I could start off with a fancy introduction, but I’m going to jump right into it.
I was born In Chennai, a city in South India. The local language in the city is Tamil; However my mother tongue is Telugu. What this meant for me was that I had a chance to learn two languages right from birth. This was the beginning of my literacy journey.
At three, when I joined pre-school the only language I spoke at home was Telugu because I had little exposure to the outside world. This is when I ran into a problem. It was an English medium school and the local language wasn’t my mother tongue. On top of that I didn’t know English. One day, my teacher called my parents for a meeting and suggested that they spoke to me only in English from then on. Because of the above circumstances, I was able to speak three languages really early on.
But that’s just the beginning. My dad, a civil engineer, has a highly transferable job. He moves countries every two to three years, and where he goes, my whole family goes.
When I was seven years old, we (dad, mom, brother and I) moved to Barbados, a gem in the Caribbean Islands. Since I was relatively young, I picked up a local accent at the end of two years. Here I learned Spanish as my second language.
Subsequently, I moved back to my hometown for a year. Here I started learning a new language-French! It was another second language for me. After that we moved to Delhi, the capital of India, 2000 miles from my home town. It’s like moving from New York to California, except the language was completely different. In Delhi, the local language, as well as the country’s national language, was Hindi. The new culture forced me to adapt, which is how I acquired Hindi as my third language. I continued my French education.
Then, I moved back to my hometown after a little more than two years and stayed there for another year. I was in 8th grade at this point.
Here’s where the single most influential transfer comes in. For my high school, we moved to Muscat, Oman. A beautiful country in the Middle East. The local language was Arabic. I studied French until 10th grade. I graduated from high school in Oman.
I also picked up a little Arabic along the way. Now, if you’re keeping track, that’s seven different languages in seventeen years!
But living and vacationing in different countries taught me not only how to speak exotic languages; it taught me much more. I got to meet people from different backgrounds and learn about new cultures; it taught me to see the world from a different perspective.
Now, here I am at Syracuse University, a new country with a variety of people and endless possibilities! I had no problem fitting in because of my prior exposure to a large standard deviation of people.
With all I have said thus far, I’m sure you think it’s a completely positive thing to travel and be a part of so many cultures but that is not so.
Let me warn you; if you’re looking for a story with a happy ending, this isn’t for you.
There are a couple of problems here. A good way for me to explain the first one would be to look at a TED talk I saw in my writing class.
The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose TED talk “The danger of a single story” highlights a problem I commonly face. When people ask me where I am from, I obviously reply with India, without getting into much of detail of the places I have lived in. The first thing I notice, almost immediately is a strong stereotype. They start speaking in what they call a “Indian accent”, bringing up Russell Peters jokes and what not. I once had a guy ask me if I have cows living in my house! This, as you would expect, didn’t get me up on my toes and cause me to estrange my country. On the contrary it really inspired me to embrace my cultural upbringing and background. It also makes me do a double-take of any stereotypes I have, considering how dumb it may seem to a person from that said background.
The above problem-I can live with; but there’s one that keeps me up at night (not really).
Having had to move country to country constantly, the only people I knew life long were my three family members. Best friends came and went, so did cultures and languages. Looking back I feel like a jack of all trades. There isn’t one background I can truly call my own. This reminds of Zadie Smith’s article “Speaking in Tongues“. She mentions getting a new voice; enjoying the flexibility of two voices, and eventually losing your original voice. She also said that when a person loses their original voice, they lose everything they were and everything they knew. Thats how I feel now. I no longer know how to speak my mother tongue and am slowly forgetting the other languages and cultures too.
All in all there was and still is a profound effect of exposure. If at all I move to a new country, I’ll be pretty ductile to change considering the process isn’t new to me. What I fear though is losing another voice of mine…