The insidious power of English


For as long as I remember, English has been, in all effect, my first language.

My mum tells me I was taught Telugu, my father’s language, when I was a pre-schooler and both my parents used to converse with each other and me in Telugu in the hope that a cacophony of languages around me wouldn’t put me off from speaking.

So I did of course speak Telugu fluently, (I still do, but not so fluently what with my father gone, and my mother and me now talking in her mother tongue, Malayalam) and picked up English at school and at some stage, probably just before turning ten, I began talking to my parents in both languages nearly equally frequently and fluently.

Later on as my strength in English grew and as the langauge began serving as a common, bridge-language between friends from various parts of the country and later on still, various parts of the world, my use of Telugu diminished much to my father’s dismay and it became more of a language reserved for family occasions, especially, extended family ones.

Which is a long detour to bring me to what has been rankling me for a few weeks now – that my little girl’s incredible fluency in Hindi is met by some of my mum-friends and their relatives with horror and dismay.

It’s as though I’ve done her SUCH a disservice in not having started her on English from the word go.

I remember when my little girl came, I found nearly all utterances in English so distant and distancing and essentially foreign.

It’s possible that our having been in Sweden at the time could have accentuated that feeling, of being somewhere far from home.

But I am sure it wasn’t really that.

It was this deep and strong sense that I just couldn’t bear to babble or talk to this new person, so intimately connected to me, in a language that didn’t contain the rhythms and sounds that were closest to my heart.

And so, even though I am a relatively new speaker of my mother’s tongue, I found myself talking to her in Malayalam the first few months and nearly exclusively that.

Later on, I added English but what came far more naturally to me, especially after we moved to Delhi, when she was two months old, was to start speaking to her in Hindi.

It was what nearly everyone around us knew and spoke.

It was in fact the language that connected us to all those who worked so hard in taking care of her during her first year, the many kind and loving and devoted nannies.

And I never felt the need to teach my baby in any open or covert way that Hindi was the language to be reserved for the ‘help’ while ‘we’ those who employed the help, spoke of course only or mostly in the language of power, English.

I don’t think I was ever really conscious of this thinking. But I am now.

I have always admired and respected my mother’s effortless egalitarianism which is expressed in part by the fact that she doesn’t ever pull rank with those who service our home or kitchen by making them feel that their lot is unbridgeably lower than ours and that their speaking Hindi is a sign of their inferiority.

Although the Malayali inflections in her spoken Hindi make many of our relatives grin in affection, the indisputable fact is that she has never used her knowledge of English to crush anyone’s pride.

And despite all my ease and love for the language, I do despise the way English has been used by us Indians, and especially of course, us the middle class, to further demarcate and segregate ourselves from what we think is the ‘riff raff’.

So my blood has been boiling when I have picked up frowns on the faces of some of my little girl’s playmates’ parents and families when they are unable to fathom why the daughter of a ‘native’, English-speaking mum is fluent in Hindi.

I know it’s a bit of a risk, socially, and perhaps even tactically, considering that most of the mainstream, ‘big’ schools around us also predictably mirror this thinking and perhaps think more highly of a young pre-schooler who is able to converse in English than Hindi, but I’m going to take it.

Not because I have any hot connections in any of their networks or because I have any fancy notions about being anti-establishment, but because I think she will eventually pick up English and even speak it very well, and that it’s worthwhile for her to be fluent in the language that most closely replicates and expresses the sounds and rhythms that surround her here.

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