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.