Making Space For Four Languages In One Child

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Mar 17, 2016

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Yenna acchu kanna?” (What happened, sweetheart?) I ask my son lovingly in Tamil, as he starts to cry while watching an ad on TV. “Amma, paani kulle puppy!” (Puppy inside the water!) he explains, combining words from three of the four languages he hears every day. Even though it was a mishmash, he had managed to pick the right words and put them in the right place in the sentence. It was fantastic.

Tamil is my mother tongue and also the language of endearment for me. I speak to my son in Tamil for the most part because that is what feels natural for me. It isn’t the language of my thoughts and writing though – that is English. And it is not the language of business and of everyday life in my household, which, being in Delhi, is Hindi. Add Telugu – my husband’s mother tongue, which he uses with his mother – to the mix, and my household becomes the Tower of Babel.

My son seems to understand them all, which is amazing. We don’t separate out the languages, and the shifts are often unconscious, imperceptible even to us. Does he think we speak one giant language with just very differently intoned words (which would explain the mixed sentences)? Or does he understand that different people are speaking to him in different languages? Because he would never say “paani kulle puppy” to my mother-in-law; those are not the words she uses. To her, he may have explained the problem differently.

For now, I let it run like an experiment, to see how a child’s mind works, what sticks, what changes, and how language evolves. I see that he uses Hindi more often than any other language. It is understandable. His nanny, with whom he spends most of his waking hours, speaks that language, and it is the language most used in my household, with domestic help, repair persons, our business’ staff, and often with one another. It is good that he learns it, because to belong in Delhi you need to speak Hindi like a native. Soon, when he starts playschool, it will be replaced by English, which is also fine. English opens the door to the world. He will be able to manage anywhere.

  My son will understand Tamil fully, but will reply only in Hindi or English. It is a loss.

But Tamil and Telugu may soon be edged out, because home is the only place he will hear these spoken. Like many of my nieces and nephews, he will understand fully, but will reply only in Hindi or English. It is a loss he won’t recognize until much later. I certainly didn’t.

Like my son, I grew up a South Indian in Delhi, and back in the day, it was no picnic. I stood out like a sore thumb in school, with a bindi on my forehead, two braids, with idly, dosa or upma in my lunch box. As I grew, I slowly shed each of these things, starting with the language. I didn’t speak or even refer to my mother tongue outside my home, not even to the other South Indians. Not even to commiserate. It was the easiest to drop because it evoked the most mirth. I spoke impeccable English to counter the jokes on my accent and my pronunciation of Hindi. Parochial Delhi was ruthless to outsiders.

It took many years of being out of Delhi, out of India, for me to feel differently. In college, among other international students, I realized that not only was my Tamil nothing to be ashamed of, but that knowing another language gave me an edge. It made me culturally flexible, added a facet to my personality. Language or even a dialect, I realized, encompassed so much of what makes us different and interesting — the history of where we are from, our homes, our habits and traditions. I now belonged to a community of people who didn’t share a first language, as well as to the community of people who shared my own. It was wonderful to be part of so much.

Even today, I find instant warmth and a willingness to help and share when I speak Tamil, or the smatterings of Bengali picked up in my very early years in Kolkata, to people who speak either language. Doors are opened and business opportunities come my way. Not having this connection is not the worst thing ever, but when you can have it and you don’t – like I almost didn’t, like my son might not — it is a loss.

It is still too early to say how the language situation will play out in my household or his school. My husband and I have assimilated, and our household is more similar to my son’s peers’ than ours was to our childhood peers’. Delhi, too, has changed. It is more cosmopolitan, and chances are, many of his peers are likely to be like him: from families with mixed cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I am sure he will fit right in. Maybe in his case the problem will not be willingness, but finding the time and opportunity to fit Tamil and Telugu into a life likely crowded with events, activities and languages.

Our effort will have to be more purposeful and sincere. Tamil will need to go beyond being the language of motherhood and love, to something more central to my daily life – and his. Our identity as South Indians needs to be reiterated often and in many ways, with his peers and our own peers. And we may need to connect more with people who share our languages. My son may embrace Tamil and Telugu or reject them. He may do both, at different phases of his life. But as long as these languages seep into his subconsciousness and become a part of his identity, our work is done. They will be there, and he can always call on them when they are needed.

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Written By Jyoti Ganapathi

Jyoti Ganapathi did her BA in Economics & Psychology from Knox College, US and a Masters in HR from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She returned to India to work in the family business. Riding the entrepreneurial wave, along with her husband, she started Dosa Inc- a South Indian food truck in 2012, fulfilling a dream that they always had. She is an intermittent writer and is currently absolutely loving NPR podcasts!

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