I am Fierce in my Native Language, Confident in English, Awkward in German!
What’s up with that??
Did you know we are different people in different languages? It’s true! It all depends on how you absorbed a language, at what age and under what circumstances.
Growing up I was exposed to at least four different languages. This is quite normal for anyone growing up in India.
My first language was my native tongue Kannada, one of the classical languages of India. Those days, Indian parents didn’t really care too much about teaching their kids English at home — they left it for later years at school. So for the first two years of my life I was organically dunked in my native tongue — in its full coloquial glory. My parents spoke a colorful Kannada littered with cheeky proverbs, old adages and irreverent slang. This is why my native personality is my most colorful one. I can be forcefully fierce and satisfyingly childlike only in my native tongue. Only within its safe remit can I sit comfortably cross legged on the floor, eat messily with my fingers and swear beautifully. I am much too self conscious in English to do any of that.
I was introduced to English when I was just two years old — by my older sister who was already at school. She brought home oral poetry and rhymes which she recited repeatedly to anyone who cared enough to listen. In no time I was imitating her and reciting alongside. The basic sounds were already in my brain by the time I got to school myself. Ours was a convent school where the medium of instruction was English. Our teachers included nuns from the convent and ladies from the local Anglo-Indian families. Like most postcolonial urban Indian schools, we studied British texts and poems. All this laid a firm foundation for my English learning. American English and pop culture only came into my life later on, when I started working as a software engineer. Until then, my bookshelves were filled with works from British authors. Most of our mix tapes included songs from English bands and rock stars.
My early working years were a glorious period of language absorption of a whole other kind. Since I traveled for work, I got to meet native English speakers from different regions of UK and USA. This introduced me to the sounds of all their different accents. It also expanded my vocabulary with interesting regional expressions and inside jokes. It was like suddenly having a swiss army knife in place of a plain old cutting blade. This was also the phase of my life when I bought my own TV, lived on my own and watched excessive amounts of American and Brit sitcoms, especially comedy shows. This is probably why I am my funniest in English. Truth be told, my funny lines don’t land in any other language.
Somewhere in between, I also got introduced to Hindi — the language of Bollywood. My parents were big fat fans of Bollywood movies and songs. My mum had her kitchen radio constantly blaring hindi songs. To this day, certain childhood memories trigger specific hindi songs automatically. It’s funny how memory works. Also, I sing mostly in Hindi. And I can only be cheesy or romantic in Hindi. Go figure.
There is yet another interesting experience I have had with non-native languages. As a teen, I had friends from two other states. In India the states are created based on languages. So whenever I hung out with friends in their homes (read always!!) I got to listen in on conversations held in their native languages. I never really paid conscious attention but still ended up learning both their languages via passive listening. This is probably why I am very comfortable in big city subways anywhere in the world. You can put me anywhere where there’s a babble of foreign tongues, it won’t be bother me one bit. I can sit comfortably, not understanding a word of what is being said, just trying to sort out the musicality of sounds. It’s like being in an old friend’s home, waiting for hot tea and snacks.
When I was in highschool, I took up Sanskrit, an ancient South Asian classical language. Although I chose Sanskrit for all the wrong reasons (that’s a funny story for another time!) it soon became the language through which I experienced a much bigger universe beyond my own small world. I think they call it being spiritual nowadays. Anyways. We learned and annotated ancient vedic mantras in our classes and each time we chanted those ancient verses together, I experienced something bigger than me. It wasn’t about the religious aspect of the prayers. It never really mattered to me which of our million gods was being invoked in a specific verse. All that mattered was the universality, the common human experience, the sense of something big, much much bigger than me. I felt something deeper and higher through the musical rhythms of the chants. To this day, when I am anxious or facing a situation that is beyond my control, I resort to one of the ancient chants to calm me down. Instantly, I am ready to be in the moment, do my thing and leave the results to the forces bigger than me. So you could say that I am spiritual only in Sanskrit. Go ahead, laugh if you must. It really is quite funny if you think about it — all these multiple language personalities hidden inside my brain. It’s a wonder I can function at all.
Once I even tried learning French — some ten years ago. I had just been to Paris for a project and the whole damn city had sounded like one giant accordion. Everyone there made this language sound so pretty that I came away feeling like my own words sounded like water bubbling in a large and rustic cauldron. So I tried learning French. I failed miserably, mainly because it’s real hard to learn a foreign language when you aren’t immersed in it. But I am glad I tried. I can now say Mon chou! to my partner whenever I feel like it.
Trying to learn French also made me realise how different European languages are from Asian languages. I also realised for the first time that my personality changed with languages. In French I was very very very inhibited. Nothing about that language seemed to come from my own DNA. It was like I was rewiring my entire being into a whole other system of thinking and feeling.
It surprised me that knowing English well did not make it easier to learn other European languages. English had been a part of my childhood and had seeped comfortably into my own roots because of the colonial history. But with other languages I had no such shared context. Learning other foreign languages, especially European ones would be much harder and require a lot more effort. For the first time I also realised that the circumstance in which a person learns a given language greatly influences who they are in that language. That bit has nothing to do with the age of the learner.
Now that I am based in Berlin, it is important to me that I learn Deutsch. People survive comfortably in Berlin for quite a while without knowing any German. But I’ve never been convinced of the wisdom of that attitude. I mean, there is only so much Danke! and Entschuldigung!! you can whisper to another human. At some point, you will have to call a handyman and explain what you want fixed and exchange more than a few words. Or you may have to visit one of the many bureaucratic offices for paperwork, where language snobs will make you feel small and awkward and less of a human for not knowing their language. Or you may cross paths with your neighbour’s chatty kid and have nowhere to hide.
Or you may be on the street looking all comfortable and local and suddenly another local asks you directions in rapid Deutsch, mistaking you for a “true local”. It would take all of ten seconds for them to know your true identity, while you constipate in Deutsch like a clueless rookie. Even though you may know the answers in English, it won’t matter a jot. You will have to know all your answers in German for Berlin to peel back its outer layer and accept you as one of its own. What good are you and your life experience in English, if you can’t prove it in German.
So. That’s why I have to buckle down and learn the language this year. I am praying to the Covid Gods so they smile on all of us this year and make it easier to socialise fearlessly. I am asking for inner courage so I can push through my awkward child phase and graduate into the polished adult stage in German. Otherwise my brain might permanently associate German language with my bumbling inhibited immigrant personality and trap me within its realm forever. That won’t do.
This means that I have to try harder and live through the nightmarish beginner conversations this year. Even if the DHL delivery boys laugh at my broken sentences. Even if the Hausmeister (building super) treats me like a clueless teen because of my slow sentences. Even if the neighbor’s dog Milo decides to ignore my non-German ways of engaging with him. I will have to try harder so I can match my German age with my real age…and so I can combine all my other, reasonably interesting, language personalities and make up one passably confident German personality.