On First and Second Languages-IV: Bringing Up Baby

I am often asked, by well-meaning friends, “Are you going to teach your daughter how to speak [Hindi, Urdu]?” My answer, invariably, is “I’ll try.” So I’m trying.  My efforts at teaching my daughter Hindi-Urdu consist primarily of speaking to her in it, with occasional lapses into English.

These lapses have become more frequent. I feel my resolve faltering. This is perhaps ludicrous. My daughter is only eighteen months, and is only now learning her first words. Among them, she has learned one in Hindi–a slightly colloquial, baby-talk term for milk. This surely, is the time to dig in, and press on.

But the challenges are daunting. Hindi-Urdu isn’t my first language; English is. I don’t read books in Hindi–though I have grand plans to read three novels, patiently waiting for me on my shelves; the frequency of my Hindi-movie watching is far outstripped by that of English–and other languages, subtitled in, naturally, English. Very few of my daughter’s local uncles and aunts–who do not live in New York City in any case–speak Hindi-Urdu (though some of them comprehend it well enough to converse with their immigrant parents.) Her grandparents–my wife’s parents–only occasionally speak to her in Hindi-Urdu. I have few Indian friends, and their children only speak English as well. Her linguistic community for Hindi-Urdu–that is, me–looks remarkably scant and impoverished.

Besides, I’m conflicted about this project. While I’m well aware of the virtues of bilingualism, I wonder about the choice of the second language. Wouldn’t Spanish be better for a child growing up in the modern United States? My English vocabulary is much richer than my Hindi-Urdu one; wouldn’t I be aiding her cognitive development more by speaking to her in a language in which I would be more expressive, more fluent, more able to express a broader range of concepts and ideas? Why should she learn Hindi-Urdu? I doubt she’ll become a South Asian studies scholar. And if she does, perhaps she can learn this language later in life? Many area studies scholars do just that, after all.  To ‘learn about her roots’ and ‘where she came from’? But her roots are in Brooklyn and New York City. This is where her father has lived for the last two decades; this is where she was born.  My trips to India look like becoming less, not more, frequent in the years to come. And lastly, I have neither the desire nor the ability to impose a specific Indian identity on her. Mine is confused enough; I doubt I should attempt to ‘bring her up Indian’, to ‘make her aware of her culture’. Perhaps she can sample the bits of Indianness that exist in my life along with all the other flavors of this Brooklyn life of ours and make of them what she will.

Perhaps I’m just lazy, unwilling to put in the hard yards to bring up a bilingual child–like watching movies with her or teaching her the alphabet. Perhaps; it won’t be the first time a dimly desirable project of mine has run aground for lack of drive.

For the time being, I’ll press on, talking as much as I can in my ‘mother-tongues’, trusting that my daughter will find some traction in our conversations. Perhaps she’ll let me know, by her facility, what she’d like to do.

Note: As might be surmised, I do feel some guilt about being so conflicted and insufficiently committed to this project. This emotion has only been exacerbated by a niece of mine–raised in Los Angeles–who has told me she would have much preferred it if her parents had taught her Hindi-Urdu.

Language and Identity: The Case of Punjabi

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab and I have yet to master its language. The story of my attempts to do so reveals familiar struggles—by people like you and me—to fashion an identity, no matter where we live, whether in India or elsewhere.

As a child, I was not particularly keen to take on the mantle of being a ‘Punjabi’. My first homes were in Indian Air Force bases and later, in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. On air force bases, the lingua franca was English, and ethnic identities were de-emphasized in favor of a more pluralistic Indian one. At home, my parents never spoke Punjabi to me though they did so—with fluency and aplomb—with their parents whenever we visited them. So I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, but like most urban Punjabis of my generation, without learning our supposed ‘mother-tongue’.

This cultural and linguistic distancing from the Punjab had other dimensions. When an Amritsar-resident uncle invited me to spend my autumn vacation with him, I politely declined; its historic attractions—the Golden Temple, Jallianwalah Bagh—did not seem to exert a strong enough hold on me.  I spent a day in Jalandhar on my way to a family holiday in Kashmir and did not think much of it; compared to Delhi, it seemed impossibly small-townish. Punjab smacked of the rustic, the agricultural, the homespun; I saw myself as an urban Anglophone. I lived in a big city, the capital of India; my ancestors seemed to have lived in dusty villages and provincial towns.  If this was my ethnic heritage, then I would do better to leave it behind and take on the new one that my parents’ expatriate lives—elsewhere in India, away from the Punjab—afforded me.

But migration—of whatever stripe—can change such perspectives. In my ninth and tenth grades, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s North-East, I was not-so-gently nudged toward my Punjabi identity by my fellow students, who, though by virtue of hailing from all over the country constituted a demographic similar to the one I had enjoyed on air force bases, were not shy about showing off their ethnic prejudices. Perhaps it was simple immaturity; perhaps it was the absence of the military impress. Be that as it may, whereas previously the label ‘Punjabi’ had never been applied to me, now, I was now supposedly a hick, despite being from New Delhi. As a confused and callow act of defiance, I became interested in acquiring my new identity’s other trappings. One important and seemingly singular one was language. Soon, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads—transplanted from Chapra, Bihar—and started some rudimentary practice in spoken Punjabi. For the first time in my life, I drew on a supposed ethnic solidarity. The irony of a Delhi lad finding it with Bihari boys was not lost on me. My early attempts at spoken Punjabi were, as might be expected, ludicrously bad, but a halting journey had commenced.

