Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Question of Language

There are many contexts for the existential crises that plague me from time to time. One of them that had been on my mind of late is language. To be more specific, the question that arose was, "Am I a language snob?"

Some history is required to put this in context. I grew up in a foreign country. English was the language I predominantly used- the books, movies, TV shows, friendships I had - I learnt to think in English. On the other hand, I adore Tamil, my mother tongue. I taught myself to speak it, and even today continue to perfect my vocabulary and pronunciation. I learnt to read Tamil and developed an appreciation for its poetry. To sum up, any language, for me, is a beautiful act of expression and must be respected for what it is- the hundreds of years that it has lived and evolved, its fascinating etymology, the rules of grammar that have striven to make it uniform across people, its idiomatic usage, the dialects.... everything about language is amazing. When you consider that unless we all become telepathic or attain nirvana thereby making language redundant, it's pretty much all we have to make sure we get each other.

So why was I battling this question? I do not look down upon people who have not mastered any language. But I do find it amusing. I studied in a college where not one of the staff members could speak fluent English, Not that that was any cause for complaint. From the electronics professor who said, "The atmosphere will collapse if you do strike," to the physics sir who talked about "sofa-stication", the only thing that I found bearable in those four years was this ability to be entertained by the systematic murder of English. Does that sound stuck up?

After that, the whole dating/matrimonial scene opened up a can of English worms. The 'good boys' my parents wanted me to meet had never seen an episode of Friends or heard of Wodehouse. They said 'can able to' and spelled Hi as 'Hai'. It was inconceivable to even contemplate life with them. That's when the question arose- these fellows may be extremely intellectual, spiritually deep, humorous and kind chaps. Yet, to this day, I balk at considering them in a romantic light.

When I visited my uncle recently, some intuition prompted him to bring up this topic. He mentioned his niece whom he had convinced a few years ago to marry a man who spoke broken English with a pronounced, almost rural accent. She has two kids now and still grimaces when her husband says something in English, frequently calling him 'country brute!' I laughed out loud at that, but it brought back my own dilemma to me.

When I came back to India in the turn of the century, I met with a lot of language fanaticism. Tamil people were openly critical of me, in some cases, derisive. I would have been accepting of this if their ire had been directed at my faulty Tamil. But what baffled me was that they had a problem with my fluency in English. One of the derisive labels that was in vogue then and still hasn't died away is 'Peter'. I'm guessing it's a nod to the British influence on language in India. I hated that term. Even as a teenager, I sensed that deep down, these people were ashamed of their broken English, which is why they adopted fanaticism- as a defense.

Last month, I was visited by the man who installed the fibre sheets on our car shed. He wanted to learn English, was enthusiastic about it even. He talked about being able to speak fluently in meetings and conducting business deals with style. I administered an assessment to see where he needed help. His performance was worse than poor. A college graduate, he could not construct a full sentence. I looked at his mostly empty answer sheet without expression. But before I could say anything, he started off on an analogy of how car driving is similar to language; how he couldn't maneuver hair pin bends before but can now, how a gap of a few years can make one rusty... He finished by saying in a tone of derision that after all, Tamil was more important since we are Tamilians. That's when I knew how ashamed he was. He insisted on taking his answer sheet with him and he never turned up again. In all this, he didn't let me get a word in.

As a teacher, one of the most important qualities I value in the field is being non-judgmental. The job asks us to impart knowledge, not to make people feel bad about their lack of it. That is simply ridiculous. Yet people have their own deep rooted shame. I've come to understand that no one who can appreciate the beauty of their own language could ever look down upon another. It's their shame which makes them defensive and derisive. An added dimension to this in Indian culture is the hostility leftover from British colonial rule. It doesn't help at all that their language has become global and needs to be used if one must survive in so many economic areas locally.

Coming back to me, and where all this began, I realized that when we talk about language, we're talking about culture. And culture is not region specific or race specific, in these times. I am Tamil and I am English, in different ways. Like many people today, I am an amalgamation. It is not impossible to connect with someone who's had a totally different upbringing. I have wonderful friends who are culturally different. But when it comes to a partner, my personal priorities do not include the vast gaps between cultures- territories would have to be left untouched, territories that are important to me, that someone I live with must have embraced in their own lives to understand. So no, to my relief, I've come to understand that I am not a snob. I love languages irrespective of their origins, I respect people irrespective of their linguistic skills and I connect with people irrespective of their mother tongues. I won't apologize for my priorities- to want to sit across from someone over a breakfast table and debate with them about quantum physics and its implications on spirituality- something I cannot do in Tamil, is not wrong, it's just me.

So there you have it. Not a snob. Phew. On to the next question.

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