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“Linguistic Insanity”

Written By: daveski on March 14, 2009 No Comment

Here’s a guest post from Maya Smith in the beginning stages of her voyages across the globe. She’s in India now and as I’ve been pestering her to write about it for FIT she posted this to her blog “Big Bang 2009” and let me cross-post here…amazing stories from a fluent speaker of 5 languages who’s feeling humbled by the linguistic diversity she’s encountering. Thanks, Maya!

As I’ve promised my friend Dave from school (not the Brit) that I would contribute to his linguistic blog, I’ve decided to reflect on what communication in India has been like in my month here. I got a kick out of impressing my Indian friends the first few days I was here, by seemingly understanding the conversations that emanate from the code-switching grab-bag that is the centerpiece of most communication in India. They would speak to each other in a mix of Tamil, which is the state language of Tamil Nadu where they are all working on their Masters; Hindi, which can vaguely be considered a National language but which loses all currency in the southern states; English which is often preferred to Hindi and is a sign of education especially when riding the trains; Telugu, which is spoken by many people in the state north of Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh. Then you have Malayalam, spoken by my friend Maria from Kerala, and a personal favorite of mine just by virtue of being a palindrome; and Kanata, spoken by my friend Deepa from Karnataka. I’ve only scratched the surface of the 2 official national languages, 14 or so official state languages (Tamil Nadu for instance recognizes Tamil as its official language but not Hindi or English) and around 152 recognized languages in India (don’t quote me on those figures as that is what I’ve gotten through asking people but have not had the opportunity to verify). Through a mix of watching facial features, body language, picking up the occasional English word, and recognizing context clues, I was able to understand a portion of what they were saying and would chime in occasionally and strategically, eliciting disbelief. However, they shouldn’t be too impressed as the linguistic gymnastics they perform everyday is unlike anything seen in the Western world and makes my fluency in five related languages quite unimpressive.

I had spent the last 6 months preparing for the largest exam of my life, my PhD qualifying exams in Romance Linguistics, before coming to India. A large portion of the exam was looking at language standardization in Spanish and French speaking countries. While most of Europe has been moving towards a one nation one language model that has been slowly snuffing out regional languages and silencing any protests from migrant languages, places in Africa and Asia have a long tradition of the coexistence of several languages. Interlocutors are expected to participate in this push and pull, give and take model of communication. When we went to Andra Pradesh for the wedding, I hadn’t realized at first that most of my friends did not speak the same language as the autorickshaw drivers or other people we communicated with on the streets. They were relying on common words, gestures, and brief forays into the supposed national languages to get their points across. This is the first country in 35 where I’ve been at a loss of words. The first thing I try to do when visiting any country is learn a few words in the dominant language, both as a sign of respect to the people I want to engage and as a survival method. Assuming that the rest of the world speaks English when traveling in the ways I prefer to, away from the beaten path, far from urban centers, is suicide as English is often not an option. However, in India, especially in the South, learning Hindi is not going to give you much leverage and learning enough of the state languages to be vaguely effective takes time. Having started my India travels in Tamil Nadu also heavily influenced my conception of what it means to speak a language in India. Tamil Nadu was the only state not to ratify Hindi as a national language that would be taught in schools. English is learned before Hindi and in the small enclave of Pondicherry, that is surrounded by Tamil Nadu and was once a French colony, French is taught in schools before Hindi. I’m sure my take on Hindi will change once I travel around the North, but for now, Hindi has been absent from my travels.

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