When the last speaker of the ancient Andamanese language Bo died recently, Survival International Director Stephen Corry lamented, “The extinction of the Bo language means that a unique part of human society is now just a memory.”
I can sympathize.
I had the occasion to watch a couple of Tamil plays recently. The local amateur theater troupe was lucky to have one of the foremost playwrights and directors from Chennai visiting the Bay Area, and the audience was lucky there were enough actors proficient in Tamil to do justice to the scripts. But the real thrill for me was how easily I was able to follow the dialogue and get (most of) the jokes—my exposure to my mother tongue has been spotty at best for the past couple of decades.
Knowing a different language is not just about being able to communicate in a new place; language exposes you to a completely different way of thinking. There are jokes in Tamil that cannot be translated into English, or even Hindi, the Indian national language; indeed, some of the jokes sound downright offensive when translated. Yet, in their context, they are innocuous, and knowing why the audience is laughing at them gives you insight into the thought processes of a people. A poem in Urdu can move you to tears, but an attempt to translate it can leave you wondering if non-Urdu speakers even feel those emotions; otherwise why would their language be so inadequate?
Those unique ways of thinking and acting are what we term culture, and language is an indispensable part of transmitting it. I wonder if there is a part of me that will always be inaccessible to my children, who only understand English.
But if culture cannot be communicated without language, language cannot be completely learnt in a vacuum either. We absorbed multiple Indian languages by osmosis from our childhood environment. Our children may be exposed to just one non-English language, through parental input or formal classes, but even that is a daunting task when there is no support in the media or the environment.
Is the culture we bring to our adopted home doomed to slow obsolescence over multiple generations? Perhaps. It is up to us to make sure that despite transmission losses, the elements we value most get carried forward whole, no matter which language we use to convey them.