I’m not great at languages. The two languages I can speak fluently in – Kannada and English – I learnt them both before I was four.
I learnt Hindi in school but speak a mix of highly sanskritised Hindi (textbook Hindi) and bombay Hindi (from movies) with a thick kannada accent. As for other languages, the less I say the better.
I spent four years studying in Tamil Nadu so sometimes people assume I know Tamil (it also has to do with my name and face, I guess!). The truth, however, is that by the time I graduated from IIT Madras, I had barely learnt to distinguish between Tamil and Telugu – the two “new” languages i had been massively exposed to during my time there.
Basically I didn’t bother learning Tamil when I lived in madras in 2000-4 because I didn’t really need to. Most people on campus spoke at least basic English. Most outsiders I interacted with were shopkeepers, restaurant waiters and auto drivers, all of whom could speak broken English at least. And since I’m inherently not good at picking up languages, I just didn’t bother.
Before we started out Tamil Nadu trip yesterday my wife (who happens to be good at languages) was wondering how I would fare on this front. “Let’s see how you can put your four years of living in TN to good use”, she said. I told her I hoped to mostly get by with English, and broken Tamil.
After yesterdays lunch she had been impressed. “Not bad. With just words for one and two you managed to manage the conversation”. “Yeah that’s how I managed in chennai”, I replied.
High expectations having thus been set, I’ve had to try and live up to them later on in the trip. My biggest issue is that I end up speaking “assembly language”. I know the words but not the word forms or grammar, and so what I speak can sound funny.
“Instead of asking the shopkeeper what that is, you ended up asking where that is”, my wife informed me yesterday. I had at least got the message across. This kind of faux pas, largely because I can’t speak prepositions and other word forms, continued.
This morning we were at an Adyar ananda Bhavan (a chennai based Tamil Nadu style food chain restaurant) for breakfast. I confidently decided the waiter there might know English and started speaking in English. To our horror, for the rest of the breakfast he spoke to us in Hindi! “If you don’t know Tamil but look Indian you must be Hindi types”, he must have decided.
We tried to talk to him henceforth in our broken Tamil, but he had made his decision. Hindi it was for us.
Then, in the afternoon, at lunch in a “mess” in karaikudi, I was again struggling to speak Tamil with the waitress (to link back to yesterdays post – she was a middle aged woman. Again a cohort I don’t normally see among bangalore waiters). Suddenly I ended up speaking a few Hindi words!
I quickly realised what had happened – Tamil and Hindi are both languages I can’t think in. For both, I “think in Kannada” and translate to the respective language before speaking. And somewhere my wiring had gone wrong today and instead of translating to Tamil I translated to Hindi.
Later on in the conversation she said something quickly. I caught a few words but couldn’t catch the prepositions and ended up entirely misunderstanding her. Apparently she said “the sambar is hot”. And I replied “no, I don’t need hot rice. Pour the sambar on this only”.
And so it’s been going.