Speaking a Language: Native and Foreign

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Recently I read, in the New Yorker magazine, about writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s struggles to learn Italian and her relationship with it versus English and Bengali, her mother tongue. Being Asian Indian, I share Lahiri’s experience of duality or triangular tension as regards learning or using languages, even though our backgrounds differ to some extent. She grew up in an English-speaking country while I in a country with a myriad regional languages, including Bengali, my mother tongue, and no true national language, with Hindi being the closest to a lingua franca.

I grew up speaking multiple languages: Bengali at home, but also Hindi and English outside home, with Hindi being the common language of conversation in the heart of India, where I was raised, and with English being the medium of instruction in school. It was in high school that I grew a fondness for English, but the fact is that many Indians speak English because it’s a necessity, a relic of the Raj, or British rule in India. English is the language of the elite and of the white-collar professional. Like most Indians who attend English-medium schools, I have spoken the language all my life, along with Hindi and a regional or native language.

How conflicted, then, one becomes in picking the language of one’s choice to specialize in and master. One falls in love with a language other than her mother tongue, and undergoes the struggles and, then, perhaps, the triumphs of learning it, appropriating it not to the exclusion of other languages, but in conjunction with them. We burn in the duality or triangular tension of languages, and yet find unspeakable joy in speaking and writing the loved one.

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