December 21, 2022

December is National Learn a Foreign Language Month!

In this day and age, learning a second or even a third language has its own professional, academic and recreational advantages. It allows your brain to process a situation differently since any language unto itself is a notoriously imprecise means of recording thoughts and motivations. By processing the same incident in another language with its unique syntax, one can better grasp the nuances inherent to the situation and enables one to make better sense of the matter altogether.

I want to invert expectations and account my tribulations when learning English as a second language, and how I became comfortable communicating in English than Hindi. Growing up in India, I rarely spoke English before kindergarten when I began my systematic education in two languages: Hindi and English. The Latin alphabet was easier, all of 26 letters, as compared with the Sanskrit alphabet with 14 vowels and 35 consonants. The Sanskrit alphabet has the added complexity of half-letters; “s,n” is not the same as “sn”. The distribution of the consonants based on utterance: guttural, palatal, aspirate and combinations thereof made unforeseen demands on my 6 year old ears during weekly dictation.

English wasn’t much fun either. At home, I conversed mostly in Hindi. So much so that when I entered kindergarten, I could not write or spell a word in English, aside from possibly my name. I remember sitting with a table of classmates, and each table would be asked to think of words that rhyme. I simply could not process how a vowel could sound so different when part of different monosyllabic words. My teacher ordered around the classroom, reciting with students at each table.

The great change was during my vacation to the United States in the summer of 1979. I started the vacation tongue-tied, and returned to India able to say, “I don’t drink water, I want juice!" I also discovered my love for reading. Growing up in India meant an abiding love and knowledge of Enid Blyton’s copious corpus. The phrases “Oh, I say", "oh, rather”, and “absolutely smashing” and descriptors such as “topping”, “beastly” and “perfectly horrid” were commonplace and construed to be commonplace in conversation. The policy in school was Hindi and Punjabi (the state language) were restricted to their respective lesson times, and English be exclusively used at all other times which reinforced these habits.

The point is, I grew up bilingual. I especially credit my ability to carry out sums in my head in Hindi because they are easier to recite than English. Many times, I am still tongue tied because the Hindi response comes to mind and I simply cannot translate quickly enough.

The gift of verbal expression is not to be taken lightly. It is not about perfect grammar. It is about communication. Language serves its purpose as soon as you communicate your intent adequately. To be exposed to the thoughts of other people is invaluable. And these points put together should be sufficient encouragement for any of us to try and learn a second (or third?) language. Whether it is “foreign” at that point becomes a matter of perspective.