Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One Family, Three (or Four) Languages, One Fine Legacy

Summer holidays back when we were growing up meant family get-togethers. The four of us - my parents, my brother and I - would drive down to Tamil Nadu from wherever we happened to be living to visit my father's side of the family or we would drive to Mysore where my mother's parents lived. Alternatively, family came to visit us. We moved every two years to a new town or city and visiting us was, therefore, always an adventure. And then there were the weddings and upanayanams* that had seasons of their own. Auspicious days occurring during a few months of the year meant wedding dates and dates for other rituals were crammed into those few months.

While the summer holidays, weddings and other occasions had a charm all their own and were eagerly anticipated, they were by no means the only times the families converged. Whenever we lived in the same town as my mother's or father's siblings, Sunday afternoons meant everyone would gather in one house for a massive lunch. I could never figure out how it happened, who planned it or who called everyone else, but there we were in the midst of a gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins, chowing down food until we could eat no more, my father's deep laughter resonating around the house, my uncles backing him up with cackles of their own, my aunts picking an argument with my father just because, and whoever the host was packing dinner for the guests in steel tiffin boxes to be hauled away at the end of the visit in buttis (plastic baskets with handles).

Amidst the laughter and fake arguments and the heady aromas and family rituals and gossip that enveloped us children like a warm blanket, one curious fact at these gatherings was (and is) a great source of delight to me. At any point in time we were liable to hear any one of four languages** - English, Kannada, Telugu or Tamil - floating in the air. It was, as far as I knew, unique to our family.

Since the pieces of this puzzle were in place way before I was born, I have never known anything other than my parents speaking to each other and with us children in one language (Telugu) and with their siblings and in-laws in two separate languages (Kannada and Tamil), all generously interspersed with English. It was only when I got older and visited my friends' homes that I realized that it was not normal at all.

The explanation for how this came about is innocuous enough - my father grew up in Tamil Nadu, my mother in Karnataka. One day my mother's aunt came with a marriage proposal for my mother. That aunt and one of my father's sisters were somehow related through an earlier marriage. It has been explained to me a hundred times, but I still don't get it (the next time around, I'm sitting down with a pencil and paper when I talk to my parents about this). But because they grew up in different states speaking different languages - Kannada in my mother's case and Tamil in my father's - how would my parents speak to each other? The elders talked about it a little and came up with a solution, a lingua franca - a third different language, Telugu - one that my maternal grandmother and mother knew how to speak and one that my dad spoke with his sisters-in-law and his sisters. Although each of their versions of the language was corrupted from being secondary to their main tongues, they could manage. And so they got married.

In time, my father became fluent in Kannada and my mother learned to speak and read Tamil, but they stuck to the original plan of speaking in Telugu to each other. So family events in which both sides of the family were present looked somewhat like this:

My parents spoke to each other and to us in Telugu; my father spoke to his brothers and brothers-in-law in Tamil, to his sisters-in-law and sisters in Telugu, to my mother's siblings in Kannada, to my maternal grandmother in Telugu and to my maternal grandfather in Kannada; my mother spoke to her parents, brothers and sisters and associated in-laws in Kannada, to all of my father's family in Telugu; my maternal grandmother spoke to my mother in Telugu (but my mother unfailingly responded in Kannada), and she spoke in Kannada to the rest of her children; my maternal uncles and aunts spoke to each other in Kannada; my paternal uncles and aunts spoke to each other in Tamil, but they spoke to the sisters-in-law in Telugu; my mother's nieces and nephews spoke to her in Kannada and the ones on my father's side spoke to her in Telugu; my brother and I spoke to cousins from my father's side in Telugu and to the ones from my mother's side in Kannada.

Depending on the participants, the same conversation would be had in all three languages, with everyone following and not missing a beat, and any exclamatory statements and pronouncements would be made in English. As in, "But that is preposterous!" to sum up someone's less than desirable stance on an issue. And sermons about bad behavior or life lessons were almost always in English.

As I tried to lay out and trace this bowl-of-spaghetti lingual connections to someone I worked for years ago when I moved to the US, he wondered if all this meant my brain was wired differently from his. It is quite possible that it is, but the one abiding lesson my parents tried to drill into us was respect for languages, and by extension, cultures. My father does not hesitate to express immediate and visceral disgust for anyone who puts down a language or culture. He maintains a small pocket dairy in which he notes down unfamiliar turns of phrases or new words he comes across in magazines or newspapers (he finds a boatload of them in The Atlantic Monthly magazine every time he comes here) and takes great pleasure in using them.

