Found in Translation


How the non-Kannadigas of IISc learn the local lingo

HG Srinivasa Prasad in his element (Photo courtesy: HG Srinivasa Prasad)


In a country like India, which is home to hundreds of languages and dialects that can vary drastically across the subcontinent, language can be a barrier to communication across regions. In an institute like IISc, students, faculty, and non-teaching staff come from all over India and even abroad, bringing in different cultures and languages. Although English is the language of communication inside the Institute, it often falls short when one wants to communicate with people who only speak Kannada, especially outside the campus.

Many of us cannot converse in Kannada when we join IISc. For those who want to learn, the Kannada Sangha at IISc organises spoken Kannada classes every year. These are taught by HG Srinivasa Prasad, whose vast experience and innovative methods for the classes are much sought after at IISc.

Prasad recalls a student’s experience when the latter tried to speak in Kannada. Exams were going on, and the student had gone for dinner to the mess. As always, fruits were being served after dinner, but the distribution was delayed. As he was getting late for his studies while standing in the queue, he went up to the distributor and asked, “Nanage bega bega hennu kodi; nanage tumba kelasa ide” (Please give me a lady quickly; I have got a lot of work). The distributor was stunned. Upon further conversation, he realised that what he should have asked for was hannu (fruit) and not hennu (lady)! Another incident that happened many years back was with a pupil who was buying a dosa. The seller asked him to pay hanneradu rupayi, and the customer was shocked and started quarrelling with the seller as he thought he had to pay Rs 100. He was relieved to know that it was just Rs 12.

Anecdotes like these remind us of the importance of language. Knowing the local lingo can not only make life much easier, but it can also open doors to understanding another culture.

Being a Bengali, I grew up speaking Bangla with my schoolmates. I started speaking Hindi during my high school and college days, as I did not want to restrict my friends circle to the few who understood Bangla. I was overwhelmed to find out how much I had been missing out on by not conversing with people in their native tongue. Sure, English can always help one speak to others from different states, but in my case, it was Hindi that helped me bridge the conversation gap. Some thoughts are just better expressed in the vernacular than in English. Similarly, when I visit Bengali restaurants here in Bangalore, I find the waiters giving me more detailed information about the dishes they have than what they normally tell my non-Bengali friends. This is how multilingualism can work wonders in connecting with diverse people on a daily basis.

Through Prasad’s course, close to 4,000 members of the IISc community have learnt to speak Kannada over the past 19 years. Several faculty members have also taken part in these classes, including former Director Anurag Kumar. GV Satisha, a Junior Scientific Assistant at the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering, and the General Secretary of the Kannada Sangha, muses on the next steps that they wish to take for the course. “We have plans to get a dedicated auditorium and to start a regular course like many other courses of the Institute. And if people are interested, we want to have advanced courses as well, in the future. Say, if somebody wants to learn how to read and write Kannada, then they will be offered an advanced course,” he says.


Kannada classes: the conception

Back in 1975, Prasad completed his Master’s degree in Kannada from the University of Mysore. Although he became an employee of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), his heart was always in teaching. In the late 1980s, as Karnataka started seeing an influx of numerous IT firms and other companies, people from all around the nation and foreign lands conglomerated in the state. The need of the hour for them was to learn Kannada. The Department of Kannada and Culture, which is part of the Government of Karnataka, in collaboration with the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore, offered to train people to teach Kannada specifically to non-Kannadigas. After undergoing this training, from 1982, Prasad started teaching in various companies and banks, including the Reserve Bank of India, Nrupathunga Road branch, where he worked. Soon, he became the go-to person for non-Kannadiga bank employees when they needed to communicate with their local customers. After a few years, Prasad felt the need to change careers when he realised how much he could help people by teaching them to speak the language. He quit his secure government job in the RBI despite several warnings from colleagues about the ‘wrong’ decision he was planning to take. His determination helped him to start teaching at various engineering and medical colleges, banks, NGOs, IT organisations, and some governmental organisations. That is when he was introduced to the Kannada Sangha in IISc by Baraguru Ramachandrappa, the then Chair of the Kannada Development Authority. Ramachandrappa inaugurated the first Kannada classes in the Institute in 2004. Since then, every Tuesday and Thursday, Prasad keeps his calendar booked for the Institute community.


