Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Bars and Barriers of Language

My aunt from Chennai (G’s mom) decided to visit us in Kolkata a few weeks ago. I was ecstatic, given that I’ve always been close to G’s family, her mom, and her daughter (baby Kalyani). There are people you meet in life and develop an instant bonding. This was one such family.

My mother however was a little reluctant because of the language barrier. My mother speaks reasonable English and Hindi, but feels most comfortable communicating in Bengali. Here she even assumed that aunty cannot speak anything other than the language of andre pandre (Tamil). My mother’s worries was based more on the lines of if she would be able to be a good host, how would she communicate with someone who speaks Tamil, if aunty would like Bengali food, etc. It’s a different story that my mother soon discovered for herself how well versed in Bengali aunty was. The moment my mother heard it for herself, they were inseparable buddies, constantly conversing in Bengali. I have never seen two strangers bond so quickly. Language was no longer a barrier, since one of them spoke the language the other understood.

My mother’s reluctance to meet someone she assumed she wouldn’t be able to communicate with got me thinking. How do couples in inter-caste marriages cope? What if neither understands or speaks the other person’s language? Where is the level of comfort then? Are couple okay communicating in a language each understands, but is not necessarily the native language then? Like a Bengali married to a Tamil speaking in English and Hindi for the rest of their lives? What language do their children speak then? All the languages involved, or none? Do they just resort to speaking the comfort languages like English or Hindi?

On similar thoughts, have you ever wondered how babies communicate to the world around them without knowing any of the languages? Without speaking a single word, babies deftly communicate their needs- hunger, anger, sleepiness, pleasure, and more. As baby Kalyani is growing up, she has developed her own special language to communicate with the rest of the world. A little more than 19 months old, with 6 teeth in all, she can tell you all about what she needs with her body language. She will scream “daadan” if she fancies something. So you take her to a shopping mall and she likes a particular dress, toy, even a little boy (yes, I am not kidding), and she will stretch out her hand and scream “Daadan”. She once wanted to hold a newly born and screamed “daadan” while moving towards the baby. We prevented her in time before she leapt at the little one.

These days, baby Kalyani has a special way of communicating that she wants to be taken outside. She will tell you “Bye shikkin” (probably her version of a bye bye trip, or her way of saying bye, see you). So when G is done bathing her and dressing her in her spring dress, smelling of soap and powder with neatly combed hair, she will demand to be taken outside for a drive. I once called G when they had just finished dinner and the little one demanded to be taken for a long drive at 10 pm !!! All I heard was screams of “bye shikkin”. On another occasion, they had barely boarded the train when the little one wanted to be set free so that she could run about inside the train. How successfully she communicates what she desires in life !!!

While some of us hesitate communicating with others from different cultures, not wanting to appear like a fool or be misunderstood for having said something inappropriate, nothing matters to little babies. Communication is instinctive for them, they know they will make their voices heard and their demands catered to, no matter what language people around them understand. Babies will make you understand their language.



Richa said...

As for couples from different language regions: Well each couple cope differently. Usually they end up learning each other's language since even though they can survive with each other without knowing the language, it becomes very crucial when they have to deal with in-laws. And you certainly don't want to be stuck at your spouses family for days without understanding a word they are saying.

Though in such marriages, language is the easy part. Languages aren't difficult to learn.

However, coming from two completely different culture has it's own implication. You grow up with few things that are consider classical in your culture. You have your own sayings, your own classic movies, songs, novels and their reference in daily language. It's so hard to explain those implications, those sayings, those classics to someone who didn't grow up with them. or to understand someone else's classics, sayings etc if you haven't grown up with them.

These are the things that take time. Language and food are very small things when compared to such large cultural differences.

As I always say: It's the jokes that are harder to understand than the language.

Chinkurli said...

You got it right there. I myself have trouble speaking in new languages because I always feel people will listen to me and laugh at my grammar/ pronunciation. For kids, though, they have no such fears :)

Neha said...

I know it well, coz im a maharashtrian who married a bengali...With hubbie, its still no problem coz we have always communicated in english.. but with my in laws, its more of a gesture-language.. because they cant speak anything other than bengali, and i cant speak bengali.. But I guess the more you stay with each other, the more you learn and appreciate each others languages. Like now, atleast i understand bengali!

sunshine said...

Richa, I completely agree with you --- being a Bengali and having grown up on Satyajit Ray movies, I'll find it very difficult to explain the subtle things to someone who doesn't get it. And it's so true when you say that the jokes are harder to understand. A non-Bengali friends of mine also wanted to learn some Bengali expletives, and when I tried to translate the gaalis, things lost its flavor :)

Chinkurli- Yes absolutely, kids are always without inhibitions :)

Neha, wow I have always been fascinated with couples who marry into different communities. I'd like to try and understand their challenges !