My affair with foreign languages has always been short-lived
On International Women’s Day, I received a message from a friend asking me to select a language I’d like to hear something in — from Korean, Arabic, English, Hindi, French, Hungarian and Gujarati. I didn’t know where the conversation was going. La langue française m’a toujours fasciné (French as a language has always fascinated me), so I chose Français. He then sent me a voice message — Joyeuse journée de la femme (Happy Women’s Day) — “I wanted to wish you in a language that you are close to,” he said. Coincidentally, the message reached me at a time when I was romancing In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. A memoir of the Pulitzer prize winner — it traces her journey of giving up speaking as well as writing in English. “One week after moving to Rome, I started writing in my diary in Italian,” she writes (almost as a vow). “Because in the end, to learn a language, to feel connected to it, you have to have a dialogue, however childlike, however imperfect.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with foreign languages (which explains my continued obsession with the memoir, released in 2015), but my affair has always been short-lived. Perhaps in her words lies the explanation of my failures, despite the fervour — I’ve been a plain coward, with little patience or tolerance. I can blame it on living in an era of #now, #instant, but that would only be half the truth. I am to be blamed. During my university days, I signed up for French classes in the evening. Our teacher was a young lady, the same age as us. She spoke little English and we thought this arrangement would never work. But it did. She insisted we spoke only French; during our commute to and from class; when in the class of course; we picked up lessons while playing basketball and ordering tea at the canteen. She’d take pride as we fumbled to make complete sentences. We’d try to cheat by limiting our conversations to the basics — asking for the time, customary greetings, etc. — soon enough, our frustration gave way to fluency. By the time we sat for our exams, we’d become regulars at French film festivals hosted by Alliance Francaise de Chandigarh and she’d picked up enough English (a little Hindi too) to bargain for kurtis at flea markets as well as to order a plate of pani puri from street-side vendors. When the session ended, she left for her homeland, and with that, I began to lag behind in the recently acquired skill. On my trips to Europe, I would ask for directions in French, but I never felt confident. The love began to fade. At DIFF 2017, a colleague and I watched a French film, Catch The Wind. French was the jilted lover there, rightfully, as I relied on subtitles. I was heartbroken. Recently, with the book In Other Words in tow — I decided to reignite the passion: I placed an order for a French meal at a French restaurant. I faltered as I paired grape with fromage and my partner had to settle for saignant (rare) meat, instead of well-done; but we made it through. Bon appétit. Revisiting my ineptness reminded me of the time I ate with chopsticks for the first time in public. I felt all eyes were on me as I lost control of the broccoli floret. But were they? Over the years, I’ve faltered with my linguistic commitments — played vocabulary and grammar games in foreign languages, downloaded apps like Duolingo on my smartphone, sung Despacito et al; but never did I go beyond the balmy affair. Let’s just say I’ve been afraid to commit. A language just like music speaks to us, leaving it to us to respond with sincerity. Have you ever come across a language that spoke to you — foreign, native or even that of emojis or locations? In Guugu Yimithirr, there are no words like left and right; it’s defined by directions — north, south, east, and west. I assure you it is capable of taking different shapes. Say a Coke Studio number in Urdu, which you hum as you drive. Or how you land in Thailand and smile as you greet everyone with sawadikap (or sawadikhrap). Or how as expats in the UAE, you’ve embraced Yalla, Habibi, and Mabrook, as yours — at times, flaunting the words to stand apart from tourists. Or how when you went to Italy, you wished you could eat and speak Italian the way Julia Robert’s character does in Eat, Pray, Love? As I look around, I observe how many of us are infatuated, but not giving in, fully. A friend keeps a notebook, in which he pens down each word that speaks to him. Petrichor (earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil) is his all-time favourite. There’s another, who’s devoted her playlist to songs in the mother tongue. The good news here is that none of us is alone in the falling in and out of love — some are working on it to ease their existence in a globalised world, a few to boost their creativity, and some like Lahiri for mysterious reasons. She writes, “When I write in Italian — this is just the metaphor that came to me immediately, and I really think this is what it is — I feel like I’m writing with my left hand. Because of that weakness, there is this enormous freedom that comes with it.” Would I ever have the courage to give up one language in order to pursue the other? No. Am I willing to make my marriage with an alien language work? Yes. With passion and patience, hard work and happiness, and tolerance and time. And what better place to hit re-start than in the UAE, where languages never cease to blossom.
This piece was first published in Khaleej Times.