“I Speak English, Hindi and *pause* … a couple of Indian Languages”
If you have met someone from India and the topic of languages comes up, you may hear a sentence like this.
As the proud owner of an India Phrasebook, I am happy to say that I usually follow up the question with “which ones?”
So Many Languages, So Small a Book. And My Time Budget is even smaller.
And then I remember the one time I met someone from West Bengal at a video game design mixer. I asked him if Bengali was similar to Assamese (one of India’s languages that actually sounds like it is from Southeast Asia despite the fact that it is Indo-European). Stunned, he asked me three times how on earth a Jewish boy from Connecticut would have any knowledge of Indian local cultures at all
“You’re like one of three white people in the world who knows what Assamese IS!”
It is very far from the first time. And then there was the one time I correctly identified someone as a Malayalam speaker (I just guessed), and after a minute of a dropped jaw, I was told, stunned. “Oh. My. God. ARE YOU PSYCHIC?!!?”
Just knowing the names of the local Indian Languages set you apart. I’m probably the only member of my extended family that can name more than five Indian Languages.
As for Indian Languages I’ve studied…well…some Tamil…not very much at all…some Gujarati…not too much…and some Oriya…even less than both of the two of those put together.
Of the one that I am focusing my effort on (as far as Memrise.com is concerned), it is Gujarati (for the time being) still haven’t had a conversation in it (I’ve used a few sentences with native speakers!), but given as today is Gujarat Day and Maharashtra Day (which is actually the same day, when the “Bombay” state was divided into two pieces, and is celebrated in both provinces as their provincial day), I’m going to write this piece.
- India is a Fusion of Many, MANY Peoples and Recognizing that Will Earn Favor and Smiles. The Best Way to Recognize it is to Learn an Indian Regional Language.
Hindi and English do function as languages that tie most of the country together, but each area of India comes with a regional flavor (and many other sub-regional flavors) that many outside of that area of the world overlook.
I still remember the times when I needed someone to explain me what “Tamil” or “Marathi” was. In high school, I thought that Hindi functioned in India the way that English did in the United States. I had no clue how deeply important and used the regional languages were (and continue to be).
As of the time of writing, I don’t even list Gujarati or Tamil as languages that I know. At all. Given that my list is a bit large at the time (both in the languages learned and the languages to-be-learned department) I feel the pressure to abandon them.
Luckily I’ve stopped caring so much about pressure of any sort, although I’m not actively learning either. (I’m just picking up pieces on apps)
Anyhow, building connections with Indian Languages!
The various little things that I have said have been construed as demonstrations of the fact that I recognize that India is a collection of many, MANY cultures, and that I am very amused by some of them and I want to learn more about them!
In the case of talking to Native Speakers of these languages, it gets them to open up about what life in their province is like, what there is to see, what sort of fun words there are in the language, as well as endless praising of your skills, even if they are the most basic.
They tend to be used to people not even knowing that these local cultures exist! And then you come along!
I am very grateful to my Indian friends and acquaintances for their help!
- The Indo-Aryan Languages, as well as the Dravidian Languages, are similar to each other, sometimes even mutually intelligible!
In some areas of Europe (Scandinavia and the Balkans come to mind), languages became discrete entities based on national borders. Denmark and Sweden decided to alter their linguistic orthographies to become very much not like the other one.
The entire thing with the Balkan Languages is not something I feel too qualified to talk about at the moment, but feel free to treat yourself to a Google Search about Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Or Bulgarian and Macedonian.
In India, a lot of languages, despite being discrete, actually blended with similar characteristics, as a result of Sanskrit influence. In nearly the whole North of India, similar words for “Thank You” are used, all based on the Sanskrit “Dhanyavaadaha”. Greetings are function similarly, as well as the usage of words from liturgical languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) playing their role.
Often it is common for Indians to learn another regional language when they head to another province of the country. (One person told me “I bet you could learn Kannada in a week with my help”). In the case of Kannada, its closest relatives are the other main Dravidian Languages of Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil (These four are the primary languages of the South of India, distinct from their Indo-European compatriots). Learning any one will get you very close to learning any of the other three to fluency.
The Indo-Aryan Languages in the North, some of which are very similar to each other (like Hindi and Urdu being, as one of my Pakistani students put it, like Swedish and Norwegian) and others less so (Oriya and Gujarati are from opposite ends of the country but still have some similarities) can also be “collected” with similar ease, much like the Romance Languages.
There is the writing issue, which is more of an issue with some languages than others, but interestingly some character sets are close to each other or even identical. (Kannada’s script is also used for Konkani in Goa).
No wonder there is such an internal polyglot culture in India! And it is one that you can contribute to!
- Regional Media and Culture is more Accessible than ever, and will continue to endow privileges to L2 Learners!
India is a tech giant. Just look for apps to learn Indian Languages on the Google Play Store (or IOS). A lot of these apps have fantastic audio, very good phrase selections, and audiences for adult learners as well as for kids!
And that’s just the beginning.
Go into ANY YouTube search or any library in a major city. Look for the film section. Look for films in Indian Languages. I often find films not only Hindi but also every single Indian language I’ve mentioned in this article (although I don’t think I’ve seen Konkani so far).
India is home to the world’s largest film industry! Yes, Hindi and English dominate a lot of it, but that’s not the whole story!
All throughout India, film culture plays an extraordinary role, and coming to know its various regional aspects and flavors will make you think about what role regionalism and regional cultures could play in our increasingly global world, if only more of us were more adventurous!
Your Indian friends will be more than happy to give you recommendations!
Speaking of which…
- Native Speakers will be Super Helpful!
I haven’t received a single word of discouragement the way I have with some other languages, least of all from native speakers!
Sometimes I cringe whenever I think of the time that I was in a library in Sweden and was told “why bother learning Swedish if we all speak English anyhow?” (Answers: too many to list, but at the time it was “the letters written by my deceased family members were not going to translate themselves, one, and two…I’m surrounded by books I can’t read yet!”)
India is the world’s largest English-speaking nation, but despite that (or perhaps because of it) the Indians to whom I have spoken speak fondly about their regional cultures, and actively are thrilled with the possibility of you engaging with it!
Coming from a place with many, MANY regional languages, a lot of Indians are keenly aware of the struggle of learning another language! What we need in the struggle is more encouragement! And with a choice like an Indian languages, you’ll encountered plenty of it!
Hawaii Pidgin isn’t an Indian Language. Just letting you know that.
A Happy Gujarat Day / Maharashtra Day to all! I hope that one day I will be able to write more articles on Indian Languages! But first I actually have to … ummm … learn them better!