On the Sadness of Speaking One Language

IMG_3538In the kindergarten classroom at the Kuyilapalayam Higher Secondary School the children are learning to write in Tamil, English and Hindi. Today on the board, Tamil letters dominate and the children practice in composition books. They come up one by one to the teacher and make the corrections she asks for.

Tamil has over 200 letters in the alphabet. The teacher tells me, “It’s not like English, 26 letters only.”

In the classroom where students are working on English, my eleven-year-old is shocked. “These kindergartners have better handwriting than I do. They could teach me.” The alphabet is on the board in cursive. There’s no printing-first philosophy here.

The surf instructor speaks four languages, shifting between French and English for clients and Spanish and Tamil with his fellow teachers. Mr. Sircar, who allowed me to visit his class at the ashram, speaks English, French, Bengali, Italian, and possibly another language. Our landlord who tells us how terrible his actually very good English is, speaks French, Tamil, and Vietnamese.

My advisor speaks French, English, and Tamil. All the students at the College of Education learn English, Tamil and a third language.

All I have is English. I tell the teachers I wish I had another language, that I wish my children could have learned a language in primary school, like the children in India do. “But your accent is perfect,” says one teacher. My American ummms, likes, and tendency toward hyperbole seem far from perfection to me.

The phrase “mother tongue” comes up often in discussions of education in India. It’s the language that carried a person through babyhood, and it’s important. People talk passionately about their mother tongue, visceral, in the body. I don’t see that connection with English among English speakers in the US. In fact, I’ve heard more regret over whatever ancestral language was lost. It would be difficult to use the phrase “mother tongue” in the US without sounding ironic. Our history (and continued policy) of linguistic genocide casts too long of a shadow. We could be offering Indigenous languages in early grades beside a second foreign language and using English as the medium of instruction. It’s possible. Other countries do it.

IMG_3569Our educational focus on one language hasn’t helped anyone get along either. It’s clear reading the daily news that we don’t understand each other. I’m beginning to believe the opposite. The more languages each of us speak, the more likely we are to find connection and commonality. When we don’t offer students in the United States second and third languages in primary school, we limit them. Waiting until middle school, brains awash in hormones and bodies soaked in self-consciousness doesn’t work.

I wonder with the recent unveiling of President Obama’s “Computer Science for All Initiative” if we’re missing something deeper in the United States. Yes, job readiness. Yes, money. Yes, that’s what shapes curriculum. Yes, we are capitalists first. Speakers of languages second.

Today I’m thinking about the understanding of self and the world. Knowing another language allows a child a view into another culture, a depth of understanding allows us to navigate the distance between people in a very personal way. Whether it’s being able to switch languages to help someone who needs directions or it’s arriving at a deeper connection that can only be found through sharing the music and grammar of words.

And for lost connection, I’m mourning alone in my office this afternoon. Every time I come to work here, one of the College’s assistants comes in to turn on the air. I’ve traveled  from Alaska and they don’t want me to be uncomfortable, so they blast it the moment arrive. For South Indians, it’s not even that hot yet, so the fans aren’t even on yet in other rooms.

I’m trying to adapt. Yesterday I went to have chai in the canteen. Professor Annie sat next to me and talked. The chai burned my throat and I didn’t know how to ask for a silver cup to pour it back and forth to cool it. The room felt like a sauna. Partway through our conversation, Annie said, “Nicole, you’re sweating! You have to go back to your room now!” She grabbed my hand and told me to go, that we’d talk another time.IMG_3547

Here I am writing in my office with the air conditioner on. That’s what it’s like with only one language. Alone, in my climate-controlled world, while my friends, kind and so adaptable, work hard to make things easier for me. That’s the sadness of speaking only one language.

I’m going to shut off the air and go get some chai. I will see if I can find Annie. I’ll try not to sweat so much today.



2 thoughts on “On the Sadness of Speaking One Language

  • Hey Nicole!

    I don’t think it’s too late for you to learn a new language. You could take this opportunity to learn an Indian language. I’m sure your friends in South India will be more than eager to help you out. Good luck! ^_^


  • Nicole, it is so interesting to me that you wrote this. I just got back from 2.5 weeks in Costa Rica. My meager Spanish (I know lots of nouns, the infinitive forms of verbs, but had trouble putting simple sentences together) made me feel like a first worlder who expects everyone to be able to communicate with ME, but not in the other direction. This was my third visit to CR – my first was 20 years ago. Then, the cuteness of my young children was a distraction. This time, I noticed a far more international clientele among the tourists who were visiting -many Europeans, and Asians as well. Most everyone spoke better Spanish than we did, and it might have been their third or fourth language! We sat down to dinner three nights ago with travelers from Switzerland, an Italian-Greek couple, as well as French Canadiens and Dutch folks. Everyone spoke fluent English. We had an interesting conversation about European economics one night, and a lively discussion about schooling in all the different countries represented at the table. I am not even counting the many Costa Rican naturalists and bird guides who spoke English, as well as the very enthusiastic young man from the local village who took us on a mountain bike tour and shared the history and economics of the country and his village with us (and also helped us find a sloth). All spoke very good English, and we stumbled along with our Spanish (although practice does help, and you do improve the more you use it). I was struck by how the Europeans and the Costa Ricans simply expected to meet others and speak different languages as a matter of course and part of their daily landscapes. When I commented to our European dinner companions that I was so impressed with their multilinguality, one of them said, “But in America you can get on a plane and travel hundreds of miles and get out at the other end and be assured that people will speak your language. How cool is that?” I’m not sure how cool it is. I think the size of our country and its focus on one language have us expecting English to be spoken everywhere in the world we go. When you live in daily contact with multiple languages, at least you have an underlying sense that there are other cultures and traditions beside your own. It really made me think, and your entry even more so. Thank you. Give my best to TJ and the girls!



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