As an English-speaking child in the sporadically expanding city of Bangalore, I grew up reading British storybooks and watching American TV shows. My peers and I were taught second and third languages in school, so in addition to English, we speak an “L2” (second language) and an “L3” (third language), one of which is likely to be a mother tongue. While this is a common postcolonial reality, the English-educated in Bangalore form a very particular breed of language learners. On the streets, it is common to hear disgruntled murmurs (and even blatant resentment) about Hindi-speaking migrants who do not speak Kannada. At my school—considered an elite institution in Bangalore—a friend who had just moved from Delhi was shocked that we used expressions like “ew” and “gross” in everyday speech and didn’t address our seniors as didi (or even akka). Indeed, I am no exception—at the ripe old age of three, I had decided to secure my own elitism: I would speak English and Hindi, but abandon my own mother tongue, Kannada (much to my parents’ dismay).
Far from being truly multilingual, I continue to speak and think in the language I am most comfortable with—English. While this bodes well for my academic and professional aspirations, it has also made me suspect that I have only an eclipsed sense of my immediate surroundings. Today I edit English-language research publications, many of which are written by non-native English speakers. Were I to function in a second language, would my perception of the world be different? Confronted with the reality of my Anglophone privilege, I am compelled to look back at my own experience of thinking in a second language.
At the age of sixteen—possibly when I was most oblivious about the privilege my education afforded me—I embarked on a rather bizarre adventure: an intercultural exchange programme. I spent a year in Japan, living with a local family and going to a public school. I was immersed in a language I had never spoken before, save for at a few months of weekly conversation class. At the end of my year abroad, I wrote a speech about my experience as an exchange student. My vocabulary had grown manifold and I was conversant in the local dialect, or Osaka-ben. The speech won me a prize; my host parents were ecstatic and took me out to lunch. I had not only acquired a new language, but had also become comfortable enough to play and joke with it. The Japanese language offered me access to the world in ways I could (quite literally) not have imagined before, because, despite the controversy around the idea that different languages make us think differently, I had a whole new set of signifiers with which to understand things and ideas. I experienced my sekai hirogaru—which literally means that my world “spread”, but translates more correctly to “broadened”. On the flipside: I felt like Japanese was pushing the other languages out of my mind. My English was oddly strained; Hindi and Kannada simply refused to cooperate. Accuracy always came second to intent; all the languages I had ever studied or spoken blended into a strange chutney language, which, at the time, seemed unique to my mind.
But of course I’m not the only one. I recently caught up with a friend who has lived and studied in Japan for a number of years since our exchange programme. “My English is strange, and Hindi? Don’t ask… But my Marathi comes back when I’m in Pune,” she said, as we nibbled on dessert at a popular matcha café across from Kyoto station. As sixteen-year-olds about to depart to Japan for the first time, our conversations had been a spicy mix of English and Hindi; now, we spoke English laced with Japanese: “I’ll giri-giri ma ni au for my train” (“I’ll just about make it on time for my train”) and “Chotto matte ne, let me Google it” (“Wait a sec, let me Google it”).
I spent a sizeable chunk of my time in Japan with another friend from my exchange year: a Norwegian girl who, like me, had spent a year in Osaka. We backpacked across Japan together this time, often marvelling at how much had changed, and how much had not. We were riding the subway in Tokyo when I remarked that even after ten years, she didn’t seem very different. “That’s because I change my personality when I’m with you!” she said. “When I speak my language, when I’m at home, I have a much darker voice; I’m a lot more reserved… But when I speak English I speak from higher up, and when I speak Japanese, I get a really high voice and become a completely different person!”
I become a completely different person. I could not deny that this was true of me, too. At the end of a long day in Japan, I was often too tired to think in Japanese, too shindoi to form sentences without pronouns and with the right verb forms and particles. “It’s funny how much feeling confident and self-sufficient has to do with your surroundings,” I wrote in my journal, recalling how my homeroom sensei in Sumiyoshi High School knew me as shy and quiet, an idea my teachers back home would have found absurd. It adds up that my father often switches to Kannada when he’s nostalgic about his childhood, or that during my own childhood, my mother would do the same when she’d had enough of our nonsense. If Kannada offered them the shortest pathway to authentic emotional expression, perhaps the corollary is that ideas expressed in a second language are once removed from experience. But are they? I am reminded irrevocably of Homi Bhabha’s idea of hybridity, which suggests that we exist in a “third space” where “diversity” can no longer be exoticised because the playing field is itself a flux of social and historical forces that create new linguistic—and ontological—possibilities. Perhaps my friend’s ebbing and flowing Marathi, my parents’ automatic switching to Kannada, and my own chutney-fied thinking (plus all the existential angst it brings) are reflections of the possibility that we are inherently hybrid; in a postcolonial world, perhaps the truest articulation of one’s thoughts is necessarily impure.
Perhaps the difference between “hybrid” and “impure” is only semantic, but on the streets, the resentment towards those who do not speak the local language is almost tangible. It comes with the fear of loss of one’s own identity and the indignation of being treated poorly because one’s language has limited “global” currency. Sadly, there are some second languages you can’t not learn, but they could turn you into a completely different person. It is only fitting that we see hybridity in conjunction with inequity.