The World in Language

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The Chatterbox community is a diverse group, living and working globally, each with unique experiences on their language learning journey. We spoke to Chatterbox polyglot Yogita about her experience of speaking multiple languages and how that shapes her view of the world...

How does speaking multiple languages impact the way that you see, think and feel about the world?

It’s a late night in the south Indian city of Chennai, and my eight-member family sit huddled in our 850 sq ft home, allowing an abandoned kitten to gently look at us blankly, and well, judge us, I assume. And I wouldn’t exactly blame the kitten. Like my dad pointed out, it must have heard the angry sounds of the neighbours shooing it away in Tamil - supposedly one of the oldest languages in the world and the native tongue of Chennai. We are Bengalis, whose ancestors fled the bloody Bangladesh - India partition, and consider it our organic mode of communication. An old Hindi Bollywood song plays in the background - a language we all know and thoroughly enjoy at home. But most importantly, we almost always, only converse in English- really our first language, what with colonialism, globalisation, and everything! Poor kitty, confused enough by these myriad tones, tongues and how they tasted as we spoke, could do nothing but sit right in the centre and wonder what bizarre set of animals it had gotten itself tied with.

“My every day begins and ends in English. My anger’s internal monologue is usually in Hindi, peppered with colloquial slangs and accents. My affection is almost certainly always communicated in Bengali (or Bangla), and the anxious mind plans everyday conversations with vendors and waiters in Tamil.”

Here is the thing with Indians, at least safely to speak, urban Indians - we are born in the laps of verse written in different languages - 22, to be more (or less) accurate, not including the various dialects. While global media harps on the benefits of being bilingual, we grow up knowing, speaking and understanding at least three languages at once. Of course, the truth though remains, that a majority of millennial urban Indians only think in one language, English. But some of us have the privilege to think in other languages too - I being a part of that confusing yet exhilarating pool of people.

My every day begins and ends in English. My anger’s internal monologue is usually in Hindi, peppered with colloquial slangs and accents. My affection is almost certainly always communicated in Bengali (or Bangla), and the anxious mind plans everyday conversations with vendors and waiters in Tamil. For the longest time, not once did I think this was out of place - and why would I? My parents did the exact same. It helped that I also studied and worked in two different Indian states, and learnt to fully understand Kannada and Malayalam as well. And you’d think I’d be proud of this, but my dad never forgets to remind me that he knows 11 languages - reading, writing, speaking, et al. My measly functional knowledge in a multi-lingual, multi-religious country, was barely reflective of its secularism.

Pride or not, one thing is for sure - knowing these many languages gave me the obvious confidence to travel across the country and outside of it. But beyond that, it gave me a peculiar sense of being able to understand, accept and internalise an array of cultures, the way they thought, and a clear sense of exactly how much of how they spoke, made them who they were. It took me years to figure out that our language often created the person we are - it shaped our thoughts, reiterated ideas and ideologies, and over time built our understanding, as simple or complex, of the world. Every language, its beauty and the way we delivered it, with nuance and knowledge of its history, and its impact on intersectionality, made us aware of the respect we owe every day to communities and individuals. The more people who learn this, I believe would make the world a much better place.

So here I am, learning, thinking and making an effort to transcend beyond communication - constantly and consciously, with the privilege that I have been given. Every day, I meet people with a different tongue and listen to poetry sailing in linguistics, only to understand the roots of culture and how strongly it represents our individual and collective identities. And with each passing day, I wish I knew one more language, one more person who could teach me about the world, and one more chance to experience life and living through words. I envy those who can learn and think in languages faster, can place words to describe emotions and situations, which their native tongue can’t.

“I wish I knew one more language, one more person who could teach me about the world, and one more chance to experience life and living through words.”

Because sometimes, the only thing we need to be able to live a full life is to be able to describe it, and well. As for the little kitten, which I think, has now begrudgingly become a part of our lives, let’s hope that the world around these four walls, is the largest it can boast of, to its fraternity.

Yogita is a communications consultant and freelance writer, who enjoys her words, just as much as she enjoys her food. You can follow her on Instagram through her handle @chickenpotatofries"