Speaking Tongues

Native languages carry within them a vision of the world we inherit. But can one get to the heart of dreams without one?

Blessy Augustine Updated: Mar 21, 2023 15:38:02 IST
Speaking Tongues Illustration by Siddhant Jumde

When I was pregnant, I considered my state only as a ‘condition’—one that made me hungry and uncomfortable. I did everything to prepare for the arrival of my baby, but did not try to imagine what the person growing inside of me would become. I had one fleeting vision, though: Someday I would take her to see the Sistine Chapel and she would be as awestruck as me. I wanted her to be a good traveller. Ruby* is now five and we are yet to make that trip, but she shares my sense of awe. 

One day as we were walking back home from school, she told me about an episode of The Octonauts. “They were in the Arctic and saw the Northern Lights. Do you know what that is?” She continued, “I saw it and I felt amazed. I would like to see it for real. Can we go there?”

I had always wanted to see the Northern Lights too but had never shared that with her. Do you pass on your dreams to your children? I wondered. But what struck me most was her use of the word ‘amazed’.

At two years old, Ruby babbled expressively but spoke only a few coherent words. I struggled with the idea that perhaps she had a learning disability. I brought it up during a visit to the paediatrician, who considered her for a minute and said, “Nothing to worry about. She has intelligent eyes.” What are intelligent eyes? I wanted to ask. And what do they have to do with speech?

It was only months later that I realized that paediatricians look for signs of spectrum disorders by studying how toddlers respond to eye contact. I disregarded the ‘intelligent eyes’ comment and followed more practical advice. I read to Ruby compulsively, named every object in our path, and enunciated carefully. “To-ma-to,” I would stress holding the fruit in my hand. Ruby would laugh at how funnily I moved my mouth. I persevered with rhymes and stories. And then one fine day, around the age of three, she began speaking in full sentences, as if she had been speaking all her life.

My parents spoke Malayalam and that, for me, became the language of instruction and conflict. English became a language of discipline taught by teachers who spent money from their pockets to buy strong wooden rulers that would last a whole academic year’s worth of knuckle raps. But it was also the language of easy friendships and—as the only language in which I could read—of stories. I read about the devastating effects of famine in imperial China in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and the need to find the right word when describing a symptom in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

Around this time, I also taught myself enough Malayalam to be able to read the titles of movies I loved to watch. But to me Malayalam was a peculiar language—heavy, full of tension, masculine, but also full of humour. I realized very early on that the strength of the movies I loved lay in their ability to leave so much unsaid.

When we moved to Canada, Ruby fit in right away, speaking the universal language of Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig and Frozen. Her friends speak Spanish, Arabic and Tamil at home, and so I decided she needed to learn a second language as well. Hindi seemed like a feasible option. But besides the fact that the classes took place on Saturday mornings in a far off location, there was another concern. Whose language was it?

Of course, my husband and I read, write and speak Hindi. But my relationship with it is thin. Hindi, for me, is the language of getting by, used to bargain with auto drivers and shopkeepers. It’s the language that bound my Bengali maid to me, even though neither of us knew the correct word for kneading. It is transactional. A language in which few of us feel at home. Perhaps, I could teach Ruby Malayalam …

Ruby’s friends’ parents tell me how important it is for them that their kids learn their vernacular and follow their traditions. I nod, pretending to be a lazy parent. How could I explain how complicated language and tradition become when you are a first-generation immigrant in one place, a second-generation immigrant in another and a curiosity in your ‘native land’. But also that some of us belong nowhere on several levels.

Would they look at me with the same incomprehension as my American friend did when I told him that my last name is not a family name but my father’s first name, because most Malayali women can only belong to their fathers and their husbands but to neither’s family? They do understand that languages are ties to places and people, an inheritance. But would they understand if I said I didn’t really have a mother tongue—just a tongue?

Once Ruby started speaking effortlessly, I redirected my efforts to teaching her to name and differentiate between the many confusing emotions all young kids have. The morning grumpiness versus sadness, anger versus frustration, upset versus hurt.

How would I teach her to do that in Malayalam when all I know is the look on the screen that accompanied that emotion but was left unnamed?

The words I do teach her is what, for now, allows her to relate to the world, to know that stars can be amazing, that grumpiness is shaken off but hurt has to be forgiven. I can teach her to be at home in English, even if there is no heritage to pass on. We can both be travellers, and never native.

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