Thursday, June 2, 2011


Just done with Pa's birthday dinner. Three of his friends brought their kids along.

One of them was eight, another six, both boys, and the third was around ten, a girl. Got them to watch an animated series I knew zilch about but which they knew quite well. Before long, I was struck by our very special linguistic situation. I marveled at the conversation in the room. The eight-year-old could speak three languages - English, Hindi and Assamese - and he spoke them fluently and spontaneously. He picked one individual each for the three languages respectively - he spoke to me in English, he addressed the girl in Hindi (her native language) and the little boy in Assamese (his native language). The girl used the same set of permutations. The little boy could only speak Assamese, so whenever anyone addressed him it was in that language. The girl and the older boy could both clearly speak English and Assamese, but when they spoke to each other it was in Hindi. I could clearly speak all three languages and responded in any one of them as the evening wore on, but they continued to put their questions and thoughts to me in English. They had already conceived of a level of comfort for each of us in each of the three languages.

The older boy was garrulous and he spoke constantly. He skipped from one language to another without the slightest hesitation or pause. It often depended on the person he inadvertently turned to in the middle of watching the episode.

It struck me so suddenly and I made a mental note ("See!") to some of my friends who don't share this experience. I felt like I had chanced upon a special discovery and brought it to the attention of my Linguistics class in one of our discussions on "native" and "non-native" languages. But, really, to those in the room, this was utterly commonplace and quotidian. I realized how very different I had become, in thinking of the most natural situational reality as some sort of 'phenomenon', to be lauded ad nauseum in the company of expatriate friends.

Of course, foolishly, I had forgotten that the eight-year-old version of me was no different from its counterpart at dinner - I skipped then from language to language at home and elsewhere without the slightest self-consciousness.


Adit Baruah said...

Ahh Arjun. This made me smile.

Last month, me and a bunch of friends were discussing how one's native language(s) affect the shaping of their consciousness. I was quite shamelessly reveling at the attention I got, fashioning myself as some sort of authority on the subject. I think at one point I realized the absurdity of it all, how speaking four languages was really no big deal back in India and how, suddenly, I had begun to conceptualize so many things I had intuitively taken for granted, for the benefit of people around me.

Funny you had the same sort of epiphany.

Arjun Rajkhowa said...

It's amazing that you had the same experience. Well, it's always nice to be back in a polyglot world. And, let's admit it, it's also nice when you're automatically considered special when you speak more than one language! Wink.

Joon said...

i liked your observation Arjun. well written - as always