On First And Second Languages V – Nabokov’s Lament

In his famous Afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov closed with:

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

In a post paying tribute a scholarly friend of mine, a close and careful reader of the books he owned and an exacting writer to boot, I had written:

Even more impressive was his attention to elegance and conciseness in both his verbal and mathematical expression; we co-authored a journal paper together and I was–for lack of a better word–blown away by his insistence on getting our written and technical formulations just right. No superfluous words, no bloated definitions, no vague sentences were to be tolerated.

My friend’s writing did not lack flair either, and so I once complimented him on his style. He accepted the praise reluctantly, issuing a lament similar to that of Nabokov’s: He was a native French speaker and writer, and he was painfully aware, as he wrote in English, that he was not writing as well as he could have in French. His distinctive style, his skillful deployment of the resources of the French language were simply not available to him.

I’m bilingual too, but only in a fashion, and so I do not experience the kind of regrets expressed above. As I have noted here on previous occasions, I do not read and write Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani–my supposed first language(s)–with anywhere near the same facility as I do English, my actual first language. Indeed, I do not read or write in Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani at all. I could, but slowly and painfully. And so I don’t. I had intended to read three novels in Hindi by the great Indian novelist Premchand–which I own–to ameliorate this state of affairs (and to evaluate the quality of their translations into English), but they are still sitting on my shelf, unread. I know a struggle awaits me when I open their pages; avoidance seems like a rather perspicuous strategy. (I suspect my reading abilities would trend upward on a sharper slope than my writing in Hindi et al., which was always hopeless.) I am well aware, when I write in English, that this is my chosen medium and vehicle of expression; it is the only one I have.

I say this even as I revel in my bilingual abilities when it comes to the spoken word. I enjoy dipping back into the stores of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani/Punjabi idioms and expressions when I speak with other speakers of these languages. There are some pungent descriptions of this lunatic world’s state of affairs that I only find available in those linguistic frameworks. And when I do use them, I’m struck, as always, by how the mere utterance of a sentence or two can instantly transport me to a distinctive place and time.

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.