Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why I’ve Learned Many Languages by Aravind Adiga

Feb 19, 2012 - The Book Beast

For many Indians the world is experienced through several languages, as Aravind Adiga writes here about his own linguistic journeys and how each has taught him a new way of seeing.

I grew up, as many Indians do, in an archipelago of tongues. My maternal grandfather, who was a surgeon in the city of Madras, was fluent in at least four languages and used each of them daily. He spoke Tulu with his wife, Kannada with his daughters, Tamil with his patients, and English with his grandchildren. In my hometown of Mangalore, on India’s southern coast, it was common for a boy of my generation to speak one language at home, another on the way to school, and a third one in the classroom. These were not just dialects or variants, either. Kannada, which I spoke at home, and Hindi, which I had to learn in school, belong to different linguistic families and are as dissimilar as, say, Spanish and Russian.

Columbia University, where I went to study in 1993, insisted its undergraduates learn a foreign language, so I discovered French. I remember the thrill of sitting in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and working my way, over the course of a week, through an entire André Gide novel in the original French. In England, where I studied in the late 1990s, I took a class in German, having heard that its peculiar syntax and word structure posed not just a linguistic, but a cognitive, challenge: German speakers apparently thought about the world in an entirely different way.

By the time I returned to India in 2003, I had been speaking, reading, and writing almost exclusively in English for more than a decade. Nothing much changed after I moved back.
The international success of novelists such as Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth (right) meant that most younger Indians in the big cities wanted to read and write in English. There were novelists, such as Kiran Nagarkar, who worked in both English and an Indian language, but bilingual proficiency of this kind was increasingly rare. The glamour, acclaim, and money were in English; why read or write in anything else?

My life is now divided between the cities of Bangalore and Mumbai. About a year ago, I decided to read only in Kannada, the dominant local language, whenever I visited Bangalore. My reasoning was partly pragmatic. Regional-language newspapers in India have a richness of local detail that is often absent in the country’s English media. A friend tells me of the time he was on holiday in Nainital, a lake city in India’s north. He was about to take a walk around the lake when an article in a Hindi newspaper reported that a man-eating leopard was on the loose. The English dailies had not reported this. He now buys the Hindi paper whenever he visits Nainital. Some of India’s best writers, such as playwright Girish Karnad and novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy, work in Kannada, and I keep discovering excellent writers who will probably never be translated into English.

David H. Wells / Getty Images
Full story at The Book Beast

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