On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I noticed my partial competency in Punjabi made me an outlier in my cohort. None of my cousins—and indeed, just about no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi—spoke Punjabi; they were content with their fluency in English and Hindi; perhaps they were just as ambivalent about their Punjabi identity as I had been. More broadly, the migration of Punjabis outwards from the ‘home’ state seemed to have condemned their language to a slow death in India’s urban centers, overcome by the homogenizing effect of Hindi. (Elsewhere in the world, Punjabi flourished in locales like Southall and Vancouver.)

I now grew to dislike the sense of exclusion I experienced when a fluent conversation in Punjabi was conducted in my presence. I wanted to be able to understand Punjabi songs, to crack jokes in Punjabi, to perhaps even watch a movie or two in Punjabi. I still did not speak to my mother in Punjabi; our relationship was too entrenched in the familiar contours afforded by English and Hindi. But my grandmothers had no such established habit; if I attempted to speak in Punjabi with them, they replied accordingly. I began some tentative conversations in Punjabi with my grandparents. The Punjabi I acquired thus was old-fashioned; it had to be given its provenance.

At the age of twenty, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, like they had before, when I left home. This time for a land ten thousand miles away: the US. There, as I struggled with the immigrant’s familiar and peculiar schizophrenia of identities, I made attempts to seek refuge in one or the other of the many variants—American, Indian, Punjabi—available to me. Sometimes I sought rapid assimilation and Americanization; sometimes I dreamed of returning to India; and at yet others, my old desire to speak Punjabi reasserted itself with some vigor.

New York City, my new home, played host to a large Punjabi population; opportunities for learning Punjabi were only limited by my enterprise and shyness. (They still are.) Thanks to my displacement from India, I had made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Once, while dropping off a friend for a flight back to India, as I walked through JFK’s departure hall, past a gate for a PIA flight, I was stunned by the Punjabi I could hear spoken around me by the travelers headed home. This was a huge community of fellow Punjabis; once they had only been those my father had fought in the 1965 and 1971 wars; now, perhaps, I could view them as potential brethren of a sort.  A charmingly naïve view perhaps but in that context not an entirely misguided one.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi in New York City had unexpected consequences: on many occasions, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, it did not seem to matter–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow Punjabi-spouting homeboy, would simply decline my payment of the fare, and give me a free ride. I grew embarrassed at these inordinately generous offers and would try my best to pay, but to no avail. My American friends were suitably nonplussed and impressed by these remarkable displays of generosity and ethnic camaraderie. So was I.

My progress in learning Punjabi was halting; all too often, in the midst of a conversation, my verbs, tenses and vocabulary would break down and I would have to, yet again, switch back to the safety of Hindi-Urdu. I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland–of whose representatives in New York City there were many–was far harder to master than the urban variant I had been previously exposed to, and I would frequently switch to Hindi-Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My progress was hampered occasionally by some old ambivalence about my Punjabi identity; I was a graduate student in philosophy, immersed in sophisticated theoretical discourse; what was I doing, expending precious time and effort in learning a language that seemed destined to be confined to India and Pakistan’s rural regions? I had married an Indian-American woman who spoke no Punjabi at all; what role did Punjabi have to play in my future family life?

Years on, as I live in Brooklyn in a neighborhood that abuts a large Pakistani community, where my opportunities for speaking Punjabi are confined to short conversations with local shopkeepers, my fluency in Punjabi remains a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery. Perhaps such competence would be possible were I able to achieve total immersion; in the winter of 2006/7 during a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved in the space of four days. Work and family though, leave little time for such adventures.  Perhaps I am destined to be stuck at my current state of fluency. My ten-month old daughter will almost certainly never learn Punjabi; indeed, it would be a miracle if she would learn a bit of Hindi-Urdu. The Punjabi speakers in my family, in my line, will end with me.  And Punjabi’s melancholic trend toward a seemingly ever-smaller cohort of speakers will continue. (Word has it that in Pakistan, Urdu is fast displacing Punjabi.)

My earlier angst about seeking an identity has died down. I am happy to slip in and out of the three languages—English, Hindi, Punjabi—I can call upon with varying degrees of felicity; I delight in the varied perspectives these linguistic lenses afford me. I am now, perhaps, finally comfortable in my skin; I am who I am, a transplanted person that can look back on a childhood spent elsewhere, and who can claim allegiance to, and membership in, various cultural traditions. I am destined to be a mongrel of sorts.

Note: This is a revised and extended version of an earlier post on the same subject.

On First and Second Languages – III

In this ongoing series of posts on partially mastered languages and my frustrating relationships with them, I’ve written about German and Spanish. Today, I come to the most vexed alliance of all, the one with Punjabi.

