When Eliza Keyton, an American teacher in Dubai, set out to learn Malayalam, there were few resources on the internet. So she decided to create one of her own.
She began uploading posts on social media of her learning curve as EliKutty – which roughly translates to “little rat” – and the response was heartening. Her accounts on Instagram and YouTube, called Learn Malayalam with EliKutty, have in the past two years amassed tens of thousands of followers, including actor Parvathy and historian Manu Pillai.
“It had a much bigger reach than I expected,” she said. “I was just using my English language training to find a parallel in Malayalam to make it more accessible to English-speakers.”
But to many viewers, it offered more than language lessons – it often gave them a fresh perspective.
Keyton, who is from Georgia, United States, speaks Spanish, Korean and Japanese. When the English teacher moved to West Asia, she wanted to learn Arabic, but her plans changed when she met her husband, a Malayali from Kochi. She began learning Malayalam from an online tutor in late 2017 and was progressing satisfactorily until, six weeks later, the United Arab Emirates banned Skype. The sessions came to a sudden end and Keyton had to search afresh.
At that time, she was only able to access two resources: a linguistic analysis of Malayalam, and a textbook on spoken Malayalam from the 1960s by Dr Rodney Moag, who is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, Austin.
“There’s usually language resources available online for learners,” Keyton said. But when it comes to Malayalam, the resources are either for native speakers or scholarly tomes for doctoral students. “There’s no in-between for people who just want to pick it up,” she said. “So I started taking notes and posting them on Instagram for feedback.”
John Kunnathu, co-author of the 2015 book Learn Basic Malayalam in Six Weeks, finds Keyton’s dedication admirable. “Eliza is very much committed, and she is putting a lot of time and energy [into learning Malayalam],” he told Scroll.in. “I am sure that she, being an American learner, will have great influence on Americans who want to learn Malayalam.”
Keyton realised she could build the project further after attending a social media contest in Dubai. Instead of posting illustrations of Malayalam letters and words and photographs of her notes, she switched to video content. She even began vlogging trips with her husband Arjun, during which they tried to converse only in Malayalam.
She stresses she is not a Malayalam teacher: she is not trained to teach it and, besides, she is still not completely fluent in it. Her aim with ‘Learn Malayalam with EliKutty’ is simply to make the language more approachable and fun.
For instance, she uses famous scenes from Mollywood films to illustrate body parts in Malayalam, and explains the basics of Malayalam grammar using colloquial words. The comments on her social media pages are littered with people saying she has given them a fresh perspective on Malayalam: by breaking it down, she has allowed them to understand why it’s spoken the way it is.
Her work online has expanded beyond the language and its syntax to cultural literacy. “A lot of content that you see about Kerala...is just coconut trees, banana chips and Manichitrathazhu,” she said. “I wanted to diversify that, and I want Kerala’s multifaceted image to be represented: but at the same time, I don’t want to be the spokesperson. It’s not my place.”
Keyton is very aware of the optic of a white woman seemingly teaching an Indian language to an audience that might include Indians. Which is why, even though she runs the account, she tries to make it community-based by inviting her followers to share their stories and by collaborating with Malayali content creators. She worked with food blogger Anjana Gopakumar – thankgodimfat_ on Instagram – to start a series on Malayali letters and related foods, in which she would introduce the topic and Gopakumar would do the talking. For example, “pa for payasam” led to a lesson on the ways to prepare the traditional Kerala dessert. “I for inji”, the Malayali word for ginger, listed ginger’s medicinal properties and explained why it gets pride of place in the multi-course Onam sadya.
Keyton’s latest series focuses on multicultural couples and interweaves their love stories with quick Malayalam lessons in an attempt to bring greater sensitivity to cross-cultural relationships. The series is called njangalpole (“like us” in Malayalam), referring to her own marriage. Some of her followers in secret, non-parental-approved multicultural relationships have thanked her for making them feel less alone.
While most of her followers are based in Kerala, Keyton’s work has also resonated with members of the Malayali diaspora. When the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the United States after the killing of George Floyd in May, Keyton used her platform to raise awareness on racism and police brutality.
“A lot of second-generation Malayalis living abroad wanted to have these conversations with their elders and community leaders, but lacked the vocabulary to do so,” she said.
She posted the Malayalam words for race (vamsham വംശം), racism (vamsheeyatha വംശീയത) and the closest term for white supremacy (vellakkaarude melkoyma വെള്ളക്കാരുടെ). She also posted the words for caste and casteism.
“While I did get a few negative comments accusing me of co-opting the movement, it was an overwhelmingly positive response,” she said. “I’m grateful that it helped start a conversation.”
She acknowledges that while her efforts to learn a foreign language might get praises, there are Indian immigrants who are mocked for their accents and other visible markers of “foreign” identity. “If that had happened to me, it would irritate me too… if there was suddenly this white girl speaking their language [and being celebrated for it],” she said. There are people who migrate to Kerala out of necessity and learn the language without access to any of the resources she has had. “There are a lot of people who are learning this language and succeeding in Kerala society, and they should be given encouragement and support,” she said.
People have confessed to Keyton about being sceptical of her content at first, but ultimately enjoying it enough to follow her. Anju Parvathy Biju, a Malayali graduate student in Philadelphia, discovered her on Instagram. “I started following Elikutty for novelty’s sake: here was a white American woman married to a Malayali man and sharing her experiences figuring out a new culture and language,” Biju said. “I guess what makes Elikutty’s profile stand out is that she seems to put serious effort into studying Malayalam and creating learning resources. That kind of engagement with the language is nice to see.”
What’s next for Elikutty? Keyton hopes she can facilitate more cultural conversations while taking her followers along her journey of learning Malayalam. She has several projects in the works, including interviews with people of interest, and new series exploring different parts of Kerala’s culture.
“I want to show people that there’s more than one way to be a Malayali, and more than one way to be a Keralite,” she said.