Of First and Second Languages – I

Costica Bradatan‘s essay ‘Born Again in a Second Language‘ made me think my own homes in the two languages I speak: English and Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani.

Because I grew up in India, English is often termed my ‘second language.’ I, however, describe English as my ‘first language’ because it is the language in which I posses the greatest fluency, vocabulary, and reading and writing proficiency. My reading and writing fluency in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani is on a sharp decline; I have not read a book in Hindi nor written more than a line in it for over thirty years now.  As I noted in a post here some time ago, one of my reading projects is to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand; they sit there on my shelf, waiting for me to muster up the courage to approach them.

I grew up in a mixed language household; my parents spoke a mixture of English and Hindi to each other; my father spoke predominantly in English with my brother and myself; my mother, who had a graduate degree in English literature, spoke in both English and Hindi with us, but the latter often took precedence.  The language of the streets around us was Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani but our social milieu, made up of Air Force officers drawn from all over  polyglot India, relied on English. The language of instruction in the schools I attended was English; we learned Hindi as a language in a separate class. The movies we watched in theaters were in English; the weekly Sunday movie was in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani.

So I grew up bilingual, but the combinatorial explosion of language that takes place in a child occurred, for me, in English, because it was the language of instruction in school, the language in which I was introduced to bookish knowledge, and as such, the language in which I began to read outside of school. It became the language in which I dreamed, fantasized, speculated, wondered and schemed. I spoke Hindi with some family members and English with yet others; I spoke Hindi with some friends of mine and English with others; but, when I was by myself and my books, which was a great deal of the time, I thought  and imagined in English. It became, very quickly, my ‘first language.’

I stopped studying Hindi in the tenth grade.  I had, through sheer tenacity, improved my Hindi reading and writing skills to the point that I secured, after years of embarrassingly bad performances, a decent grade in my last school exam. It was my last hurrah; from then on, I stopped reading Hindi, other than signage and the occasional newspaper.

Over the years, I have learned a semester of German (the grundstufe eins), a smattering of Spanish (how could you not, living in the US?) and acquired some proficiency in the language of my ‘home state’, Punjabi.  I dream of attaining fluency in all three and will describe my struggles with them in future posts.

In the meantime, I continue to speak Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani with a certain colloquial fluency (I can certainly curse in it with some elan). But my primary language for communication remains English; it’s what I speak, it’s what teach, read, and write in.  I enjoy switching back and forth between the two, but I know where my home is.

More on these languages, and my relationships with them, soon.

9 thoughts on “Of First and Second Languages – I

  1. I spent a year and a half in grad school teaching myself French (building on a scant knowledge of the grammar from two years of high school French class) in order to pass the translation test required for my Ph.D. in English. I learned enough to realize that while Candide falls flat for me in English, it is quite charming and funny in the original French.

    My biggest regret? The professor who scored my exam advised me to spend twenty minutes a day reading French in order to maintain my (minimal 🙂 ) fluency. Of course, I did not. The instant I passed my exam, it was on to the dissertation. And then a job. And then children and pets and an older house demanding plenty of maintenance. I set aside my French/English dictionary and my French grammar and verb conjugation books and never read another word of French except from a restaurant menu.

    The task you’ve set for yourself to attain fluency in German, Spanish, and Punjabi inspires me to at least try to do as my professor advised and read for twenty minutes a day. I wonder if my French will come back after all these years. Your trepidation about approaching the Premchand novels resonates. Perhaps I should start small, maybe a magazine with lots of pictures, like French Vogue 🙂

    1. Katherine,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, go for the twenty minutes! Seriously, I think magazines are a good idea – you’ll get plenty of context that way. I’m envious of your past fluency – to think that you could enjoy Candide in the original!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: