Language conundrum: Pretence and practice

Language conundrum: Pretence and practice

 Because it is I who am surprised anyone should be so surprised at my ability to speak my mother tongue — a language I was born into and brought up on for nearly three decades of my life.

I’ve spent 30 years away, first in Japan, then in the UK, then briefly in Malaysia and now back in the UK. Notwithstanding this, and the fact that I am married to an Englishman, I still cannot imagine not being able to communicate in my mother tongue, at least when I’m in Bangalore.

I’d thought I’d be able to use Kannada, Tamil or Hindi when I meet other Indians abroad. I’ve given up trying. However long and consistently I try to use our common Indian language, the response I get is invariably in English. I can, therefore, understand why people in India seem surprised at my ability to use my mother tongue after 30 years away.


So many of the ‘NRIs’ I meet abroad not only prefer to speak in English, they seem to actively shun their own languages. It is almost as if they are embarrassed to speak them. I’ve met many who might have been in England or the US for about three or four years, but they already have left the land of their forefathers far behind. It saddens me when their children, born in India, either don’t want to speak in their mother tongues, or when they do, it’s with an accent.

My question to them is: if you disown your own language which is a part of your identity and culture, if you do not respect who you are, how do you expect other people to respect you?

Why is such a question not asked of a Japanese, a Chinese, a Korean or any of the other Asian friends I have in the UK. So many of my Japanese friends in Britain for instance, have migrated and settled away from their land of birth, but they don’t seem to forget the ability to communicate in their own languages.

Why then can’t we remember, indeed respect, our roots wherever else life takes us? Never mind respect, why do we seem embarrassed of who we are?

Actually, this is not true of all. There are others, totally different, but maybe more worrisome. I know I’m committing the sin of generalisation. But it does serve to emphasise a sad truth. The NRI’s who feel superior to those back home who have never experienced a ‘better’ life abroad, who refuse to speak their own language, or speak it with a strange accent.

The other group tends to go the opposite way. They love their land, their roots, their language, their food, their clothes and their customs. Good! But not good when their love is obsessive and they dislike everything else that is different. They live abroad, earn good hard currency, enjoy the benefits but look down on everything not ‘desi’. Truly their love is blind as they cannot see, or refuse to, the problems back home.

This year I have begun to notice a third group, perhaps the most worrying. After brief annual visits for nearly 30 years, I am back in Bangalore for an extended stretch as an English language trainer. Part of my work is accent modification. In my everyday life here, but more particularly in my work, I notice a reluctance in students and other youngsters to speak their native language, in my case, Kannada.

It saddens me that the lingua-franca has become English to the extent that they do not wish to speak their mother tongue even at home. And the funny thing is, when I try to speak to them in Kannada, the response is awkward and with a weird accent, as if they are speaking a foreign tongue.

These are students who have never been abroad — yet. In fairness, if the youngsters are simply unable to speak their mother tongue for whatever reason or are more comfortable using English all the time, so be it. But the unhappy truth is, many are ashamed to speak their own language. My concern is this attitude — not their use of English.