The Language Conundrum

One of the toughest parts about moving here is the language barrier. It’s frustrating to think twice every time I venture out; to haggle with three-wheeler drivers in broken Hindi mixed with English; to be forced to rely on the kindness (or sullen gestures, depending on the nature of the person) of strangers for directions or for advice and to resort to rudimentary hand gestures to get my point across.

I’m used to going wherever I want without a second thought and given the unsafe nature of this city and my language handicap, all this second-guessing – it’s terribly frustrating.

I’m a little better with the language now. I’ve picked the most elementary Hindi phrases and as long as I don’t encounter a chatty/rude/antagonistic three wheeler driver/vendor/salesperson, I’m safe. But the moment they try to carry on a conversation, counter my bargaining skills or speak in Hindi phrases I’m unfamiliar with, I’m forced to grimace, shrug my shoulders and recite ‘Mujhe Hindi patha nahi’ (I don’t know Hindi).

I miss talking to strangers. I miss the fluidity of a familiar language and forging a connection with a random person. Over here, without the proper knowledge of the language, I can’t bargain, barter and banter like I do back at home (please note the unintentional alliteration. I’m quite proud of it). It’s hard to gauge a person solely on the merit of their body language sometimes and because I’m hazy about their motives, I can’t even smile freely when they strike up conversations. I mean, they could be asking me to hand over my kidneys and I would probably just nod and smile back since I wouldn’t know what they were saying.

Jokes apart, I’m forced to be a bit of a snob when I venture out. I’m the snooty cow who doesn’t talk to vendors and who doesn’t smile at people and I hate that. Some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had back at home, have been with strangers. There’s a melting pot of diverse people over here, from the turbaned chai walla with a white beard to his waist to the cat-eyed boy who sells vegetables down our lane, who have stories to tell, if you’re willing to stop for a minute and listen.

This is just a part of my language issue. Here’s the second. Brace yourselves, it’s a little long.

There’s a general curiosity from most people when they hear I’m from Sri Lanka. Some aren’t too bothered, it’s too close in terms of vicinity for me to be an exotic import and in their minds, it’s almost a part of India (go figure). But there are others who ask me questions (oh, the questions! Some of them are too funny) and are genuinely interested.

A friend kept asking me what my mother tongue was. ‘Well, it’s Sinhala or Tamil for most people back at home, but I’m more comfortable with English’ I replied. She made a face. ‘No. Your mother tongue’ she emphasized, ‘it can’t possibly be English. What is it?’

The thing is, I really don’t know.

I’ve had the mother tongue debacle for as long as I can remember.  Both my parents grew up speaking Tamil and are equally fluent in English. The maternal unit’s Sinhala is excellent, when the paternal unit speaks in Sinhala, people run away (it’s terrible. Lots of fodder for dinner time conversations). As far as I know, both my maternal and paternal grandparents grew up with fluency in Tamil and English, while only my maternal grandparents know Sinhala.

Apart from the few Tamil lullabies, my grandmother would croon, I grew up in a household of people who predominantly spoke in English to me.  My bedtime stories were written in English. I think in English. I’m most comfortable writing in English. I dream in English.

I studied in Sinhala while in school. Struggled in Sinhala would be more appropriate, really. While we were in school, we didn’t have English medium (I’m not talking about the International Schools over here) I remember being completely flummoxed during my first Sinhala classes in nursery and coming home, sobbing to my mum. (That marked the beginning of my long stint with Sinhala tuition)

For 11 years I struggled, since all my subjects for O/L’s were in Sinhala. My flow of thought was in English, so I would have to constantly filter my thoughts, translate them into Sinhala, sometimes struggling for the right words and then put pen to paper. It wasn’t easy, but I pulled through.  I’m just grateful that we had the option of having English medium during our A/L’s.

Now, I’m finally fluent in Sinhala. I can’t swear yet, but that’s okay. I have a feeling my expansive knowledge of English swear words can tide me through any situation but my Tamil leaves much to be desired. I can read if I keep pausing after every two words, but my spoken Tamil is as good as my dad’s Sinhala.

Most of my paternal relatives speak solely in Tamil, so whenever we visited them the language barrier was the elephant in the room. They weren’t fluent in English, I wasn’t fluent in Tamil – it was one big family party.

I think I earned the title of the snobbish Colombo cousin. Relatives thought that I considered myself ‘too good’ to speak in Tamil. But really I was far too shy, because my broken Tamil phrases would immediately have my brigade of relatives smirking behind their shawls.

