Off-Centre Society

English Vinglish: There is something very rewarding about learning a new language

I have recently moved to Switzerland and enrolled as a student of French, one of the four national languages of the country. Having been introduced to French, I now find myself eavesdropping on conversations in buses and shops. Disjointed words spring out of billboards, falling like Tetris blocks in front of my eyes. Catchy songs on the local radio play in a loop in my head.

French is the world’s most romantic language, goes the cliché. I am not sure about the romance, but my travails with it are certainly humorous. What I read aloud is not what I hear. What I see is not what I speak. ‘What is this’ in French is pronounced Keskesey, but the written words are Qu’est-ce que c’est.

Silent letters are plentiful in French, almost silent words too. I won’t be surprised if I encounter silent sentences. I am now unlearning English in order to learn French, as there are words that mean one thing in English and quite another in French. Actuellement in French doesn’t mean ‘actually’, and a librairie is a ‘bookshop’. These false friends are everywhere, lurking in corners, luring me into their trap. My feeble attempts at pronouncing the letter R, meant to sound like a gentle breath of fresh air, sound like I am clearing my throat. My French teacher laughs when I complain. “We like to complicate things in French,” she remarks wryly.

But beneath all the complaints and mirth there is something very rewarding about learning a new language. It opens up a wondrous window to a new culture, altering perceptions.

Jingle jangle

My love for languages began in Mumbai, India’s very own Babel. As a Hindi- and English-speaking inhabitant of the city, I was multilingual even before I knew what that meant. Every lane of Mumbai jangled with multiple tongues — a smattering of Gujarati, Kutchi and Marwari in kirana shops; Konkani in the Catholic colonies; the lesser-known Tullu in Udupi restaurants; an ensemble of Bengali, Sindhi and Tamil in the ladies’ compartments of local trains.

A few years later, I picked up a smattering of Punjabi while working as a trainee on the shop floor of a factory in Moga, Punjab. This language, hearty and earthy in equal measure, was special. My earnest effort at communicating in colloquial Punjabi immediately opened hearts and forged an indelible bond with the place.

Then I moved to the Greater China region and immersed myself in Mandarin. I realised that Mandarin’s uniqueness lay in its ability to be surprisingly simple yet labyrinthine at the same time.

Spoken Mandarin doesn’t have genders; there is little grammar and fewer rules compared to most other languages. The Mandarin ecosystem is a sensorial one. It is phonetic, replete with homophones. There are four distinct tones, which to the untrained ear can sound quite the same.

Lifting the veil

Most tone-deaf foreigners like me lazily take refuge in the hope that the context of conversation will make us understood. Ma ma ma ma can be quite meaningless if spoken in a staccato fashion. But once you learn to stress the right tones, it transforms into something a bit more comprehensible (‘Is the mother berating a horse?’).

Mandarin soon became more than a language to me. It lifted the veil from a previously distant Chinese culture and allowed me to enter the lives of its people.

Now, as I navigate my way in a new world and continue to struggle with the complexities of French tense and grammar — learning ‘to be’ in the present with the past participle while regularising the irregular verb — the process is also quietly teaching me to stay in the present, in real time.

People ask why, in a world overflowing with translation apps, emojis, memojis and Twitterised lingo, one should bother learning new languages. I reply, but translation apps won’t bring me the essence of a society, its people and culture. Sure, emojis can entertain, but they hardly seek to understand.

The Switzerland-based writer is a cultural commentator.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 3:50:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/english-vinglish-there-is-something-very-rewarding-about-learning-a-new-language/article34279467.ece

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