You lose it in a generation.
My parents came to the United States young (my mother was a teenager) and separately. They met in upstate New York, in graduate school. Despite sharing roots in Kerala—she by heritage, he by residence—they spoke to each other in English. They wrote letters in English and announced their engagement by phone to parents in India, in English.
I have written about some of this before, in these pages . Like many of their generation and demographic, my parents both grew up speaking English. They went to English-medium schools in Cochin and Calcutta. They count some serious Anglophiles among their ancestors, including, on my father’s side, an English prose-stylist known as the Silver-Tongued Orator.
It is entirely possible that, in the early years of their marriage, my parents told each other jokes in Hindi or layered their speech with Malayalam asides, two of their other shared languages. But by the time my brother and I were born, in the mid-1980s, they had basically established an English-medium household in suburban California, where, let’s face it, we would have learned to speak English anyway.
Over the years, my father’s Tamil waned, but not so much that he couldn’t still speak to his mother or translate, felicitously, for a priest at the London wedding of his sister-in-law. Malayalam he trotted out only at parties with other Malayalam-speakers, and normally in the form of a pun or odd literary reference. By contrast, my mother’s Malayalam—which had always been stilted given her upbringing outside of Kerala—improved considerably as she befriended diasporic Malayalees who were, unlike her, both fluent and literate. Her Hindi, too, benefited from encounters with other NRIs.
Enter the ambivalent and resentful American, moi. My mother tongue is English. My father tongue is English. The only language I will probably ever wield with unqualified fluency is English. I watch Bollywood movies with subtitles. I speak pidgin Malayalam with a Palakkad accent. My best line in Spanish is a query for more napkins, please. In French: a lament over not having killed some sworn enemy when I had the chance.
Yes, I am not so old that I couldn’t make a concerted effort to acquire fluency in one of these four tongues I speak with less facility than English. If I move somewhere where Hindi, Malayalam, Spanish, or French prevails, I might even learn to speak with aplomb. But I am old enough to recognize my weaknesses when it comes to language study (I got A’s in high school Spanish by entering Spanish poetry competitions, but never learned the subjunctive). It’s not enough to have the accent; languages, like muscles, must be exercised regularly. And I’m not sure if I want to move, or will have the opportunity to, or even can, so strongly do I feel the historical legacy, the burden-by-proxy, of my parents’ migration and self-willed dispossession.
In one of his many essays on the idea of Indianness, my uncle Shashi Tharoor observes that when two Indians meet abroad, “or two educated urban Indians meet in India,” they almost always speak first in English. Then, after “establish[ing] each other’s linguistic identity…they switch comfortably to another language, or a hybrid, depending on the link they have established.”
This is the conventional account of English as a mediating, “neutral” language in India’s complex linguistic environment. But it misses two important things that I have learned as a diaspora-born Indian. First, those two Indians cannot always choose to “switch comfortably” to another language, even if they establish the most intimate of links. There are many Indians like my parents who are most comfortable in English, full-stop. Choosing or not choosing to speak the language is no choice at all, and cannot be vested with undue significance by the arbiters of Indian authenticity.
Second, in my experience, when two Indians meet abroad today they may very well speak first in Hindi, then switch to English, or a hybrid Hinglish, depending on the competencies of the speakers in question. I have had this happen countless times, at restaurants in Berkeley, in grocery stores in Princeton, at a Starbucks in Dubai airport, at a beauty salon in Chicago. Invariably, I am addressed in Hindi by someone who recognizes me as a fellow Indian. Typically, I comprehend enough to respond sensibly in English. I nod in the appropriate places. I say “hanh,” and “ji,” and I get by despite the rising shame.
This is my own version, albeit a comparatively innocuous one, of V.S. Naipaul’s “areas of darkness”: words I hear but don’t understand; mixing up my d’s and dh’s; the inability to ask the woman who just gave my daughter, Mrinalini, her first real haircut, then followed with the gift of a paper airplane, how old her son is. Technically, I know the words. It’s just not the same as having them at the tip of my tongue.
This is not an indictment of my parents. They took us to India yearly, so often that I learned to speak Malayalam comfortably enough to study in Kerala while living with a host family. They tried to put us in Hindi class. I could have done more than one semester of Hindi in college. I’ve had the opportunities. The only thing I don’t have is the foundation: the experience of growing up in a bilingual environment, an experience that I jealously imagine would have made it easier for me to do what is necessary to achieve something approaching fluency in one of my “native” tongues.
What my American husband and I can’t do in any case is provide our daughter with that bilingual environment, one that exceeds Spanish classes at school or exchanges with a Polish babysitter. I am reminded of this often, like yesterday, when a Bulgarian nanny pushing her half-Spanish, half-Italian charge on the swing told me off for speaking to Mrinalini in English.
“You are doing the wrong thing,” she scolded me.
“Yes, but—” I started to explain.