Last Sunday, I was having a discussion with my mother about my drinking – which has been sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. She said she had a probelm with even my sporadic ingestion of alcohol, and demanded that I completely give up drinking. I tried my best to draw it away from a religious/emotional argument, and tried to draw her into a logical argument.
My mother is a biologist by training (it is another matter that her career was in accounting) and said that she is concerned about her gene, and that given that I’m her only offspring, she naturally has incentive in my offspring, and she wants to make sure that they’ll be in good health, and live well. She also has this notion that if either of the parents drink, the children will be born dumb, and there is an increased risk of abnormality. I have no clue about these matters, and somehow managed to change the line of argument.
Then she released her brahmastra. Or what she thought was her brahmastra. Everyone she know who drank alcohol, she said, had ended up becoming a drunkard and a wifebeater. She gave examples of classmates from school, colleagues, colleagues’ husbands, relatives, etc. It was evident that she had prepared her argument well. And in each of these cases, there was no doubt that the person in question was a drunkard and a wifebeater, whose kids were most likely to end up as losers.
It is pertinent to point out here that the entire argument was happening in Kannada. In fact, I’ve never talked to either of my parents, or to any other close relatives, in any other language. I am in general fairly fluent at the language, at least at the Bangalore version which includes loads of English words. I have in general managed to hold my own in several debates and discussions at social gatherings, while talking exclusively in Kannada. I have explained to relatives complicated financial products, and how the sub-prime crisis unraveled, all in Kannada.
Getting back to the argument, the best way for me to handle my mother’s examples was to provide counterexamples. Of perfectly decent people who consumed alcohol. For statistical reasons and given the way the hopothesis had gotten framed, I would need a much larger list than my mother had produced. And in the spur of the moment, I decided that I wouldn’t do a good job at listing and I should continue with logic-based arguments. Phrases such as “selection bias” and “Bayes’ theorem” and “one-way implications” flashed across my head.
Holding up your end of the debate when you aer talking nomally, and in Kannada, is fair enough. However, when you are extremely animated, and speaking at 100 words per minute, things are a bit harder. I realized that my mother would understand none of the jargon that had flashed across my head, and I’d have to explain to her in normal language. My mouth was processing words at 100 words per minute, and suddenly my brain seemed to have gotten a bit slower. The pipeline became empty for a moment and i started stammering. And my mother started making fun of my stammering (i used to stammer a lot when I was a kid. took a lot of effort to get over it).
Coming to the crux of this essay – at this moment another thought flashed to my head. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I thought in any specific language, or if my thought was general. And even if I thought in a particular language, I wasn’t sure if I thought in Kannada or in English. I had always done well enough in both languages to keep this debate unresolved. Now there was the data point. The clinching data point. I quickly realized that had I been speaking in English, my pipeline wouldn’t have gone empty. In fact, when I was trying to explain stuff to my mom, I was doing two levels of translation – I was first translating jargon into normal English, and then translating that into Kannadal. Powerful evidence to sugggest that I think in English.
I was so kicked by this discovery that the original argument didn’t matter to me any more. I quickly promised my mother that I will never consume alcohol again, and she said “shiom”, a kid-word that means something like “ok what you’ve said is final and binding and no changing it”. So I suppose that is how things will stay. I will henceforth stop consuming alcohol. Not that I’ve been consuming much nowadays – average one drink every two months or so. It won’t be hard at all to make the transition.
PS: Interestingly, when I’m trying to speak in any Indic langauge (Hindi, Tamil, etc.) I instinctively form my thoughts in Kannada and then translate. Maybe it is because of similarities that the cost of translation from Kannada to these languages is much lower than the cost of translation from English, that it becomes profitable for me to think in Kannada, which is harder than to think in English.