And if you thought I'd had my fill of languages to last me a lifetime, my husband speaks an entirely different dialect of Kannada than I do - the North Karnataka dialect. So when I first got to know his family, I, who had grown up speaking the language and studying it in school, stared at them a few times with a blank face trying to piece together what they said and trying to make sense of it in the context.

Over the years, our different languages and dialects have been a source of fun, too. My mother-in-law or my husband try to say something in Telugu with rather hilarious results, and they look at my face in anticipation when they use a particularly obscure word in the North Karnataka dialect.

Now all I need to figure out is how we're going to pass on this treasure to our children. My son picked up Kannada during our three-year stay in Bangalore and my daughter, who thought anything that did not sound like English was, by default, Spanish (courtesy Dora), now can identify Kannada words when she hears them. I have a strong feeling that the iron is hot and this summer is the time to strike it. The kids and I have planned to set aside an hour a day to speak exclusively in Kannada during the summer. I want them to be able to converse in the languages of our families without inhibitions, and am not really particular about them being able to write or read in those languages. Although if that does happen, no one will be more delighted than me.

* I wrote about my son's Upanayanam, a thread ceremony marking the passage from boyhood to the life of a student, here.

** The Government of India recognizes 22 official Indian languages. There are hundreds of dialects of each of these languages.


Sniffles and Smiles said...

What a fabulous way to grow up! I envy your facility with languages!!! This was an absolutely fascinating post! I LOVED it!!!! ~Janine

Sniffles and Smiles said...

P.S. Good for you to attempt to pass such a wonderful legacy down to your children!!! Love to you and your family! ~Janine XO

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

Lovely !!
Growing up I had language exposures myself and I am thankful for that !!
In our house my older daughter is strictly advised to communicate with us in Kannada. She has been good at it, until recently. I am observing that she has switched to English ... though a gentle reminder about our mother tongue switches her back to Kannada.

Anonymous said...

How lovely...we have pockets of Hindi in our extended family's Tamil and English mix :-)

My kids speak Tamil, thanks to grandparents staying for extended visits, and we have a only-Tamil-in-the-house rule which helps.


Laksh said...

Loved reading the description of your vacations. Sounds like fun times growing up.

Sands said...

awesome to be able to speak all 3 languages (tamil, kannada and telugu). I speak one and learned to understand the others by watching regional movies growing up. The learning continues since every close friend speaks a different language. The kids understand and do well with speaking tamil thanks to grandparents who live year round with us :) Am encouraging Meg to learn Hindi now ;)

Altoid said...

Awesome-o! I could relate so much to this. Let me precis my case here- Dad's family has been in Karnataka for generations- hence Kannada though most of the men married brides from TN, so they understand Tamil too, just not proficient. Mom's brought up in AP, some 5 generations ago they moved from TN. And we have lived/travelled in Karnataka all our life- so we know NK, Mangalore, Havyak Kannadas in addition to Tam, Telugu and English!

rads said...


I have always considered living outside of your state (in India) has its distinct advantages, and an average Indian will know at least 3 without much effort. I suppose more South Indians than north just of the geography alone. Most are quite envious of us :)

I've picked up traces of Kannada, Malyalam and Bengali, myself just by listening.

Rosaria Williams said...

My goodness, what a rich cultural heritage for your children.

Sylvia K said...

Marvelous post, Sujatha! Love reading about your family and the marvelous ability to speak so many languages! You are such a wonderful mother and your children are so blessed!
Much love,


Sniffles and Smiles said...

Hi! I've gifted you with The Honest Scrap Award at my place!! You consistently share your soul and you do it brilliantly! Congratulations! ~Janine XO

Sunil Deepak said...

Hello from Italy. Thanks for a lovely post. In our home, I speak to my Italian wife & dog in Italian, to my son in Italian or English, and to my daughter in law (from India) in English or Hindi or Punjabi or rarely Italian, and to my north Indian friends in Hindi. I regret, not having talked to my son in Hindi when he was small and hope to redeem myself with my grand-children.

Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...

Wow, beautiful story, Sujatha. Your remark about languages and how it affects the brain reminded me of this story I heard on NPR about how the language you speak affects how you think.


