Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sunday Scribblings - "Language"

When I was younger, I used to wonder how the British and the Americans managed with only one language – English. My family has always been multilingual from being scattered all over India. Most of us speak a minimum of three languages – Tamil, English and Hindi – and a good few of my relatives have a few more Indian languages under their belt, not counting foreign languages. Most of my friends tend to be polyglots too.

Whenever we cousins got together (summer holidays, marriages, family functions etc), our conversations would invariably be in a random mixture of at least three languages, switching from one to the other depending on what needed saying and how forcefully it needed to be said, or how perfectly described. There are expressions in every language that defy exact translation, so it was just as well that we never needed to translate since all of us could understand the original anyway.

It helped to speak Hindi if we were among non-Hindi speakers and needed to keep the conversation private (like while discussing prices or taxi fares), and speaking Tamil up north is pretty much guaranteed to be unintelligible to non-Tamil folks. But there is never a guarantee, no matter where you are in India, that English will not be understood. It’s almost more the national language than Hindi, the official national language.

Anyway, the first time Pete attended one of our family gatherings in Madras, he was bewildered by our mode of communication – amused, annoyed, frustrated and impressed all at once because he could follow some of most conversations, but not all of any conversation unless it was aimed specifically at him and therefore entirely and only in English. Otherwise it was the usual hotch-potch of everybody being very vocal polyglots at the same time and yet managing to hear and be heard. I guess it’s an Indian family get-together thing which seemed extra-strange for someone from a very small, quiet family!

Now that I live in the UK, I still wonder how so many people here manage with just one language – English, their mother-tongue. Yes, they learn other European languages in school (I think it's compulsory, just as a second and even a third language are required in the Indian curriculum) but it’s not the same as the entire family being fluent in it and being able to converse freely. What I find even more surprising is how badly so many people mangle the one and only language they do know - getting the grammar wrong, unable to spell correctly, or write coherently. Obviously, I don’t mean that all of them are in the same boat – but there are enough numbers to make that boat pretty crowded.

I do not mean that all native speakers of English should be expected to speak English fluently and read and write perfectly in that language, merely because it’s their mother tongue. If it were the case that everybody should speak their mother-tongue perfectly, I’d be the first to fall by the wayside... my Tamil skills are not exactly top-notch, due to a combination of circumstances and – let it be said – personal preferences.

BUT – if your mother tongue, whatever that be, was the only language you knew, the only language you were likely to speak/read/write/learn, wouldn’t you want to be very, very good at it? Simply because there would be no fallback, no recourse to anything else for a phrase, a description, a word, a meaning, an expression...?


ra said...

Tnere are some people here who are lazy about languages. That reflects in official policy too. I've come across people who are generally very negative about multilingual children in the schools here.

Teesu (very very Indian, very very good) said...

No, because these said people I think come into the frog-in-the-well category. They have no great interest in how much more is out there. (So many languages!)They would be humbled and try to get their ONE language together if they did climb out of that well. So hoity toity huh?;) In that mood.

Pollux aka Paps said...

You may well ask...

brinda said...

And you've started me off on my pet rant! Hindi is NOT the "official national language". Hindi and English are the official languages of communication by the central government; state governments can use their own official languages. As far as I know, we do not have a legally defined national language (not in the Constitution, not in any of the zillion laws of the land) and I strongly approve. There. See how one throwaway line brings out the Dravidian chauvinist in me? :-)

Shyam said...

Huh. It ISNT? Damn, I've been misinformed all these years! Thanks for the rant :)