I am here to apologize to all the Indians, the Kannadigas I’ve met in the last three weeks. Immediately upon meeting you, you either spoke to me in English, with the assumption that of course I wouldn’t be familiar with your language. Or, you asked if I spoke Hindi, and when you learned I didn’t, you jumped right into English with no apparent judgement. India, I am grateful for your linguistic abilities and I am sorry for my linguistic limitations.
I studied French for several years, but I am only fluent in English. Meanwhile, every single person I’ve met in India thus far speaks at least two languages fluently. The vast majority speak three and the remaining speak four or more. I wrote a story this week about Bengalureans using apps to teach Kannada, the official language of the state, Karnataka. Naturally, I talked with people who are very passionate about learning languages. I listened to them list off the languages they knew while I soaked in all the guilt only a monolinguist surrounded by polyglots can feel.
The remnants of colonialism still present in this country make being an English-only speaker a conflicting experience. I went to see professor Janaki Nair of Jawaharlal Nehru University speak about the current issues in the public university system in India and she made it clear that English is much more than a language in India. It’s a political system, a judicial system, maybe a sign of status or class, a symbol of power, a hegemonic force. Another person I talked to urged for the “decolonisation” of education, in other words, halting the practice of Indian public universities teaching primarily in English.
I’ve had people ask: Why are Americans so unadaptable to change? Why must we change, while America stays the same? Why don’t Americans learn other languages? Of course, many Americans do learn other languages, but the reality is the majority don’t. Instead, we expect anyone who comes to the United States to speak English; we even expect for foreigners to know English when we travel abroad. Again, I can’t speak for all Americans, but I am confident that many have that expectation.
It’s normal to be trilingual
To any Americans reading this, understand that Hindi isn’t even the dominant or official language in Bengaluru. So, the norm it seems, is to know Kannada, to be at least conversational, probably fluent in Hindi, fluent in English, and fluent in one or two or three other Indian languages—there are 22 official languages in India and many more unofficial languages spoken. It’s just normal to be trilingual.
On a daily basis, I hear my housemates speak to each other in their mother tongue and in English. More often than not, one sentence will be spliced with multiple languages. When I listen to some of the popular music here, I notice the same thing. One song that has played on several of my rides around the city, “Sooraj Dooba Hain,” is mostly in Hindi but has interjections in English. When I watch TV in our apartment, again I hear the same thing, except of course when How I Met Your Mother or Everybody Loves Raymond is on. Just recently, I was watching India’s Next Top Model; the judges on that show will hop back and forth from Hindi to English. Again, to any Americans reading this, can you imagine if any of our TV shows did that? What if America’s Next Top Model or The Voice judges spoke in both Spanish and English intermittently?
The US has more Spanish speakers than Spain, 41 million, yet no one would say it’s the norm to know Spanish, to be able to converse with a native Spanish speaker. Of course many kids study Spanish, but it isn’t made a priority. My younger brother complains about having to learn Spanish at his high school. Spanish he will probably forget by the time he is my age, having not put it to any use. He isn’t taught why he should learn Spanish, or why he should want to learn Spanish. Instead, he is just told if you want to graduate, you have to take X amount of Spanish courses. Perhaps if there was more of an emphasis on the human to human benefit of being able to communicate in a foreign language, there would be less resistance and more excitement associated with language learning.
When it comes to studying a foreign language in the US, and I am a perfect example of this, European languages seem to be the go-to. The Atlantic touches on this: “In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally, 193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan, the US education secretary, noted back in 2010 that the vast majority—95 percent—of all language enrollments were in a European language. This is just one indicator demonstrating the shortcomings and inequalities in language education today.”
One of my sources for my last story, Vikram Cannanure, a web developer currently based in the US, told me in his experience developing a connection with someone starts when you are able to speak to them in their language. Americans, like myself, take this for granted because English is so widespread. We rarely have to work to form that connection because others are doing that work for us. So again, to all the Kannadigas I’ve met, I am sorry for my inability to communicate with you in your mother tongue, thank you for welcoming me nonetheless.