Every Tuesday and Thursday, Prasad keeps his calendar booked for the Institute community


Prasad’s classes do not start with ABCs like a typical language class. He teaches the first class in the 24-class course in English. He keeps using both Kannada and English in the initial classes. Shubham Lochab, an Integrated PhD student at the Materials Research Centre, explains how Prasad keeps his pupils engaged. “He likes to tell stories. Initially, he starts in English, and then in between, he will switch to Kannada. If he has to introduce 20 new words in a lesson, he will use these 20 words in his stories. He comes, tells us stories, and goes, but in between, we learn a lot. He also focuses on making connections between different cultures, and, like that, he can form bridges between languages.” While it’s important to start teaching in English since it is the language that most people who come to IISc are fluent in, Prasad believes that the best way to learn Kannada is through one’s mother tongue. “I ask my students to learn Kannada through Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, and so on because there are some common words, and most of these Indian languages have a similar overall sentence structure. This makes learning the language easy,” he elaborates.

Another interesting aspect of the classes is that they are not bound by grammar rules. He encourages people to speak in Kannada before understanding the grammar. “He asks every student to speak. He makes the class very interactive and pushes us to speak even if we are wrong. Because the first threshold that anybody faces in any language, in the beginning, is that you might know the word, but you have a fear from within that you might end up speaking the wrong word or something you don’t mean. He helped me overcome my fear and speak up in the class,” adds Nupur Bhatter, a former PhD student at the Department of Biochemistry.

TN Manjari, who works as the Secretary to the Chair of the Department of Organic Chemistry, is a regular attendee of these classes along with her husband, Unni Krishnan. Although Manjari speaks Kannada fluently, Unni did not, and would often take her help to talk to people outside his professional life, where English or Hindi were the norm. She wanted to give Unni some company in getting started with the language in these classes. Manjari, who speaks Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, and English, believes that once we consistently show interest in a language, we eventually start speaking it. “Previously, I used to sit between two Tamil ladies in my workplace, and they would speak in Tamil. For almost 7-8 years, I continued hearing the language and started speaking Tamil. When you keep on listening to how people speak, automatically you pick up their language,” elaborates Manjari.

Prasad’s classes are much sought after (Photo courtesy: The IISc Kannada Sangha)


Marcus Lehmann, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Civil Engineering, is an international researcher at the Institute. After coming to IISc, he realised that Indians spoke many languages. He was also confused by the Indian accent when people spoke English here. As a foreigner starting with the Kannada classes, his experience differed from others. “In the first 2-3 classes I attended, I couldn’t recognise any differences between the teacher speaking in Kannada or English. For me, all of that sounded exactly the same. I did not have any ability to hear the difference … But this changed suddenly, in the fourth class I went to. I could understand: ‘hey, that was an English word, this was a Kannada word.’ Then I could distinguish. That was the first big step, and now when I am out at Mysore, Hampi or sitting in a bus, I can sense if this guy is speaking Kannada or English or something else,” exclaims Marcus.


Why learn Kannada?

Even after more than 18 years since he first taught in the Institute, Prasad continues to come back to IISc to help people learn how to share their thoughts with others in the vernacular. He says, “At some other places wherever I go, like banks, it is mandatory to learn Kannada. Without knowing the language, they cannot do their business. Even in the engineering colleges where I teach, it is mandatory – they have some credits allotted for the course which they must complete. But in IISc, it is not mandatory, there are no compulsions, yet people are learning only based on their interest. That’s why I am interested. Where they want to learn swayam preritavagi (on their own), definitely they’ll learn it. This is the plus point! Two or three years back, one professor told me that they wanted to translate some Bengali novels to Kannada. I felt so happy.” Nupur agrees with this sentiment, saying that she joined the classes towards the end of her PhD, despite knowing that she would soon leave the Institute and go out of India for her postdoctoral research where she would not need to speak Kannada. She wanted to take back something with her, and the local language and culture seemed like the perfect keepsake.


“In IISc, [Kannada] is not mandatory, there are no compulsions, yet people are learning only based on their interest”


Finally, Prasad answers a question that we might all have: Why should we make the effort to learn the native language when we come to a new place? He shares the words of the famous Kannada poet, SR Ekkundi: “When we visit someone’s house and they offer coffee, we can’t just sip the coffee and leave; we would indeed say that the coffee was very nice and that we would love to visit again. Similarly, how do we show gratitude when we come to a new place? By learning the language, respecting the culture and mingling with the people.”



Debraj Manna is a PhD student at the Department of Biochemistry and a former science writing intern at the Office of Communications, IISc

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