray. I already have a good grasp of Syriac, the classical liturgical language employed for centuries in Syro-Malabar church services. However, most Syriac texts employed by the Syro-Malabar community are today used exclusively in Malayalam translation. Thus, to be able to investigate the tradition as it is lived by Syro-Malabar Catholics in Kerala today, I need to know Malayalam as well. Just as knowing Latin without understanding English would be insufficient for studying Roman Catholicism in America, so also a knowledge of Malayalam is essential for being able to study the tradition of the Syro-Malabar Catholics of Kerala.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I hope to be able to understand the Syro-Malabar liturgical prayers when I attend church in Malayalam.
  2. By the end of the summer, I hope to be able to engage in discussions with Syro-Malabar Catholics about the liturgy.
  3. By the end of the summer, I hope to be able to investigate the translation chain of liturgical texts that have been translated from Syriac, via Malayalam, into English.
  4. After the summer, once I am back in the US, I hope to be able to interact more easily with Syro-Malabar Catholics who have immigrated to the US and continue to use Malayalam in the liturgy.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

First of all, I will take full advantage of all the cultural opportunities that my language program offers. This includes conversation practice and interactions with monolingual Malayalam-speakers. Most importantly, I hope to have a language-immersion home-stay, which will allow me to interact with native speakers of Malayalam throughout my time in India, even when I’m not in class. Second, I intend to attend Malayalam liturgies on a regular basis, so that I can maximize my familiarity with liturgical words and phrases. Third, I look forward to exploring the city of Thiruvananthapuram (where my course is based) and interacting with Malayalam speakers that way as well. (Of course, exploring the city will also give me the chance to see the beautiful sights and to eat lots of delicious food!)

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

Dear loyal readers, Namaskaaram!

I’m very sorry for not posting anything yet to this blog. Really, I’ve been spending most of my time learning Malayalam. And that really has been taking up a lot of time!

Let me give a quick rundown of my time here so far.

I arrived in Kerala in the middle of June and stayed with family for a little under a week. I then took a train to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), where I was picked up by one of the Malayalam teachers and brought to a hotel for the first night. On the following morning, I met my two teachers and my one classmate Aaron. Yes, that’s right; we have a one-to-one student-teacher ratio, which is amazing! After a quick sightseeing drive through the city, we started our language instruction on the next day.

I have to say I’m very impressed with the way the American Institute of Indian Studies is teaching Malayalam. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that every single class is personal tutorial, but both of my teachers are excellent — both in terms of their own knowledge and in terms of their pedagogy.

Over the last several weeks, I feel like I’ve learned so much. A ton of grammar and vocabulary is swirling around in my brain! At the same time, Malayalam is a hard language to learn, as everyone warned me in advance! And so, after five weeks of intensive instruction — four hours of classwork a day, not to mention several hours of learning vocab and grammar — I feel like I’ve learned so much, but can still say and understand so little! Well, there’s only one thing for it, and that’s to keep going!

I do want to emphasize, in any case, that I’m really grateful to be here and to have this opportunity to learn a language, hard though it may be.

More news coming soon, I hope!


Reflective Journal Entry 2:

One of the really great aspects of the language programs run by the AIIS (American Institute of Indian Studies) is that they have monolingual guests come in to class to speak with the students. (Though, since almost everyone in Kerala speaks some amount of English, I think the teachers have to tell the ‘monolingual’ speakers to avoid English at all costs!) Today I met someone who works in an authentication and registration office. A lot of Keralites work overseas — the majority in the Persian Gulf countries — and so they need to get a lot of paperwork (birth certificates, academic transcripts, etc.) certified for use abroad; the office where this person works streamlines the process for people hoping to get a job outside of India.

The two other monolingual guests we’ve had in the past few weeks were a housewife and grandmother, and an Ayurvedic doctor-in-training. All three have been pretty interesting conversations (and the grandmother’s husband may even have attended the same college as my dad, around the same time!), but these conversations have also been nerve-wracking! With a vocabulary and grammar limited by the few weeks I’ve been here, it’s really hard to say what I want and to explore any complicated concepts. (Remember also that since I’m the only person in my class, the conversations are one-on-one (with a lot of help from the teacher), and so it’s a lot of pressure to keep the conversation flowing!) In any case, as I wrote in my last post, there’s only one thing do about that frustration, and that’s to keep going! I hope my Malayalam skills — reading, writing, speaking, and listening — all continue to improve so that I can interact better with the people and the literature here.

Thanks for reading!

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Hello again, dear readers!

Yesterday, for our second field trip, our teachers took us to the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library of the University of Kerala. (If I have time, I’ll post about our first field trip, to the Padmanabhapuram Palace, later). The library has an impressive collection of manuscripts, not only from Kerala, but also from other parts of India, and even from a few places outside of India, such as Indonesia (which had strong trade connections with Kerala a few centuries ago). The library began as the private library of the royal family of Travancore (the kingdom, and later princely state in the British Empire of India, that eventually became the southern part of the State of Kerala).

Unlike most manuscripts in Europe and the Middle East, which tend to be written in ink on animal skin or paper, most of the manuscripts from Kerala are inscribed palm leaves. That means that the writing has been scratched with a stylus, rather than written with ink. Although there are numerous palm leaf manuscripts in Kerala written in the Syriac language (the liturgical language of the East Syriac tradition that is my primary focus), I was disappointed to learn that this library contains no Syriac manuscripts. I did get the chance to look at a palm leaf manuscript with the text of Malayalam songs used in the Quddasha (or Qurbana — the name for the Eucharist in the East Syriac tradition), but my Malayalam isn’t good enough yet to get much out of the text!

In addition, we were pretty excited when Aaron, my classmate, was able to find (and will eventually get copies of) a Sanskrit manuscript that will be extremely useful for his doctoral research!

