On languages and identities

Each one of us carries within ourselves a number of identities. Some identities, like our lineages, are inherited. Others are acquired and can be shuffled around like credit cards in a wallet. Because we use languages to communicate, our linguistic identities– whether they arise purely by accident or as a result of conscious choices– are particularly dear to us.

Languages are a beautiful invention. They are are inclusive and inviting, even when individual speakers are not. Becoming fluent in a multitude of languages gives us wondrous new vistas into the mind.

The first words I remember from my childhood were in Bengali. It was the language my parents and grandparents spoke amongst themselves. Very early on in life, it was the language I exclusively spoke in as well. It was only when I turned four and I was transplanted to a new country that I first began to hear English. Spending many of my formative years in a country where it is the language of communication, English quickly became my primary language. Bengali did not vanish altogether, but rather became a language of conversation – a home, in which I found my own name pronounced properly in the voice of those who loved me most.

Over the next few decades, I picked up bits and pieces of other languages that I stitched together into new identities. Every language I encounter opens a window into the minds of the people who use it. I discover new words that have new meanings and are not perfectly translatable into languages I knew before then. Sometimes, I still cannot find the right word to express myself in any language. And often during those times, I have been astonished to find that the right words to express my own thoughts are in the writing of another. I am grateful to writers who were born before me- Rabindranath Tagore, Bertrand Russell, and Octavio Paz – for this.

It is true that we judge others by how well they speak languages we know ourselves. Quite often we automatically consider someone attempting, but unable to speak, a language we know well to be unintelligent. I have been in the midst of people whose primary language I did not know, and have found myself in that situation. There is a feeling of helplessness in not being able to stay attuned to what others are saying around us.

Languages evolve over time. Some languages lose their prior status. My ancestors had a working knowledge of Sanskrit. I never got around to learning more than a few words. By not making a reasonable attempt to learn Sanskrit, I cannot help but feel that I’m losing something that I should’ve made more of an attempt to hold on to. I am reminded of Ayapeneco, a language spoken in a village in Mexico. As the story goes, there are only two living people who know that language. When they die, the language, Ayapeneco will die with them. That linguistic tradition of a people will be gone forever.

I have been thinking about language-based identities for another tangible reason. My son recently graduated from the language of made-up words to conventional ones. My wife and I make every effort to communicate with him in Bengali, but we’ve noticed that he already shows a preference for English. For my son, living in the United States, the pressure to learn English in order to be able to communicate with his peers is immense. Conversely, the incentive to learn Bengali, the language of his parents and grandparents, is minimal. He already knows that my wife and I are multilingual, and just as likely to respond if he speaks in English.

It took me a while to understand just why I was alarmed that my son was showing an overwhelming preference for English over Bengali. One of the key identities that a first-generation immigrant holds on to is language. It feeds the illusion that he has never actually left, and that, if necessary, one day he can return. Naturally, the immigrant wishes to pass along this key identity to his offspring, so that he bequeaths an unbroken chain to the old country.

I have come to terms with the thought that my son might never understand or love Bengali as much as I do. That is fine. But as part of his inheritance I would like him to learn at least a few words in the language of his parents. I would like him to have the option to fall back on it and think that his mother and father are talking to him, even when we are not around.

In return, I am ready to learn the meanings of new words in languages my son decides are worth learning on the path to adding new identities.


(Reposting a short piece I wrote for Dukool).