My last name is a giveaway: I’m a Punjabi. But I’ve never lived in the Punjab. I did, however, spend many years in a city with a large Punjabi population: New Delhi. My parents never spoke in Punjabi with me (they did so with their parents) and so while I grew up listening to a great deal of Punjabi, I acquired no fluency in it whatsoever. In the tenth grade, during two years spent in boarding school, away in India’s north-east, I struck up a friendship with two Sikh lads and started some rudimentary practice. On returning to Delhi to finish high school, I initiated some tentative conversations with my grandmothers and attempted to learn some Punjabi from them. I noticed that none of my cousins, and indeed, no one in my generation of urban Punjabis in New Delhi spoke the language.

By the time I left India for the US, my fluency in Punjabi was still minimal. Matters picked up, ironically enough, on moving to a land ten thousand miles away from ‘home.’ I was keen to practice, keen to establish a very particular sort of contact with the few Punjabis I met. I also made contact with a brand new community of Punjabi speakers: Pakistanis. Indeed, it seemed to me that more Pakistani Punjabis, even urban ones, spoke Punjabi than Indian ones. My vocabulary improved, as did some aspects of my grammar.

Moving to New York City in 1993 facilitated this process even further. The city is home to a large Punjabi community and opportunities for practice were only limited by my enterprise and shyness; they still are. I discovered that the Punjabi spoken in the Punjabi hinterland–of whose representatives in New York City there were many–was far harder to master, and I would frequently, embarrassed, switch to Hindi/Urdu in the middle of a conversation, unable to keep up with the barrage of incomprehensible words coming my way.

My attempts to practice my Punjabi had unexpected consequences: on occasion, a cab driver from the Punjab–Indian or Pakistani–delighted to make acquaintance with a fellow homeboy, would simply decline my payment of the fare, and give me a free ride. I grew embarrassed at these inordinately generous offers and would try my best to pay, but to no avail. (This followed me to Sydney, when on arriving there for my post-doctoral fellowship, the young man who drove me to the University of New South Wales also declined payment.)

My fluency in Punjabi is a couple of rungs short of full-fledged mastery; I need a period of immersion to make what I consider would be a significant breakthrough. (In the winter of 2006/7 on a visit to India, my family and I made a short road trip to the Punjab; my spoken Punjabi improved even in the space of those four days.) I do not think I will ever have the time or the patience to master the script but spoken mastery lies well within my reach provided I can achieve total immersion. Even two weeks, I suspect, would do it.  I’m not sure when and how I will be able to bring this about though; work and family seem to leave little time for such an adventure.

So near, and yet so far.

On First and Second Languages – III

In the first post of this series, I described my relationship with English and Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani; in the second, that with German. The story in today’s post–that of Spanish in my life–is similar to the German tale: partial fluency, a long-standing, constantly procastinated commitment to formal study. The distinctive contrast lies in the nature of the fluency: in German, I possess some grammatical foundation coupled with a poor vocabulary; in Spanish, my vocabulary outstrips my grammatical foundation.

But back to the beginning. After I moved to the US in 1987, I lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey and attended graduate school in Newark. Elizabeth had a sizable Colombian and Cuban population (they were prominent members of its local Hispanic demographic). Newark’s Hispanic population was also considerable. There were, therefore, ample opportunities to pick up some Spanish. So I did; I read a lot of store signs, browsed Spanish-language newspapers, and acquired a small smattering of sentences and words to use in interactions with Spanish speakers (something as trivial as ‘tiene cambio para un dollar?’ was very useful when catching the bus in the mornings).  But I never learned how to conjugate verbs.

My opportunities to learn Spanish only increased after I moved to New York City in 1993, but I continued to make one crucial mistake: I did not take a class in Spanish to bolster the vocabulary, context, immersion and daily practice that was available to me. I prided myself on reading subway advertisements; I received praise for my pronunciation from native Spanish speakers (some consonant sounds in Spanish are similar to those in Hindi/Urdu, as are the rolled ‘r’ and the soft ‘d’); I sometimes helped tourists and immigrants who could not speak English with a Spanish sentence or two after they had sought help from me (assuming that I was Hispanic because of my appearance).   But verb conjugation remained a mystery.

I traveled to Spanish-speaking countries: Spain, Ecuador, Peru (twice), Puerto Rico. My wife, whose Spanish is more advanced than mine–yes, because of those damned verb conjugations–and who had used it during her work as a community organizer in East Harlem (Spanish Harlem, El Barrio) was our primary interface with the ‘natives.’ My Spanish improved during these trips; I picked up more words, more sentences, and used it more extensively in a variety of interactions.  I even attempted to learn a bit of Spanish formally; I browsed some guidebooks; attempted some drills; and even took a short afternoon class in Quito, Ecuador. But it wasn’t enough, and wait for it, my conjugation of verbs was still non-existent.

The problem with not being able to conjugate verbs is that you cannot form sentences; you can have a great vocabulary at your disposal, but you cannot employ it if you cannot conjugate verbs. It’s really as simple as that.

As in the case of German, I have made many plans to learn Spanish formally, but something or the other has pushed it off. Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I have taken a closer look at duolingo.com and finished one level of practice; perhaps this time, I’ll stick to my guns and get the damn conjugations right.

Desearme suerte!