'Language' Challenged!

I saw this in today's 'Animal Crackers' cartoon in B. Post! It is a conversation between two Ants watched by Leo: 'Are you my Aunt' asks one Ant to the other. 'I am an Ant' says the other 'But I am also your Uncle'. The first Ant says 'I am confused'.
My first reaction was to go AAGrrrhh! Then I thought, wait a minute this is me!
I am always confused about the correct accent to adopt while speaking English!

It took me back to a conversation with a friend on my first visit to USA years ago.
'My ant is visiting me.' She said.
'Your Aunt?' thinking I had heard her wrong!
'Yes my ANT!' with an unnecessary emphasis.
'Oh Your Aunt' not willing to give up.
I think we both were mystified and a bit irritated but decided to let go.

Mukund was narrating to us recently, how his daughters Aparna and Aditi were always correcting his accent. 'Hostile' to them was Hosteel and not Hostyle. Tile is pronounced as 'Tyle' in English and not 'teel'. I remember that 'Honda' in America is as in 'Honey' whereas for me it is as in 'Bonda'. (Bone-da)

When young we admired actors who had the correct 'oxford' accent. Being true anglophiles, god knows why, we were condescending to those with a different accent. I almost got into trouble with my American bosses on one occasion, when they made fun of my accent. It had gotten so bad that I had to tell them that they did not speak English but American.

It is not that I admire all Brits and their accents. While in UK, it was a shock to hear their 'midlands' accent. They were equally amused by my text book type of English and said I used words they had never heard before. I took it as a compliment!

In fact my confusion is not only in English, but it is in any language! Not just accent, it is also about grammar, pronunciation and often the word itself! People who know me well are of aware my language challenges. I successfully negotiated and paid Rs.200 for a tyre which I thought was quoted at Rs.250. The shopkeeper actually had quoted Rs.150. I had mixed up the two words in Hindi. (Dhed and Adai?) No wonder he carried the two tyres I had bought to my car!

I think I gave up learning Hindi when my colleague's young sister would start giggling whenever I spoke to her in Hindi. I used to think what a silly girl! It is only later I learnt that I used the wrong gender words while talking to her, addressing her as a male!

The latest one to make fun of my 'language abilities' or is it 'disabilities' was a dear friend of Tara known for her bluntness. She said you don't know any language, neither Hindi nor Thai. Anyway I chose to be silent, I was too surprised!

The word disabilities reminds me of a stand off with a Maharastrian colleague after the tyrewala incident. I narrated the story of how the shopkeeper took 'advantage' of my ignorance of Hindi. 'you mean disadvantage of' you!' It was a literal translation from Marathi to English and he would not budge! Most of us have this problem when translating from one language to the other. I smile when friends forward English sign boards created by Chinese for the Olympics. But my sympathies are with the Chinese.

In fact, my trauma goes back to my first year in college, when I was asked leave the classroom, because the B buzzed instead of being silent in 'suBtle' as I read a book for the class. I was once totally embarrassed by pronouncing 'facade' as in 'fact' while trying to impress an educated bahu of our neighbors and she corrected me very gently.

One has to cope with all these imports in toto by the English. It is not easy as they are not very consistent when adapting, 'appalam' became 'poppadam' and 'mulligatwany' is a insult to the delicate aroma of the concoction.

I felt a little better when I came to Thailand as I found that the Thais were equally challenged when the confronted by English. I think it is a story worth an independent blog.

This was my favourite till recently, my secretary gave me back my passport and said 'when you expire, you go immigration!' Of course I understood that she meant the visa! Then I had this conversation the other day with my taxi driver friend. He was surprisingly quiet and suddenly came up with, 'Yourwife drinks too much' and then asked me realising that I was alone 'where is mywife'. Figure it out!

While I love English language I wished sometimes that they simplify. I used to think the German language or our own Sanskrit was the key. Then I received this 'forward' about English modified as common Euro language using German pronunciations. Please read the following sentence: If zis mad you smil, pleas pas on to oza pepl.

It iz md! I am sure a propah Englishman would be upset and would probably say 'While it is a conundrum why they want to do it, I have nothing but contumely for their attempt'.

I am not sure if there is a word for my condition, a true 'Eka Basha Vrata', a monogamous relationship with one language. It seems my mind closed to other languages once one of them was entrenched. Like the human egg ?

