Bangalore, India

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–School Winner

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–School Winner

Dipika Subramaniam

Grade 9. NAFL.

Being Multilingual


 ‘Being multilingual’. The phrase itself brings different thoughts to my head. Several, actually.

When I was little, I thought, -well, I didn’t think about being multilingual at all. Not just because I had no idea what the word meant. I knew the basic aspects of Tamil as well as English perfectly fine, but I never really thought in depth about how it would be to know different languages in depth.

‘Who needs different languages anyway? It just makes things more confusing. It would make sense if everybody just spoke the same language.’

That was probably the deepest I had ever gone into the subject. Of course, that’s other than the occasional moment when my mother-tongue slipped out of my mouth into what I was saying. Only after the person I was talking to looked at me weirdly was it that I felt awkward and quickly backtracked, until I finally got the hang of holding in the word and saying the English one. Then, just a few years later, I moved to a different country, where I had to reinstate my knowledge of languages and things I knew how to say- but I didn’t know much. I had forgotten practically all that I knew.

Perhaps it was in the rush and shock of being spoken to in such fluent tongue, maybe I forgot the little of it that I knew, or I just didn’t know as much as I had thought I did. Whatever the problem was, I still didn’t know how to speak to many people, so I lived a major segment of my life just being unable to speak to some of my neighbors and other relatives who didn’t know English.

Or maybe, just like me, it wasn’t that they didn’t know English. It may have been the fact that they hadn’t used it in so long or that my accent was so strong that they were just as speechless as me. However, throughout the years, the people I had talked to and I, we had made a sort of unspoken –yet spoken, but we’re still communicating- compromise. I’d say what I knew in broken Tamil when I needed to say it, and add in English bits for the words I didn’t know. Whomever I was talking with would do the same, except insert Tamil or Kannada pieces in their English.

It was inevitable, although, for me to feel bitter all that while for forgetting how to speak Tamil. Kannada, I didn’t know it, and I wasn’t expected to know it, so that was okay, but Tamil was the language that I was supposed to know. How did I forget it? Throughout most of the nights after my family moved, I wondered, (other than what exactly that person said during dinner) how utterly naïve I was before. How I could have just lived life without thinking about a whole language?

Did I just not talk to any of my relatives? What exactly did I do during the summers I stayed here in India?

I found myself dubiously questioning the past and filling in the many gaps that (seemed) empty with tidbits of information that (seemed) true. To this day, I still don’t know some of my familial memories are correct. The least I can say is that thankfully it isn’t like that for my education.

That was a few years ago. These days, I can speak Tamil quite a bit more fluently than before – not as fluent as I’d like it to be, I still don’t know how to write or say big words, but just enough to be able to communicate. It was better than earlier, to say the least.

Now, however, to be multilingual means something entirely different. It means a whole bunch of different things, varying from:

‘Oh dear, I have that French test coming up this Friday! Have I prepared well enough? I should probably revise once more.’

To:    ‘…What? I have no idea what that person is saying. Is he speaking in Kannada or Telugu?… I am really lost.’

But if there’s one thing that I have learned by me, or anybody in general being multilingual over the years, it’s that you learn things.

You learn about perspective, and how it would be like to be in a different person’s shoes’ and to talk in a different language. It widens your scope of knowledge. You don’t just learn different words, you understand the derivatives of them and other words and the history behind them. You learn the language itself, and you have a greater capability of being able to communicate, as I had learned the hard way.

You find that just by saying something in a different language, you see things in an entirely different light. It changes your views on almost everything. When I speak in a different language, like French, I feel like an entirely different person.

A few years ago, I disliked the subject very, very strongly. I would never catch up with the rest of the class, it was way too hard, with those accents and ridiculous vocabulary, and besides, why should I have had to learn it anyway? It’s not like I was going to have to know it when I grew older.

Yet, I found that as I grew older, I found myself increasingly liking French, no matter how low my grades got, no matter how long it took me to convert sentences from English to French in my mind, no matter how frustrating the accents on the e’s were. French became a pleasantly refreshing subject (and there were actually nice pictures in the textbook!).

What, you may ask, instigated this particular set of feelings? Other than the fact that the voices on the cassettes were so high-pitched, which automatically made French class fun, the subject itself was different from the others. I knew part of the things they taught us in class, but in French I didn’t. Once I got the discouraging ‘I-will-fail-this-class’ voice in my mind aside, it became a challenge. It was so interesting to understand French culture and customs.

I found languages increasingly comparable to a mathematical function. Earlier I had to decode what the French word was into English to understand it, and needed to think of the English version of what I was going to write, then convert it to French and write it down.  It is similar to using a function to convert an element x from a set X into an element y in the set Y.

Now, however, I don’t need that. This year, I find myself thinking sometimes in French. I can just read a question and write the answer down without any ‘language-converting’ function. Well, most of the time, but the other times aside, it was function-less. Like how babies need help to eat, but when they grow older, they learn how to put the food in their mouth themselves.

became quite a bit well-versed in it, except I do need help on which spoons and forks to use in fancy restaurants still. Doubtless, there’s still a lot for me to learn, but I still know what I know.

Something my grandfather told me many times was that ‘We know that we know what we know, but we don’t know that we do not know what we do not know.’ A mind-boggling saying, but it makes much more sense when understood. It means that human beings have the knowledge that they know things, but they don’t know what it is that they don’t know. I understood what he said at first, but only after a few years was it that I could apply it to my own life. Until I moved I didn’t know that I didn’t know what being multilingual meant, so I’m glad I know it now.

I don’t take back what I said earlier, that it would be easier for everybody to speak just a single language, but it wouldn’t make sense either.

What about computer codes? Binary code is definitely needed for computers. They wouldn’t work without it, and it is a language, after all. Languages evolve, and having different languages could be useful to find the derivatives of words. I myself use Pig Latin to converse with my friends when I don’t want anybody else to listen in. Hindi, however being a nightmarish third language subject, was admittedly useful. I know the basics of Hindi, and can understand it when people speak slowly to me, so was useful learning it. I even communicate using Greek letters with my cousin sometimes. Having several languages does have it’s advantages as well as disadvantages. There are two sides to every argument, after all. It’s just best to know many languages and have them at the back of your hand in a world like this.

The main point of what being multilingual has taught me the most is that we never stop learning, that no matter how far we go, no matter how much a person knows, there’s still a lot left to learn.


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