Good luck with the Kannada lessons, I would be interested in getting pointers for my conversations with Chota Bhel. :-)

Ugich Konitari said...

Great post Sujatha ! And i hope your idea of striking while the iron is hot works.

We were in Germany for a year (in the 90's), when my daughter was 5, and she went knowning good Marathi and a smattering of English (courtsey kindergaarten). Thanks to German kindergaarten and a huge Yougoslav boy in her class who bullied the girls into letting him take turns on the swing, she ended up learning to fight in perfect German, in the local dialect. Came back to India, speaking only Marathi and German. I think the younger children have a great gift of learning languages. They certainly lose that when older. So good luck with your daughter !

Kavi said...

How interesting !

And i met a New Zealander the other day, who was totally impressed that i could follow three languages !

If only he had met your folks, he perhaps would have campaigned for some distinct award or something !

phew !

And when there is an orientation towards many languages, i have always believed that it has a multiplier effect on connections that the brain can make and effectiveness!

mads said...

lovely post!
i completely identify with it.
i grew up speaking 5 languages.
picked up a 6th post marriage.
and now my 3 year old speaks all 6.

Anuradha Shankar said...

yes, sujatha, i can really identify with you here..... we have a similar situation at home, except that we speak a mixture of tamil, english, hindi and marathi too.... and your parents' idea of a common language brings to mind a similar situation of my grandparents - my grandfather grew up in tamilnadu, and was well versed in tamil, while for my grandmom it was kannada..... when my grandma went to blore for her first pregnancy, my granfather wrote her letters in tamil, which had to be read out to her by her mom!!!

Gymnast said...

Wow , how i wish all families were as open minded as yours. So much of prejudice and regionalism has creapt into our minds that such a tale seems too good to be true.

Unknown said...

And yes, written communication was only in english, unless it was between mom and her siblings.
I remember an entire conversation between avva and amma - avva spoke only in telugu and mom only in kannada. When they both realized what they were doing, they were in splits.

Anonymous said...

Thats a good idea, best way to learn. We only speak gujurati at home, to make sure its not forgotten...Its so hard not to automatically switch to English though, but feels good to be able to communicate comfortably with the elders.

sujata sengupta said...

This was such a sweet and funny post. Languages are beautiful and children below 13 are at their best in grasping them, the more languages we can teach them by this age will ensure them a higher grasping power towards foreign languages later in life.

ra said...

what a lovely post.

shilpa said...

lovely post. I hear you!
My father is a Maharastrian, my mother's a Telugu and I married into a telugu family and we grew up in Hyderabad. Consequently, I talk to my dad in hindi, sister in marathi and mom in telugu. When we have kids, I want them to be able to converse in both languages, and Hindi ofcourse, so that they can make the choice!
Multi-lingualism is a good way to grow up!

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Janine, thank you and thanks for the award too!

@ CA, that's wonderful! I think you've greatly enhanced her ability to learn languages in the future as well!

@ M, grand-parents being around helps a lot. Kids glean a lot just from listening to the adults.

@ Laksh, thanks!

@ Sands, the movies in India are a great boon, in that sense! C thinks he knows a little bit of Hindi too. :)

@ Alty, that tracks our situation pretty closely! But me not familiar with Havyak Kannada at all. Is it very different?

@ Rads, thanks! Picking up languages by listening is a fantastic reward for having to understand different languages as a child.

@ Rosaria, it is, isn't it?

@ Sylvia, thank you!

@ Sunil, welcome to my blog! And that's a wonderful plan for redemption. Good luck with that. :)

@ BPSK, thanks! Will check out the link. And will keep you posted on how the plan works out!

@ Ugich, thanks! I hope so too. And what a delightful story that was! Thanks for sharing it.:)

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Kavi, I think so too!

@ Mads, how lovely! And welcome to my blog!

@ Anu, horror of horrors! My father wrote to my mom in English, thank god! Although the letters were all so staid, as it probably was in your grandparents' case as well.

@ Gymnast, yes, I agree. That was as the back of my mind when I wrote this post. You have a really nice blog. Thanks for visiting here and welcome!

@ ASk, heh heh. The first incident of which I have a memory is in the Mysore house.

@ Chapati, yeah, that's where I want my kids to be.

@ Sujata, thanks!

@ Ra, thank you.

@ Shilpa, seems like a replica of my family. What a delight! Thanks for visiting and welcome. :)


Sujatha Bagal said...