What determines a person’s mother tongue? Your nationality, ethnicity? Geographical location? People of my ethnic group situated in the North and South of the country, speak different languages. Little breakaway groups even have varied dialects of one tongue. And then there’s the diaspora – what of them?

The internet informs me that a person’s mother tongue (also known as first language, arterial language) is,

1) The language first learned by a child

2)  One’s native language or parent language; the language learned by children and passed from one generation to the next.

3) Or the language that a person speaks best and so is often the basis of socio-linguistic identity.

 If it’s the first and the third, then it’s definitely English for me but it also brings up the problem of my socio-linguistic identity (I have no idea what the native language of my ethnic group should be. Arabic? Tamil?). If it’s the second, it should be Tamil, since that’s the common language predominantly passed down from my family, but as I’ve explained, it’s not.

I had teachers in school who constantly emphasized that you weren’t a true ‘Sri Lankan’ if you couldn’t speak in Sinhala (I kid you not) and that it was scientifically proven that children who studied in their mother tongue were xyz% smarter and excelled more than those who didn’t. Hence, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable about my linguistic identity, wondering if somewhere down the line, I’d lost my way and as a result dropped fragments of my identity on the wayside.

Is there anyone else who has had a problem with their mother tongue or native language?  Or have all the lines we so love to draw around languages, identity and culture and the pigeon holes we like to pop people in, dissolved in the 21st century?

Should I go back to studying Tennyson instead of having identity crises’ at 2.30 in the morning? Should I worry that I haven’t finished a quarter of my syllabus for my finals which are in less than a week? Please advise, friends.

21 thoughts on “The Language Conundrum

  1. good call on the strikeout. how did those foolish thoughts creep into this post??

    wow, I don’t even know where to start! my father is a tamil, and my mother is an indian. Despite my fathers fluency in all three languages, I was taught english, perhaps because my mother did not know sinhala or tamil and since I was in SL there was no point teaching me Kannada (Mom’s mother tongue).

    So, like you, I grew up thinking, speaking, writing, singing and dreaming in English. Unlike you though, I did go to a international school, where sinhala was just a subject to be skimmed over and passed with a simple pass. All my friends spoke fluent english, and no one really spoke too much sinhala in school those days (how times have changed) so I never put any effort into learning the language until well into my A/L’s, where I was too embarrassed by my complete inability to speak even basic Sinhala that I avoided it as much as possible.

    Fast forward to the present and I get the same questions too; what is your mother tongue? In the literal sense it’s Kannada, but clearly it isn’t my ‘mother tongue’. Is it tamil then, since my father and his ancestors all spoke mainly tamil or english? I don’t know, but more often than not, I felt the same things you do now while walking in Delhi, except I felt it on home soil.

    I can speak the most basic of Sinhala now, and I can get by thanks to forgiving and helpful colleagues at work, but I won’t forget the years I refused to open my mouth in public when it seemed like the conversation was going to be in Sinhala..

    To me, my mother-tongue is Tamil. I just don’t know it. Sad, but true.


    • Ouch. It sucks that you feel the same as I do in Delhi while at home. I guess you’re not alone though. I have plenty of friends who’ve felt the same as you do, because of lack of fluency in Sinhala. it’ll be nice to see it change though. Multi linguism ftw?


  2. I thought my mother tongue was Malay coz both my parents are … well … Malay. My knowledge of it is embarrassing, to say the least but I did okay with the occasional relative who insisted on speaking it.

    Till I went to Malaysia.
    ‘But it says you are Malay?’
    ‘I am Sri Lankan Malay.’
    ‘Random questions in Malay.’
    ‘Yeah I don’t understand you.’
    ‘But it says you are Malay.’
    ‘I AM Malay but it’s a mix of Java (which came from Indonesia) and behasa melayu.)’
    ‘More random questions in Malay’


    My Sinhala is questionable and my Malay even more so. My mother never sends me anywhere I might need to speak ‘proper’ Sinhala (whatever that means) so there goes the my parents’ faith in me out the back door. But the past two years back home helped. Atleast in accumulating some colourful swear words in Sinhala 😀

    I think and dream 😛 in English too. I have been embarrassed by all this confusion but never had a crisis mostly because I was abroad half my life but I do understand what you are saying :)it’s difficult but that’s what happens when you have such a mixed up-bringing 🙂


    • Aahaha. Your malay is as great as my tamil, I think 😀
      I’ve started picking up sinhala swear words only after I got here actually. People keep asking me for Sinhalese swear words and I’d have to keep googling to get ’em.


