Confessions of a Multilingual

I think I am a multilingual. I speak Bengali (my home language) with the members of my family, I speak Assamese (my second home language) with my friends , colleagues, students and neighbors who are the members of my extended family, I speak Hindi ( the official language of my country), I speak English too during my professional, official and social interactions with my colleagues, friends, students and casual acquaintances. During my younger days, I used to speak Dimasa ( a Tibeto-burman language) too though in a very restricted domain. Finally, I am an adult learner of Kannada, a language which is omnipresent in my immediate environment. All these languages have made me what I am today. Not only do I speak these languages, I do think and dream in these languages without being aware of any code-switching from one language to another. Multilingualism is a constituent of my existence; I won’t survive if you deprive me of any one of these languages. The story of my multilingual identity is not an exception, it is the story of millions of Indians too.
Does my switch between languages affect my personality or the perspective? Certainly not. These languages which are the constituents of my consciousness do not compete with one another, rather they complement one another. Instead of a single window room, I live in a spacious room having a number of windows which allow an easy flow of the resources of so many vibrant languages.
How I acquired these languages puzzles me. I acquired them as they came to my life. I speak as I breathe.
One of the first words that I used to utter as a child was ‘aidamono’, my mother used to tell me. For me, this was the term of address for my grandmother. This word did not exist in any known language, but I used it as a child. I was coaxed and cajoled by my mother to give up this absurd word for the standard Bengali word ‘thamma’ or ‘thakurma’ as it was used by the other siblings in the family. I was rather adamant, my mother used to tell me. What I did as a child was not at all unusual, children all over the world have the curious habit of coining unusual words and I am glad that I was a normal child. It seems that Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device (LAD) was quite powerful in my head. What Lewis Carrol put in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ was in my mind too, I suppose. “When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “ it means what I choose it to mean….neither more nor less”.
I learnt my second home language when I was 20. I remember the day when I reached Guwahati to study the MA course. In the evening, my elder brother who was a Professor at GU at that time asked me to go to market to buy vegetables. “How can I do that?” I protested, “ I don’t know the local language!” “ Don’t worry. While you go there, stand before the vegetable vendor and ask him “Kiman” (What’s the price?). He will tell you the price and ask you “Kiman” (how much?). Tell him one kilo or half a kilo and your shopping is done!” That evening, I conquered the world with only one word of a new language that became a part of my entity during the rest of my life.
For learning a language, you have to identify yourself with the people who speak that language, you have to imbibe the spirit and the flavor of the language and to acquire the appropriate language sensitivity. An expression like “ bro thangma?” or ‘bede jadu ?” are not merely questions among the Dimasa speaking people of Assam, they are the examples of ‘phatic communion’ establishing a bond between the speaker and the addressee. When you ask me ‘How are you?’ I reply sponteneously, ‘ I’m fine, thanks’ even though I have a severe head ache at that moment.
It pains me when I hear people talking about primitive languages. I know people who maintain that this or that language has a couple of hundred words! All languages are equally powerful and equally complex. Over generalization about language is a linguistic crime. Do adjectives precede nouns in all languages? Certainly not. To quote from Dimasa : ‘Malasa majangbi’ means “ girl beautiful.” The noun preceding the adjective. Unlike other Indo-European languages, in Dimasa, a little known language of India, the noun precedes the adjective. There are many color terms in this language not available in many other well-known languages.
The communicative needs of a person prompt him or her to learn a language and human beings are always communicative by nature. There is no point in suppressing your communicative urge. If you try to suppress it, you are exposed to heart attacks. Poets and singers who reach out to millions of people through their communicative voice live longer than the people who are introverts and confined to their shells. Rabindranath Tagore knew it, that’s why he could sing ‘nirjharer sapnabhanga’, Bhupen Hazarika knew it, that’s why he could give a clarion call that reverberates across the hills and the dales.
Fall in love with a language and drink the nectar, it will rejuvenate your spirit and open a new world hitherto unknown and unexplored.


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