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TTT 7: Imitate, Then Innovate

Janahan Sivaraman
Janahan Sivaraman
5 min read

Welcome to the 7th edition of the TTT Newsletter where I'll be sharing a thing I did, a tweet I loved, and a thought I had.

The way the trees fill with green after a long, cold winter fills me with hope. 

Today we cover wonky-translational languages, the shape of stories, and [thought]. With that said, இரவு வணக்கம் (iravu vaNakkam), Buenas Noches, and Good Evening - let's get into it!

Thing I did

Imagine you could learn a language so well, that natives mistake you for a native speaker!

Over the past 4 weeks, I’ve been learning Mexican Spanish “by ear” 1-on-1 with Idahosa Ness, the creator of the Mimic Method.

He opened up teaching slots for just 5 students so I applied and was accepted!

In written languages, one letter can make different sounds depending on its context, kind of like the letter “c” in English. It can be a “hard c”, like corn, or a soft “c” like cereal. But also, you can use a “k” instead of a “c” for korn and it still sounds correct.

This many-to-many mapping of symbol to sound can be confusing, especially for folks keyed in on learning a language “by ear”.

Example of many-to-many mapping of the letters "O,U,G,H" in the words "though, thought, and through". This is my teacher, Idahosa Ness, btw.

In order to wrangle in these tricky letters, we utilize the  the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The key difference between conventional alphabet sets and IPA is that IPA has a 1-to-1 mapping of symbol to sound. There’s no ambiguity or contextual inference.

We concentrated on the symbols that are prevalent in Spanish and transcribed the syllables using IPA.

Here are the IPA letters (and their sounds) that are pervasive in Spanish.

IPA allows us to represent the sounds of the pronounced word unambiguously. For example, even though English and Spanish both have a “D” letter, they are not the same sound. If I brought an English “D” sound to Spanish, I’d be starting off with the wrong sound - not a good start!

This was a mentally exhausting process that made me realize how prevalent “suction stops” are in Spanish - denoted with “()” below.

Take this for example, in the Spanish alphabet this would be written

“Si te diga lo que fuiste”

but in IPA with suction stops and the right "D" it’s

“Si(t) - te(ð) - di(g) - go(l) - lo(k) - ke(f) - fwis(t) - te”

It’s so freaking cool that there’s an unambiguous way to represent phonetic language. It’s so freeing to be able to get the reproduction of the correct sounds out of my head and onto paper. This unlocks learning of other languages without having to get a grip on its alphabet’s first.

Tweet I loved

Humans need stories. There’s a reason the Bible is the most popular book of all time. Learning to write stories humans love can feel overwhelming - but remember there’s no shame in imitating first before innovating.

Most people view imitating as copying.

In reality imitating is a great way to nail down the fundamentals. Many times you won’t even be able to 100% imitate your favorites and naturally those differences will spur innovation. There’s no shame in imitating the style of other great stories first before innovating your own style.

Thought I had

When I was 23, I watched as my grandma (Ammamma) started to forget English. This is common among older people - to forget the language they learned last. So for Ammamma, this meant she forgot English, then Singhalese, leaving only Tamil for her to communicate in.

It quickly dawned on me that if I didn’t learn Tamil before my own Amma forgot English (30-40 years in the future), I’d never forgive myself.

It became a life goal to learn Tamil before Amma forgot English. I searched for 5 years on Google and Youtube for resources to learn “Eela Tamil” (Tamil from Sri Lanka). I even cold emailed YouTubers asking if they would teach me privately and nobody replied.

It made me feel like I’d never be able to learn Eela Tamil.

I thought that the language would die with me. That my Amma wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone in her older age. That’d she’d spend her last days unheard.

It made me feel like I’d failed my family.

Until one day I DM’ed an account on Instagram with the handle “@thetamilchannel” whose accent sounded like it was Eela Tamil. I asked if she’d be able to teach me - from London! Luckily, she had availability and we started the next week.

Her years of experience teaching folks Tamil as a second (or third in my case) language helped me overcome the grammar and sentence structure gaps I had.

Within the first 8 weeks, I spent 6 hours a week on my vocabulary and writing and started making complete sentences. I finally overcame communicating in broken Tamil. It had lit a fire in my soul.

After 1.5 years, I was finally comfortable with reading and writing, but speaking and listening still gave me anxiety.

There were so many times in conversation I’d ask my Amma to repeat words, only to realize they were words I knew - sometimes with only slightly different pronunciations from the written form. It was immensely frustrating to know all the time and effort I’d put into the reading and writing didn’t fully translate into listening and speaking.

But only once I started learning Spanish “by ear” did I realize how to fill the gaps in my Tamil listening and speaking.

It’s only been 3.5 weeks since I started approaching languages this way. My Amma and aunt (Periamma) have been thrilled with my speaking and listening progress. Amma and I spoke on the phone yesterday for an hour and twenty minutes, of which 75% was in Tamil.

My dream is to become the Tamil teacher that I needed years ago - but for others who want to learn Eela Tamil.

I don’t want anyone to feel the pain and guilt of letting their mother tongue die with them. There is a way to learn even without being immersed. You can do it and I can show you the way.

What’s a part of your culture that you revere and want to pass on to the next generation?


P.S. If you enjoyed this newsletter, feel free to forward this email to your people or share this link. It'll encourage me to keep writing!


Janahan Sivaraman Twitter

Currently learning 2 languages "by ear". Secrets to growing your career in Tech. Food pics and tricks