(image courtesy: http://s3.scoopwhoop.com/aka/KLPD/Coolguyfeature1.jpg)
Being born and brought up in a country where not one but two or even three languages are spoken naturally gives you a supposedly head start in life, boosts memory power , increases job opportunities along with other benefits that researchers claim of.
However, I have always wondered if it is any good knowing more than one language.
I have three problems with being a tri-linguist: it corrupts your grammar ; you make a fool of yourself by doing literal translations especially of phrases and lastly which is most awkward of all is the decision you have to take as to use which language where and when.
So here I go at length starting with the last of my three problems:
1) The decision you have to take as to use which language where and when.
Now this can be tricky. In most private offices, banks and branded places, it is an unspoken rule that you converse in English. It is a sign of being well-read. Especially if you have to go to your children’s school to attend a meeting, etc
However this very unspoken rule puts me (and maybe many like me) in dilemma.
A few days ago I happened to receive a call from an uncle whom I hadn’t spoken to in many years. He was looking for my father and got hold of my number. Now, an ‘everyday’ uncle would have causally started talking in Hindi. This wasn’t the case here. After the exchange of pleasantries in English (which was sounding way too formal anyway!) I changed the language to Hindi without sounding abrupt and in the middle of it I realised I should speak in Punjabi to match his Punjabi accent and I don’t know how or when it went back to English in the end. This was a complete scramble of all the languages I have known and by the end of the call I wondered what was wrong with me!
The above was however a one-off experience in personal life.
It is a different thing in public sphere especially when you have to go to offices to get ‘your work done’. For example if you go to a private bank where you are expected to speak in English with the bank agents, you would realise immediately that you are sounding overtly formal which is not helping you solve your case and you are better off speaking in Hindi. And from the crisp, formal, serious English you smoothly glide onto casual, friendly Hindi which to a foreign ear can sound downright hilarious.
One would wonder then why don’t we start our conversation in Hindi and save the hassle of making a switch from one language to the other. Why initiate the conversation in English at all? Now, if that ever happens it would mean two things: you can’t speak English despite looking the ‘type’ who can speak English and you are way too chilled out (which doesn’t go down well with these bankers and other officers). The transformation from one language to the other has to be smooth and done at the right time…so you start off with English here and at the right time (depending on the kind of person you are interacting with) move over to Hindi and if you realise that the officer you are talking to is from the same region as yours you can then further change the language to regional! Also, the higher the ranking officer you meet (which is nearly impossible as these corporate ‘babus’ are so untouchable) the language remains more formal which means … yes, English.
My stand to have just one language is simply to attain perfection. After all, just doing one thing daily brings you an inch closer to perfection. In our case we are far from it and I blame our bilingual/tri-lingual tongue. We are mediocre in all our languages. In our English-speaking schools and colleges, Hindi is taught insipidly. Now wonder, we can say our abc’s better than k, kh, gs.
To make things worse we have added Hindi conjunctions and interjections in our English sentences besides nouns . One of the two most over-rated two-letter Hindi word Na makes me cross. I told you na, Do it na, See na. The word Na in Hindi simply is to put emphasis on the statement. I see no use of it in Hindi too. So hearing it also in English is annoying, na? The second word is Ki. I told you ki she is coming, He said ki he won’t come. Here ki means ‘that’ in Hindi and I have no idea why can’t people say that for that in English. They say it so frequently ki my ears hurt!
And finally, 3) the literal translations.
I remember telling a Scottish colleague of mine in the UK long time ago that he must be upset as I was ‘standing on his head’! Now, I could see that it made no sense to him. It is a common expression in Hindi. The phrase ‘standing on someones head’ means bothering somebody by being around them whereas in English it means you can do something easily! What a contrast! And no wonder he looked flummoxed and expressed surprise when I said so. And the second one which I use for my daughter at times is “don’t eat my head” to which a non-Hindi speaker will not be able to fathom. Translations of phrases are a bad idea and should not be attempted at all but it comes naturally for speakers of more than one language.
So yes, the quest of achieving perfection in a language especially in a country like ours which has hundreds of languages is far from being achieved. And asking users to exclusively speak just one language at a given time seems impossible now. Maybe someday people like me would get familiar with this fusion of languages just as we have accepted using parsley and thyme in our Indian cooking.
The image on top is of a ‘cool cow’ or a ‘cool guy’. The Hindi word for a cow is a gaay which as you can now tell is a homophone . Hinglish at its best! 🙂