I also feel, the importance of language is overrated! I saw recently two old movies, one in Italian and the other in French, without subtitles and had no problem in getting a drift of the story!


Prakash Kamath said…

All languages have their own peculiar words and pronunciations to go with it leave alone the 'nasal' twangs and local slangs. A word in one language could mean another thing in another language with hilarious consequences.

Your mentioning of language disabilities can be highlighted by the old joke of a German during WWII being trained to learn English to take over the adminstration of England once Hitler invades successfully. Whereas German is a precise language where from the pronunciation you can spell the word and vice versa you can imagine the German's problems when faced with different pronunciations for 'put' and 'but' etc. While dutifully struggling to master English the German reportedly gave up after Dunkirk when he saw the headline in the London Times which read as " EVACUATION WHICH ONCE SPELT DISASTER NOW PRONOUNCED SUCCESS".

Happy blogging
Vishalakshi said…
a real nice writeup Uncle. I have a language barrier with my own kids when they learn in International (read 'learning the American accent and the internatonality ends there if you do not consider $ fees) and we have been educated in the Oxford way.
So now we are left thinking - do we adapt to the American way or 'correct' them?
Sriram said…
(I am adding Sriram's comments!)

Interesting, so what do you consider as your mother tongue or native language? Most of us Karnataka Iyengars are probably in the same boat in that we can neither read nor write Tamil which is supposed to be our mother tongue, and get laughed at when we speak our version of it in the company of Tamilians. Our command over Kannada might also be somewhat lacking, with the exception of the previous generation titans like Masti, PuTiNa, Gorur, Rajaratnam, etc.

As you pointed out, English is also a problem, in the areas of grammar, pronunciation, etc. - once again, the previous generation seems to have had a much better command over and eloquence in the use of the language. We learnt some Sanskrit, but not even remotely close to what our parents and grandparents learnt.

I never try my luck with Hindi, and reply in English whenever anyone tries to talk with me in that language. Same with the pure Tamil, with rare exceptions.

But I would have thought that with your extended stay in Poona, you would have picked up Marathi very well, and also the special Hindi spoken in the Bombay/Poona metro area.
(Sad to say I understand Marathi, not really fluent in it. Love watching Marathi plays!.... Nidhi)

Not sure whether I had mentioned this in any of my earlier emails, but my brother-in-law (Indu's brother), who is married to a Hebbar Iyengar (and that too from Nonavinakere!), was totally flabbergasted when she used the word "Gogarinjikindikkarna"! So I had to explain to him the roots of the Hebbar Tamil word, which would have originated from the Kannada "Golu kareyuvudu", which transforms to "Golkareyuvudu", and then to "gogareyuvudu", and of course it is an easy leap from there to the Hebbar Tamil word.
Nakul said…
Hi Nidhi Uncle,

I finally caught up with your blog - I had missed the last few posts. I totally identified with you on language - my pet peeve coming to the US was people pronouncing words funnily (e.g., sked-ule instead of shed-ule) and surely enough, six years later, I'm a victim of my own criticism :) Of course, what made things worse was that I landed in Texas, where people (I am convinced!) speak a language that's not English!

Also loved your post on Nikhil and Leela - both brought out, as adults like to call it, the inherent innocence with which kids view the world. From my (limited) interactions with Nikhil, I've always imagined him to grow up to be a philosopher / thinker and I guess your anecdote illustrates that.

Anyways, I enjoyed reading your blog so wanted to drop you a quick note. I might not be your most vocal reader but I do enjoy your writing :)

(Thanks Nakul, I appreciate it!)
chaya said…
Interesting reading Nidhi! I remember a workshop I was holding on Public speaking and this young male particpant stood up to speak-"I love bitches...I have seen many bithches....the best one I like is Kanya kumari bitch...".You can imagine the audience reaction when he uttered the first sentence!
Mohini said…
Nice one Nidhi Uncle. Language is over-rated at times. As a learner of a foreign language I would be least bothered if people sniggered at my tense and gender. So long as I can communicate was my motto. But with proficiency comes pride of knowing the language and its nuance. I prefer to avoid laughing at the Thai Tinglish but at times it is rather amusing. And I wouldn't be surprised if my english is a source of entertainment for the Brits.

lots of love

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