Updated: Jul 21
India, a multi-lingual socially diverse land blessed with a melting pot of traditions and cultures, includes within its borders twenty-eight states and eight union territories. It is home to twenty-two scheduled languages, with Hindi and English being accepted as 'lingua franca'. Add to this dialects and tongues which are specific to a locale; truly, we may be termed a polyglot nation. Many Indians can converse in two languages even if they have no formal education. One is spoken at 'home', and the other enables them to communicate with the outside world.
As per Census 2001, about 255 million Indians — more than a quarter of the total population — spoke at least two languages while 87.5 million spoke at least three. --India a Land of Many Tongues, The Hindu
Can we then say that language is instrumental in influencing our thoughts and identity? It is an essential tool for communication, for learning, for understanding – all that we need to
shape our opinions, but does identity rest on this too?
The first words we speak are in our mother tongue, the speech by which we interact in the tender years of our infancy. We identify with and learn to connect in the familiar milieu of the family. Once we are old enough to attend school, we are introduced to at least one more language in the curriculum.
As we age, exposure to different understandings grooms us to become a unique persona with ideas and thoughts of our own; we recognise and accept our identity. Language does play a pivotal role in developing personality as we need words to learn and express our thoughts though our growth as a human does not rely on this alone. We are governed by the inputs received from day-to-day living; experiences shape our traits and character.
Does that mean that the grown-up 'I' is imbibed with a different sense of self to the infant? I believe so. The infant relies on emotion and instinct, whereas the adult may make conscious choices based on self-knowledge.
Take me, for example: I spoke only Malayalam till I was four years old and then forgot my mother tongue to learn French in Brussels. At the age of nine, I relocated to New Delhi, forgot French and learnt English and Hindi. As a young bride, living on the tea estates of north-east India, I had to perforce learn a new and strange language known colloquially as ‘chai bagaan (tea garden)’ Hindi; to communicate in this ‘lingo’ you need to live on the tea estates, it cannot be understood by the outsider. It borrows words and phrases from the mother tongue of the people from different parts of India who were brought to work in this part of the country, a unique blend of Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Oriya, Kannada, Bihari and maybe some others that I am unaware of!
Today, many decades later, I speak English, Hindi (popular and chai bagaan), a little French and Malayalam. I am, however, most fluent in English and ‘chai bagaan’ Hindi. Though my knowledge of Malayalam is only rudimentary I love going ‘home’ to Kerala. Living in Pune has given me the opportunity to learn Marathi with my friends and neighbors. I also practice conversing in French with those who are familiar with the speech.
It is a privilege to have studied on different continents with a large circle of acquaintances and friends who speak in varied tongues and to have been exposed to an abundance of experiences.
Even so, my sense of ‘me’ remains that of an Indian who hails from the state of Kerala