  3. My mother tongue is Tamil. So much that (even though my conversational skills are probably not deemed to be good enough by those where Tamil is their first language) when I am with my Tamil friends who are born and bred Londoners – we speak Tamil. I don’t know why but it’s very comfortable for us to do that. Slip in and out of Tamil and English as and when the need occurs.

    Dreams – pretty much in English! 😉


  4. its even harder when the growing generation in ur family speaks entirely in english and the previous ones come and poke u with a spoonful of indian tamil and sinhala. i have found it hard to fit in as well. i find harder to speak them both than understand what they are trying to say. its embarassing nevertheless when they hastily mock ur parents seated next to u.


    • I get what you mean about fitting in. I’ve had that problem with some of my family. I live in hope that one day my language will improve and I’ll be able to carry on a conversation without resorting to sign language.


  5. I grappled with this dilemma but I had sorted it out by about grade 8 or 9. My mother tongue was the language my mother spoke to me in, which was English. I have put this on all forms and documents since, once causing a great deal of confusion to a Japanese, who kindly tested my English separately since I did not have TOEFL or a similar certificate when applying for a course (I did not get in, but not because of English).

    Very nice post, by the way.


  6. Going by that definition, my mother tongue would be malayalam, which I speak very little of. I used to be better at it when I was a kid, but then again it might just be that I don’t remember my relatives giving me blank stares.

    Nowadays, whenever we visit India I try to stick to English because I’ve grown tired of repeating myself five times over with slight differences in inflection.

    One of the happiest days of my life was when I passed Sinhalese at my OL’s. I remember my grade 8 sinhalese teacher telling the class that tamil speaking students doing okay at sinhalese is a greater achievement than english speaking students doing so, while quite pointedly waving my report card around. I don’t know what her logic was, but oh, how I longed to shout “I speak malayalam at home you hag!”.

    Needless to say, english medium AL’s were a godsend.

    I don’t know what my mother tongue is, honestly. I don’t like that definition. I don’t know enough malayalam to call it my main language, and I’m too finicky to tell people it’s english.

    Writing this post must have been a great distraction for you. 😛


  7. Considering my ‘homogeneous’ heritage, my choice of mother tongue/first language should be simple. It’s not. I’ve been bilingual since birth but my parents and grandparents studied in English so despite everyone being fluent in Sinhala, the language of choice at home is ‘English with a bit of Sinhala’. Also, I spent the first three years of my life in the UK (and not in a Sinhala-speaking community) so English feels most natural to me.

    Moving to SL semi-permanently when I was 9 and studying in Sinhala in a govt school where a large proportion of my classmates weren’t fluent in English was tough, but not impossible. My move out of the local school system at A/L had nothing to do with the language issue – I guess that shows how comfortable I’d become with Sinhala.

    I still think in English…except when I’m stressed. I have a reputation for randomly speaking to my non-SL friends here in Sinhala when I’m panicking. I can’t explain it.

    I had to sit for TOEFL for US postgrad applications because as far as they were concerned, a Sri Lankan passport meant I couldn’t possibly be fluent enough in English to be considered a ‘native speaker’. Meh.

    But yeah, if anyone asks, I say that my mother tongue is Sinhala and my first language is English.


    • I’ve read somewhere that our subconscious reveals a lot more than we realize. Maybe the panic-Sinhala surfaces for some profound reason? I’ll let you know if I come up with anything 😉


  8. That’s a very very interesting post, Gutter. I think your mother tongue (i.e. the language your parents talk to you in at home) is English, but I guess it’s hard to convince everyone else. We do love to neatly label and pigeon-hole. 🙂

    Good luck with your finals!!! 😀


  9. Loved this post for many reasons, GF, perhaps mainly because of my own crazy identity/language issue and also my research. I have learned to tell people that I my first language is Sri Lankan English (it is legitimate, with the International Corpus of Sri Lankan English being compiled even as I speak) and that a person can have two mother tongues. (It’s true, I consider myself a co-ordinate bilingual) This essentialism is no longer hip, of ONE or the OTHER. The new buzz words are plurilingual and multiliterate 😛


    • I didn’t realize that Sri Lankan English was legitimate. I’ve always been aware of our localized tweaks with the language, but it’s nice to know that it’s recognized legally!


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