Monday, February 22, 2016

What's In A Language?

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.


(This post was sent by Sushmita Ananth. After spending many years in the creative corners of the advertising world, Sushmita moved to Akshara Foundation. An immense interest in architecture and writing take her to remote little nooks and corners when she isn't confined to her desk.)

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As a child, one question always flummoxed me - 'Where are you from?'. Because when I'd answer with a rather proud 'Bangalore', it would always be followed by an 'Oh, so you are a Kannadiga?' 

First of all, how did it matter? I was a Bangalorean as far as I was concerned. Period. And secondly, where do I begin explaining to people those days that while amma was from Palakkad (but not a Malayali), dad was a 'local'. 

My mixed race answers have led to many lengthy discussions where people tried putting me into the bracket they thought apt. *rolling eyes

The home I come from, there were no brackets there. English, Kannada and Tamil were all spoken with fluency and given equal importance. I had teams set up for me...teams that were in charge of seeing to it that I mastered all three languages. 

Thatha and Thathi (my maternal grandparents formed my Tamil Team). Ajja and Ajji (my paternal doves) formed my Kannada Brigade and my parents conveniently stuck to whatever they felt in the mood for.


I know what you are thinking. Wow! I must have been a multilingual pro by the time I was 10. I am sadly, jack of all languages even to this date. 

Just as I began understanding these three, along came Hindi into my life. I was barely 5 when I had to choose a second language at school. I was good on the Kannada front as far as my folks were concerned; Hindi was the obvious choice. 

So here was a 5-6 year old lapping up the vowels and a-aa, e-eee, mixed with heavy doses of 'seemebadnekai' and 'pazham'. 

I was being exposed to a different language from every possible front. At every stage. 

Needless to say, in this mixed salad I now call my childhood, some things in life were known by one universal word for me, for convenience sake. Like tomato for instance, which I had 'learnt' to be the same in all three languages. So imagine my horror when my best friend Shruti's granny told me she had cooked 'takkali' that day! What was that and why hadn't thathi ever made it for me or taught it to me? 

Or my disappointment when Anjana, another groupie would say 'bonda amma, bonda' almost every day during play time, but no plate of fried goodness ever surfaced! 

Yes, seems like I was rather particular about words related to food. 

But jokes apart, to say the least, I soon started falling in love with languages. I remember I used to write down words I'd see on TV during the Kannada news and ask dad what they were. I thought I could ace it just by copying the squiggles exactly. The first such word I ever wrote was, believe it or not, Bangalore! 

Through the years, I learnt Malayalam (thanks to six roommates for two years), a bit of Coorgi (or Coorg as they prefer to call it), a wee bit more of Ladakhi and a dash of French. 

Those initial years of being exposed to many languages in a cosmopolitan city made me end up becoming Jack of all languages than a master of one. And to say the least, I love it like this! 

Thank you Thatha, Thathi, Ajja and Ajji for getting the ball rolling.

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