Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

On First and Second Languages – II

In my first post in this series, I wrote of my relationship with English and Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani – my first and second languages. I claimed partial fluency in three other languages: German, Spanish and Punjabi.  I aspire to mastery of all three and have varying levels of optimism about the plausibility of my success in this endeavor.

Of those three languages listed above, I’ve only been educated formally in German: a semester’s worth of instruction through the Indian version of the Goethe Institute – the Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi. I was then in my final year of undergraduate studies and had dimly entertained thoughts of studying in a German university for a post-graduate program. A quick look at the admission requirements made it clear three semesters of German language proficiency was required. The grundstufe eins was the first installment of the program; I enrolled for a class that met three times a week for two hours at a time.

My education in German was excellent; the teachers for the course–both postgraduate Indian students of German literature–were dedicated, enthusiastic, hard-working, thorough and personable; my fellow students were mostly highly motivated; we faithfully followed our teachers’ demands that we use German exclusively as the language of conversation with each other. I enjoyed my classes, scored well in the tests and was encouraged to continue with the program.

But I didn’t.  I had applied to the US for graduate school as well; an alternative destination now presented itself; a student visa had been procured; and I was off. My progress in German came to a halt.

Over the years, I would practice my German on the odd tourist, a German friend or two, or at the movies, all the while checking subtitles to gauge my facility in the spoken version of German. I planned endlessly to register for a formal course and resume my language studies, but never did.  I remembered most of my verb conjugations and my articles; the drills had been extensive and I retained their details easily.

When I began graduate work in philosophy, I intended to take the German language proficiency exam–a simple translation task of a passage in Nietzsche or Schopenhauer into English–but that  requirement was waived for my cohort. A friend of mine read Wittgenstein in a facing-page translation; I envied his talent but still made no effort study German formally. A German friend taught Nietzsche in the original German (at Regensburg) and talked glowingly of the thrill of reading his literary, flowing prose. My envy knew no bounds.

On trips to Germany and Switzerland, I practiced my German, sometimes receiving compliments for it. Each appreciative remark inspired further resolve to seek out the nearest Goethe Institute but I never, ever acted on it. My endless procastination, thus, has been a source of some bafflement to me;  I have always managed to find some excuse or the other to not bite the bullet and take on the grundstufe zwei. Mostly, I don’t seem to have the time; a rather lame evasion at best.

Hopefully, sometime next year, I’ll end this twenty-seven year long procastination and finally sign up at the nearest Goethe Institute/

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.