@ rads, wanted to mention something in the response, but forgot - in the north I'm sure there are similar situations. There's a boatload of different languages there too and dialects.

Keshav.Kulkarni said...

Wonderful! In India wher people live in state borders, its very easy for them to speak more than one languages. A K Ramanunan, who was one of the best Indian Scholers known, once told something like this:"My mother tongue is Tamil. My father who is English educated, made me to speak in English, and learn Sanskrit. When I went outside, I spoke in Kannada. All four languages came to me very naturally". People in South Kannada district can speak Konkani, Tulu and Kannada with ease, shifting in no time. But the sad part is when we move to US, UK or Australia we fear that our kids might pick up English and start speaking to them in English at home too, killing the whole beauty of multilingual brain.

I am from north Karnataka, and my wife is from South Karnataka. My wife used to stare at out parents and me, trying to understand what we are speaking. Now she can understand it very well. We speak South Karnataka Kannada dialect at our home, but I can switch to North Karnataka dialect in no time. Our little one is now fluent with Kannada, and slowly we are teaching him English.

Thanks for sharing.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"As I tried to lay out and trace this bowl-of-spaghetti lingual connections..."

I enjoy essays such as this, Sujatha. The experiences you relate here are rich and I appreciate the opportunity to learn of the varied cultures (and discover how some of the dynamics in families are the same no matter where we are in the world.) I admire your father's pursuit of language. I recall a course I took in college on dialects. I had no idea at the time that actual rules existed for all of them. You always get me thinking. Great post.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Keshav, thank you for a wonderful comment. Thrilling to find that you and your wife share the same dynamic that me and my husband do. And you have a beautiful family. Thanks for visiting and welcome to my blog.

Julie, thank you so much! What a lovely thing to say!

Raj said...

Lovely post. Tell me, in which language do you count?

Sujatha Bagal said...

Raj, thanks. I count in English. Now, what does it mean? And welcome to my blog!

Srinidhi said...

An amazing's a blessing to be able to speak & understand so many languages.....I am hoping my daughter picks up Tamil (from her Mom) & Kannada (from me)......I like the one hour/day thingy, best way to make the kids learn

Sue said...

LOL! I love the description of how the multi-lingualism came into being.

Anonymous said...

Part of your post had my head spinning(when you explained the language dynamics within your family):). Its great that your father instilled in you respect for every language(and culture).
I've found the best way to teach kids languages is to speak it to them all the time at a young age. My son is almost 4 and is very fluent in Kannada. He has heard it only from me, since my husband does not speak it. He has been at full-time daycare too since he was 6 months old. Crossing my fingers and hoping he keeps his fluency:)


Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Srinidhi, thank you. I hope the same for your children too. Do let me know if you try the one hour thing and how it goes.

@ Sue, thanks. Glad you liked it!

@ Mallika, glad you stuck with the post and read it! :) I'm so glad for you and your son. I'm sure he'll remain fluent in it.

desigirl said...

LOVELY POST, SUJ. oops sorry caps on. beautiful article, as always. made me wish i had a melting pot family like yours too, growing up!!! i better work towards making my children's melting pot family an interesting one.

Shashikiran Mullur said...

You're fortunate and, there is no Kannada more pleasurable to hear than the Kannada of North Karnataka. Every sentence they speak is poetry to the ears. My Kannada is the Mysore variety, and I spoke a little in the style of Dakshina Kannada when I was a student in Mangalore.

Interesting post!

Poppins said...

Could totally relate to this, although in my case I never did pick up Malayalam. My mom on the other hand speaks Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada with equal ease.

I am attempting to pass on the legacy to my kids as well, language is so hard to learn as you get older because you're so conscious of the mistakes you make..

Lovely post

Choxbox said...

lovely post!

bird's eye view said...

Nice post and resonated so much with me. I grew up spending summers in Mysore with dad's family or Bangalore with moms. My family is mixed up with the same languages as yours - my mom's family spoke kannada with grandpa, telugu with grandma and each other and writes letters in Tamil, to this day. Though grandpa knew telugu and Tamil as well as grandma who though a kannadiga grew up in salem...and my aunt is from dharwad so we wound up perforce having to understand if not speak the dialect :)

bird's eye view said...

sorry posted comment before finishing - today we make sure my kids know kannada from me and my parents, hindi/ urdu from A and his parents and english from school...

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

But, the written communication would always be in english :)