Accidental Multilingualism

Recently, I read a post about the pros and cons of speaking a global language, and this got me thinking about my personal experience with languages. I come from India, where English is spoken as widely as Hindi, and both have been named the official languages of the Government. In a country with as much cultural diversity as mine, it is nearly impossible to expect a single language to be the medium of communication for everyone. So there are parts of the country where Hindi or English may not be spoken at all. The Constitution lists twenty-two languages. TWENTY-TWO. Nearly every state in India has its own regional language, and they are all quite different from one another.

The result of all this diversity is that a lot of Indians are multilingual by default, without even trying that hard. Most of us (from a certain socio-economic background) learn English in school. At home, we are taught our mother tongue. Sometimes, our mother tongue might not be the same as the regional language of the state we live in, so we learn the relevant regional language as well. In my case, I learned English and Hindi in school. I live in Mumbai, where the regional language is Marathi. I learned a bit of Marathi in school and picked up the rest from just living in the city. But my family hails from a state in the south of India, where the regional language is Malayalam, so I learned this language at home. See what I mean? It’s not like I made a conscious effort to learn any of these languages; they just happened to me. The only language I actually “learned” is French.

10 Rupee Note
10 Rupee Note with 15 languages printed on the side

Of course, I don’t claim to be equally fluent in all these languages. For instance, I can’t read or write Malayalam other than my name. So if you ever need to decipher something that uses only a combination of the letters in my name, you know who to go to. Despite being from a non-native English-speaking country, I still consider English to be my first language because that’s the language I am most comfortable using. But I am equally fluent in Hindi and sufficiently fluent in the other three languages. Though I think in English, I’ve realized that when I’m frustrated, I tend to lapse into Hindi. Knowing French certainly helps when I’m reading a French quote in a book or watching a French movie, but sadly, I haven’t been able to keep practicing the language regularly.

Signs on airport road
Signs on the road in two languages

My accidental multilingualism was not something I ever gave a second thought to. It was only when I moved to Edinburgh for my Masters that it first dawned on me that it was unusual. I met people from all over the world; some could only speak English, some were bilingual, and some were even multilingual. Whenever someone found out that I can speak five languages, they’d be amazed. But somehow, I felt like I didn’t deserve those awe-struck reactions. As I said, languages just happened to me by virtue of being an Indian. Besides, three out of the five languages I speak are Indian languages that aren’t even used all over my own country, let alone around the world. However, I admit that I do like being multilingual. I love languages. They fascinate me. They represent a specific culture, and by knowing the language, I can say that I know a bit of that culture as well. It would thrill me when I overheard snatches of conversation in Hindi as I walked around Edinburgh. When I was in Spain, I met two women on the train who spoke Malayalam. It’s exciting enough when I hear people speak my mother tongue in Mumbai, but to hear it in Spain pretty much made my day!

Restaurant signboard
Restaurant signboard

If I had more time and money, I’d definitely want to learn more languages, starting with Spanish and German. It’s not as though I have any grand plans to travel the world any time soon (refer to aforementioned lack of time and money; mostly money), but I want to learn these languages just for the sake of knowing them. Being a polyglot is a legitimate life ambition to have, right? Je veux apprendre toutes les langues du monde. खैर, फिलहाल तो पाँच ही काफी हैं।


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