“If one could read fluently, confidently, in every known language, one would have no need of translators or translations; one could read Homer on Mondays, Akhmatova on Tuesdays, Swahili poets on Wednesdays, and so on.”
― Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone
When you’ve studied in a Convent School, you’re taught to respect a language and more often than not, it’s not your mother tongue and very rarely does it happen to be a regional language either. In most cases, it’s English and for the better part of my 28 years, believed that people who spoke grammatically correct English were a class apart. I’m glad I moved around a lot after school, which made me believe how it’s actually contrary to popular belief that speaking fluent English makes you the smartest and brightest of the lot. In fact, I think it limits your vision and views to a great extent.
I’m glad that I was brought up with grandparents because if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would have ever learnt to read, write and speak Malayalam, as funny as it might sound to the ear. My spot at the bottom of the divan while my Ammachi would watch Malayalam serials and movies made me fall in love with the nuances of the language. Summer brought Ammachi’s classes on reading and writing which is still something I’m struggling with, now that she’s no more. Church brought me closer to Malayalam music and singing words which I wouldn’t comprehend until much later.
My Dad once told me that while my mom and I were traveling by ship with him (he’s a retired Marine Engineer), the crew consisted of many Japanese and even though I was hardly 3 at that time, I picked up a few Japanese words. Imagine that! It’s scientifically proven that children can pick up close 4 or 5 languages by the time they are 5 or 6, if they’re in the right environment.
Traveling by public transport always helps you pick up language and I’m grateful to my Mom for ensuring that we took a lot of bus and auto rides where I learnt how to politely and well, rudely drive a good bargain in Tamil. It also helped that my parents enjoyed Tamil and Hindi movies so I was brought up watching and falling in love with a lot of regional cinema and music. What definitely helped were friends like Kk who spoke Tamil slang and made me fluent in a completely different version of the language which is more popularly known as cheri Tamil. You must also understand that when your primary language is English, any other regional language will make you sound like a petre which I proudly flaunt whenever asked whether I speak Tamil.
School and the oh so tiresome, SECOND LANGUAGE… It was a terror from the start and I swear the only Hindi I learnt in school was due to my binge watching of Tu tu Main Main. My mother would spend hours trying to ensure that I learnt the language but with nobody around me who I actually needed to converse with in Hindi, it never helped. The coward’s way out was what I opted for by the switch to Sanskrit to get better grades during the board exams, which I ended up learning for 4 years. Sanskrit was actually fun (doubt if there was any learning) because we had a brilliant teacher who really went all out in trying to explain the nuances of the language and anytime, anyone would pass our class we would be reciting the oh so famous ramah ramo ramaah. It became like this daily recitation which was pretty hilarious for anyone who didn’t know what we were really trying to do.
Then, the brilliant move to Surat in Gujarat when everyone looked at me funny because I looked and talked funny (dark skinned, wore strange clothes, spoke primarily in English but secretly understood Hindi but never let it out because that would be blasphemous). Those were my darkest days, I think because I think I got bullied the most because I didn’t speak Hindi or Gujarati which infuriated most people because I didn’t know the NATIONAL LANGUAGE. Yes, I know NOW that Hindi isn’t our National Language and an Official Language. If only I had been that smart then, at 18. Anyway, 5 years in college had me learning Hindi and Gujarati (I can read Gujarati too!) which helped because of all my professors, seniors, classmates, juniors and the chai walahs who bore with my broken language but always encouraged me to speak nonetheless. It also definitely helped that I travelled 36 hours from Ahmedabad to Chennai by train at least 4 times a year and had a LOT of people to interact with. (we now call them STALKERS). Little did I know that all of this would only groom my learning.
I moved to Ahmedabad for about 2 years where shopping, eating, travelling and friends were my sources for picking up the Amdavadi slang. It definitely helped that my maasi, maasa and brother spoke pure Gujarati and Hindi. My first few words daapi (left) and jamni (right) were picked up from my maasi while she was directing the auto walahs.
My move to Jaipur in Rajasthan where I was exposed to the purest form of Hindi and forced to adapt because I was dealing with state officials was the icing on the cake. All my learning in school added a little, I guess but it was more of interacting with everyone around me, especially children and old people, learning their accents and dialects which made me finally comfortable to take trainings in Hindi and most importantly, draft official letters and make notes in Hindi. It was I think my proudest moment ever when some official complimented my Hindi. (I think he was being kind)
After 10 years of being in Hindi speaking states, moving back to the South, Bangalore especially was the hardest task ever. Kannada is not similar to Tamil and Malayalam, not even in script and I struggle on a regular basis conversing with the cab drivers and auto guys who just do NOT understand any language I speak and that is actually saying something. It’s been over 9 months and my best Kannada is still, nilsi and gothila. I think I’m not trying hard enough as my mixture of Tamil-Malayalam-English normally gets me places. I understand what people say sometimes if I strive really hard but I give up halfway thinking that it’s too much effort.
To make things more interesting, I decided to learn Esperanto (a constructed language) from a multilingual professor; which made me actually chat with random strangers on certain sites about India and what I’m doing as a student etc., using my very good friend (Google Translate) and practicing it on friends who can speak Spanish and of course, listening to MUSIC in Esperanto and having my own dictionary of words learnt!
The purpose of boring you through my history of learning languages is to say that it’s important to know English, yes but it’s even more important to know regional languages to enjoy conversations and experiences which you can miss out on otherwise. Walking into a village and striking up a conversation with someone needs them to be comfortable and you speaking an alien language isn’t going to help. Honestly, I think it’s much more than that as it adds more meaning to your words and clarity. I jump between languages sometimes because I feel there are certain words which lack the feeling and emotion for what I want to say. When I say soodu soodu kaapi in Tamil and hot hot coffee… it doesn’t give the essence of what I actually mean to say. Just like vaashi in Malayalam doesn’t translate into ego as much as it intends to. I think aukhaat in Urdu is the perfect example when there is no comparison to a similar word in English.
I recently watched an award winning Malayalam movie with really bad English subtitles and I understood what ‘Lost in Translation’ actually means. The words were made to sound so harsh and alien even as to what was actually intended.
Of course, there are hindrances to knowing too many languages as well, that it’s difficult to stick to one language at all times!! I think I sound weird sometimes when I stutter and stammer for minutes just to get out a simple word, because my mind was looking for an equivalent in another language but it just didn’t work. All my life I have been made fun because of my funny Tamil, because it wasn’t proper enough, my poorly pronounced Malayalam, my accented English, my atrocious Hindi grammar and my too sweet Gujarati. I’ve laughed along at times, got angry at times and felt alienated sometimes but you know what, I think it’s okay because it means that I took the effort to learn and that effort taken means that I can travel to various parts of the country and not be bothered about language or how I’m going to survive there. Being a Grammar Nazi myself, I understand the importance of it but to actually experience life, a few broken grammar rules isn’t going to hinder that. Language is about communication!!
My only regret in life is that I didn’t read many books in regional languages which I think has stunted my knowledge to a great extent. To anybody who is learning a new language, read books or comics even, speak to anybody who will listen and watch a lot of movies!!
Kannada and Esperanto, you will be conquered soon before I move on to something else but I think the take away from this post should be that it’s never too late to learn a new language!!
Picture Courtesy: www.pondrepod.com