If it all works out, there should a photo of the library joining this post! All those bundles on the shelves are palm leaf manuscripts!

Take care!

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Hello again!

Today, a quick post about my research interest here in India. My research focuses on the East Syriac liturgical tradition. This tradition originated in the Church of the East, whose motherland was Persia (now Iraq and Iran), but due to a variety of historical circumstances, the biggest Church that continues to belong to the East Syriac tradition today can be found in India. That’s the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, one of the twenty-odd Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome.

The liturgical language of the East Syriac tradition is Syriac, which I actually first learned on a previous visit to Kerala! However, since the mid-1900s, the Syro-Malabar Church has been using the language of the people of Kerala — Malayalam — in its Church services. The reason I’m learning Malayalam is so that I can access, not only historical liturgical sources (written in Syriac), but also present-day sources of information (texts written in Malayalam and people who speak Malayalam).

The Church that I’ve been attending is the Lourdes Syro-Malabar Catholic Church here in Thiruvananthapuram. Once or twice a week, I’ve gone to Qurbana there. Just as the Eucharistic Liturgy is called ‘Mass’ in the Latin tradition and ‘Divine Liturgy’ in the Byzantine tradition, it’s called ‘Qurbana‘ (‘offering’) or ‘Quddasha‘ (‘sanctification’) in the Syriac tradition. Over the course of the last few weeks, my ability to understand the Qurbana has increased, but I still have a long way to go!

If all goes well, there should be a photo of the church accompanying this post.


Reflective Journal Entry 5:

I’d like to share a little bit about the first field trip that the course organized for us students. We took a day trip to the Padmanabhapuram Palace, the ancient seat of the Kings of Travancore. As I mentioned previously, Travancore was one of the princely states that later became the State of India in the Indian Republic. (The other portions that came together to form Kerala are Kochi in the middle of the state and Malabar to the north.)

Interestingly enough, our field trip took us to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu! The capital of Travancore was originally at Padmanabhapuram, but in 1795, the kings of Travancore moved their capital to Thiruvananthapuram (the current capital of Kerala and the location of my Malayalam program). In 1956, under a reorganization aimed to draw Indian state boundaries along linguistic lines, the district (much like a county in the US) of Kanyakumari, in which the palace is located, was transferred to Tamil Nadu in exchange for several districts that now form the north of Kerala. However, despite the fact that the former capital of Travancore is located physically in Tamil Nadu, Kerala continues to administer the palace itself, because of its historical significance for Kerala.

Anyway, the palace was built in 1601, about a century after the first contact between Europeans and Malayalees. Surrounded by scenic mountains, the palace was a great example of traditional Kerala architecture. Visiting the area gives a neat opportunity to see how the Indian royalty of a few centuries ago lived. I really enjoyed the trip, and if all goes well, there’ll be a photo of a section of the palace posted here.

Thanks for reading!

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

My Malayalam course ended on Thursday. The last week included our final exam, a re-take of the placement test that we took on the first day, and a final presentation. My presentation was just a fairly simple narrative of my time in Kerala, using the vocab I had learned. Strangely enough, the final exam and the placement test were more interesting, because they illustrated just how much I’ve learned over the course of this summer. It’s pretty impressive how much the AIIS is able to teach in such a limited time, and I would heartily recommend its programs to anyone considering them!At the same time (as I hinted in my earlier posts), one summer of learning Malayalam just isn’t enough to get even moderately proficient. Having a spontaneous conversation with a native speaker (as opposed to with someone who’s prepared for my rudimentary Malayalam skills!) is near impossible; I can hardly understand them, and much of the time, my speaking is so bad that they can’t understand me either! I really hope I’ll get the chance to continue learning Malayalam — before what I’ve learned this summer fades away!On Thursday, we also went out for a final festive lunch — the two students, Aaron and I, with our two teachers, Dr. Bindu and Mr. Arun, and our cook, Lalitha, who’s been providing delicious food throughout the course. And after that we said our goodbyes. I hope I see them all again! Many thanks to all four of them for the many ways in which they helped me learn Malayalam! And many thanks to the donors who allowed me to participate in this program, and to the CSLC, who administered the SLA grant!

Well, I’m back at Notre Dame now, at the beginning of a new academic year. Here are some of my thoughts from the past summer:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

As I’ve written above, I feel simultaneously that I’ve learned a tremendous amount over the summer, and that I’ve not learned very much. I suspect this is a reflection of how difficult a language Malayalam is. Despite the fact that my teachers were excellent, and despite the fact that I’ve done fairly well with other summer language programs in the past, I seem unable to have interiorized a lot of Malayalam. I took in a lot of grammar and a lot of vocabulary, but actually having a conversation is very tough.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

Again, as I’ve written above, I’m very happy with my experience, and I’m grateful both to the SLA grant program for funding my trip abroad and to the AIIS for making the study of Malayalam possible. I think the time spent in Kerala was well worth the effort and the money involved. I just hope I’ll be able to find a way to continue my studies of Malayalam in the future.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

My research focuses on the East Syriac liturgical tradition, and so I am certain to interact with Malayalam-speakers in the near and far future. I anticipate that my studies of Malayalam will be a asset even with people who speak English fluently; it’s always nice for people to hear that someone has tried to learn their language, even if they haven’t gotten very far yet! I also hope I can continue studying Malayalam in some way; if there were Malayalam classes at Notre Dame, I’d certainly take them, but there aren’t, unfortunately. I’ll do my best to keep up on the language by myself, but I anticipate that it’ll be hard outside of the formal context of a classroom setting.

In conclusion: Thank you to the SLA program, to the AIIS, and to everyone who’s been reading!

Signing off,