When the Mother Tongue Becomes the Other Tongue

As I write this sentence, words begin to jostle in my mind, struggling to outrun each other in a race to my fingertips, and eventually, onto my computer screen. These words constitute the vehicle that takes my thoughts on the largely subliminal journey from conception to expression. Together, these words are a part of a linguistic world that I have grown to imagine, understand, and, most importantly, inhabit over time.

A linguistic world built out of English, the language that has reduced my mother tongue to the status of the “other tongue”.

What exactly is the function of a mother tongue? For monolinguals, the answer is simple – all-encompassing communication. But the situation becomes more complicated for imperfect multilinguals like myself, who, apart from their mother tongue, are also versed in other languages to the extent of being far more adept at communicating in a tongue that is not their own.

Born and raised in Kolkata, my mother tongue is Bengali – a language distinguished for its graceful grammar, its rich literature and music, and its unfailing sweetness (certified or otherwise). And yet, despite speaking in, and listening to, Bengali for practically every day of my life, it is not the language I am most comfortable in.

I am functional in Bengali without always being fluent. I can stitch together a fair few sentences in unadulterated Bengali (without compulsive interferences from English). But ask me to write an essay or compose a poem in Bengali, and my mind can produce content no better than an average Class 10 essay (which is, incidentally, the last time I wrote at length in Bengali).

On the other hand, I can be intimate with, and in, English. Like a new lover arriving on the scene of life with uncompromising zeal to reorient the look and feel of one’s bedroom, my linguistic furniture had been taken over and refashioned by English a long time ago.

Even when I speak colloquially in Bengali with friends or family, it feels as if I am constructing my thoughts in English before rapidly translating them – albeit in a corrupted way that retains a significant chunk of the English words. This phenomenon of code-switching, or translanguaging, leads me to produce my own version of ‘Benglish’, which involves both my tongues, without doing justice to either.

It is not that I am totally unaware of the more subtle and sophisticated elements of the Bengali vocabulary. With a bit of time and sporadic assists from Google Translate, I can produce proficient, maybe even eloquent, Bengali – a luxury I do not have during mundane everyday communication in a post-colonial society where English has become innate for some and a necessary evil for others.

There are occasions when I read out a grocery list with some items named in Bengali, some in English, and some in a peculiarly Bengalised version of English (for instance, pronouncing biscuit as biskoot or mutton as mautton). Then are the days when I randomly recollect a delectable Bengali word like atitheyata (meaning hospitality) or abhutapurba (meaning unprecedented) and proceed to insert it in casual conversation, much to the chagrin of my listeners.

Also read: Confessions of an Almost Bilingual

Sometimes, I happen to be obsessed with improving my Bengali instantly, leading me to spend the best part of an hour enunciating smart-sounding Bengali op-eds to myself, before the constant fumbling impels me to read aloud an English article just to recover my self-esteem.

Sometimes, I also happen to read Bengali for the sheer sake of it, digging through my old textbooks from school (where, ironically enough, Bengali was designated as my “second language”) to land upon a Rabindranath short story whose English translation, unlike the original, has left imprints on my memory, but not on my heart. Reading the final paragraph of Tagore’s The Postmaster in Bengali, I may not be able to remember every word or appreciate the intricacies of meaning at every step; but I can, deep down, resonate with the lilting language. This is where, for all my comfort in English, I get a taste of the unfamiliar nuances of Bengali – a surge of surprise, a rush of blood. In exoticisng my native language, I steal from it an inexplicable passion that I cannot find in my stable, consistent love for English.

I know that I am not an exception. Thousands upon thousands of Indians educated in institutions where English rules the roost naturally gravitate away from their mother tongues towards a language that enjoys far greater applicability owing to its utter ubiquitousness in the world. The human instinct for language – the much-contested supposition popularised by Noam Chomsky that our brains are tailor made to pick up languages just as our legs are tailor made to walk – might mean that given a conducive marriage of circumstance and intent, we are capable of adapting our styles, customs, and even our identity, to incorporate a language whose existence becomes indispensable to our own.

Today, if English were to be suddenly obliterated from the face of the planet, its destruction would take my identity along with it. No longer would I have the facility to pen readable articles, the confidence to debate in a packed gallery, the solace of having published a book of poetry or the ambition to write a novel or two in the future. Denuded of my preferred arsenal of expression, I would be left with my functional Bengali to navigate the complexities of events and emotions, experiencing a linguistically low-resolution life that, notwithstanding bursts of exotic passion (as mentioned before), would be lacking in perception and profundity. All because I cannot manage to master a tongue I had uttered before any other.

Every year on February 21 (celebrated as International Mother Language Day), my discomfort regarding my mother tongue becoming the other tongue gets punctuated. It is a discomfort that is a product of an emotional mishmash – partial guilt at being lazy or neglectful of Bengali in spite of acknowledging its felicity, partial disdain towards English for its being the coloniser’s tongue but also partial gratitude for its position as today’s lingua franca. It is these partial emotions, these quasi-feelings that make me wonder how different I would have been had Bengali, not English, been my go-to language.

Besides admiring Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay more than Charles Dickens, craving maach bhaja more than fish fry, and opting for Bengali commentary over English every time I watch sport, would my faculties have been fundamentally altered on account of the primacy of Bengali?

Would I have, for example, thought of love in a separate light, been more impulsive and empathetic, not to mention, more amicable in my speech? Would there have been within me greater proclivities for spiritualism than materialism? Would I have understood my own surroundings better and comprehended the idiosyncrasies of Bengal and Bengalis for what they really are?

In a way, these are fruitless queries, even though they point to larger questions.

Does transmission of a language bring about a simultaneous transmission of the culture in which the language is forged? And, in a wider context, can a mother tongue be as influential as a mother when it comes to shaping character?

The answers, just like my competence in Bengali, seem somewhat vague and half-baked, perhaps destined to be permanently elusive.

Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.

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