IndiaHaving worked in Information Technology for many years now, I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know and be good friends with many people from India who have been gracious enough to share their thoughts with me on culture and language.  In particular, something that piqued my interest very quickly was learning about the linguistic versatility which is such a prominent feature in Indian life.  Allow me to explain.

When I was new to the company in which I began my IT career, I was sort of “adopted” by a group of friends who all happened to be from India.  This group of us would have lunch together just about every day at precisely 12 PM, and, in addition to being an opportunity for a meal, it was also a great opportunity for being social.  Being the only person at the table whose sole language was English, I often found myself staring at my lunch, at the ceiling, or into space as several different, exotic (at least to my ears) sounding languages flew back and forth across the table.   It was never awkward at all. Rather, they were sub-conversations within the context of a larger conversational experience which included us all.  Having married into a family which came to America from the Ukraine and speaks Russian at home, I was sort of used to politely grinning at mealtime while similar sub-conversations took place that I could not understand.  But this was a little bit more dynamic because there were clearly several languages at play here, and the use of each seemed to change depending on the situation, context, and speakers.   What gives?   Curiosity forced me to find out as much as I could. First, a little background:

Without making too broad a generalization, it seems that most everybody from India knows two languages: English and their “mother-tongue.”  Held over from British colonial rule, English is still in active use in primary education, government institutions, and everyday life.  On the other hand, the “mother-tongue” can best be understood as the local language that is spoken at home while growing up and there are a great variety of these languages across the Indian subcontinent. Assuming it is common among family members, the applicable mother-tongue continues to be the language spoken at home by most Indians while living in America.   Additionally, many Indians know three languages: English, their mother-tongue, and Hindi.  Hindi, along with English, is the other national language of India and tends to serve as the native lingua franca across certain parts of the country.  Lastly, some Indians know four or more languages with the addition of a second or third mother-tongue due to having parents from different regions of the country, or from having themselves grown up in multiple regions of the country.

Getting back to the story, it didn’t, as I said, take me too long to realize there were many layers of complexity and nuance making up the conversations of our group.  After a while I felt comfortable enough to ask about why there were so many different languages being used and what determined their use.  It was explained to me that, for conversational purposes, the language of choice was determined mainly by regionality (possessing a shared mother-tongue) and that another language common to both would be used if there was no common mother-tongue.  This seemed very practical and made sense to me.  Instinctively, I would certainly rather communicate with the language I most comfortably spoke given the choice.

Within our particular group, here is how the linguistic dynamics would play out: there were four in our group who were all from around the city of Chennai (formerly Madras) on India’s southeast coast.  Chennai is the primary city in the province of Tamil Nadu, and the mother-tongue of this particular region is a Dravidian language called Tamil.  When speaking conversationally to one another, these four would always use Tamil.  The other two from our group (besides me) were from a province to the north of Tamil Nadu called Andhra Pradesh.  In this region and around the city of Hyderabad, the predominant mother-tongue is another Dravidian language known as Telugu and this is the language they would converse in with one another.  After a while I became quite familiar with this pattern but noticed something which stood out to me.   Of the two whose mother-tongue was Telugu, one would generally switch and speak in Tamil when conversing with the other Tamil speakers.   However, in the same situation the other would always switch to English. This made me awfully curious, particularly because he and one of the Tamil speakers were best friends and always hung out together.  After I thought about this for a minute it dawned on me that I’d only ever heard them speak to each other in English. Just when I thought I had the rules of the game all figured out I was stumped.

Seeking clarification, I asked about this one day.  As it turns out, the first of my Telugu speaking friends actually spent part of his youth in an area where Tamil is widely spoken.  Thus, he had a command of both Tamil and Telugu in addition to the relatively ubiquitous English and Hindi.   Truly a polyglot!  As for why our other Telugu speaking friend didn’t do the same, I learned that due to the region he was from he did not have command of Hindi or Tamil as neither language was widely spoken.  Only English and Telugu were widely spoken.  That meant that his only common language with the others was English.  Simply put, it had never occurred to me before that moment that English could ever be the lone mutually understood language among those from a country so far away from where the English language originated.  Astonished as I was at this, it simply goes to show how complex the linguistic gymnastic act can become in a part of the world highlighted by such a high degree of linguistic diversity.  When it comes to language, those of us who have only ever needed to know how to speak English seem to have it easy indeed.

Have you had a similar experience? Please comment and share!

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