Almost Multilingual – 2

May 25, 2007
I had noticed this six months ago when I was yet again submerged in a sea of Bengali, during a trip to Calcutta to meet Amit’s family.

By “this” I mean, I noticed that my language skills in Bengali had suddenly improved in something like a quantum leap. I still made mistakes, but at times entire sentences (mistakes and all) tripped off my tongue without my having consciously thought about them. After struggling sporadically for nine years to become coherent in a language I had acquired only as an adult, it was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last long and up to the current date I was back to stumbling along minus the quantum leap. I did wonder why it had happened and why it had stopped happening, but I put it down to good mood (we were on holiday), feelings of self-confidence (it was before the infertility business got going), practice (the Aunt had been staying with us briefly) or other such indefinable influences.

Now, I notice it’s happening again.

One of those indefinable influences I had sort of vaguely attributed my improved Bengali language skills to, was my German language skills, which in those days were not too bad, all things considered. Now that I’m back to studying German, could it have again had a positive effect on my Bengali? Sounds strange, but perhaps it is not entirely unbelievable. After all, learning a language means forcing your brain to work in a vocabulary and grammar it is not used to. The way we’re taught German, we’re made to attempt to think in German, as opposed to thinking in English and trying to translate (which never works). So, once the brain is forced out of its comfort zone of English, could it be that it explores impartially pathways in Bengali and German?

(BTW, I don’t think there’s been any impact on my Hindi language skills, probably because I learnt Hindi as a child and have a certain level of fluency and assurance in that language, comparable to my English. I don’t have any difficulty understanding or framing sentences in Hindi; the only thing I need to improve is vocabulary.)

I have read that people who learn languages as adults generally find it easier to pick up successive languages once they have mastered the first few. This is true even of entirely unrelated languages. It seems to work for me as well, because, though I am struggling a bit with German, it is nothing like the enduring battle of nine years that I’ve had with Bengali. It is particularly easy to tell the difference when I listen to native German or Bengali speakers. It’s a bit like listening to the radio softly when you’re driving in heavy traffic… you can hear the voice saying something, but unless you really focus on it, it just washes over you like so much background noise.

For many years, I had to pay 110% concentration to someone addressing me in Bengali, to pick out key words and try to make sense of what they were communicating. The trouble often was, I might catch the key words, but would not be sure about who was doing the action, whom it was done to or on, and other such crucial bits of information. The difference, for instance, between, “Did he tell you everything?” and “Did you tell him everything?” – Even if I catch “he” “you” “tell” and “everything” – which is a lot to catch in such a short sentence – I might still not be clear on what I’m being asked and how I should respond. It has led, times without number, to awkward situations.

In German, I have come to, and largely crossed, the same level of comprehension in a much shorter time. I still have to concentrate like hell when listening to the teacher (who seems to make no allowances for our relatively rudimentary language skills when she addresses us in 100% Deutsch) – but having done so, I do manage to pick out the key words and usually even manage to figure out who did what, and to whom. Sometimes, I end up translating long and complicated instructions for my table-mates – usually capturing the essence more-or-less accurately. Now, if only I could paraphrase in German instead of translating to English… (sigh) That, surprisingly enough, is something I can do in Bengali, even though I usually make a hash of it.

I do wonder sometimes whether my Bengali is better or my German. Right now, it’s a bit of a toss-up – I think my fluency in Bengali is better, and perhaps my vocabulary, but I’ve never had any formal training in Bengali, so definitely my understanding of grammar is stronger in German. Then again, I can’t really read Bengali. Perhaps, someday, I’ll improve at that too. After all, if learning a second language as an adult makes the first language stronger, then learning a third language should make the first two stronger, right? Hmmmm… let’s see – shall it be Spanish? Mandarin?? Greek???

Almost Multilingual

June 18, 2006
My mother tells me I was a slow learner. That is, I was slow in learning to read, and for a while they thought I must be dyslexic. To this day, I remember sitting next to my mother in the living room, clutching a book of Noddy and trying to decipher the words and make sense of the sentences. I suppose I must have been pretty old at that time, if I can remember it. My mother was patiently prodding me to spell out the words, work out the pronounciation, skip the meanings of the difficult words till I reached the end of the sentence, then work out the meaning of the whole sentence and come to some conclusion about individual words that I did not understand. This was a pretty complex affair for a child who must have been 4-5 years old (specially considering the screwed-up phonetics of the english language).

I now attribute later reading habits, which were voracious to say the least, to that early struggle for literacy. I think that once I learnt how to read, I was so thrilled (and relieved) that I just had to do it again and again, just to be sure that I still could.

In class, once I was past the dyslexic stage, I always had the upper hand in English. For one reason, we spoke English at home, not Hindi, Punjabi, or Bengali. This, because my father was a Bengali from Allahabad who knew Bengali, Hindi  and Punjabi; and my mother was a UP-ite born in Australia and raised in Canada (don’t ask!) who spoke nothing but English. My mother was happy to know no Bengali and my Father made no attempt to teach it to my sister and me, so until I went to school and encountered Hindi, English was my primary language. So in school, which was dominated by Hindi and Punjabi speaking kids, I consistently flunked in Hindi and I shone in English.

Another surprising outcome of my struggles with literacy was that I mastered spelling in English. Since spelling in English defies all logic (and since I’m now learning German, I can state this with firm authority: Deutsch is so wonderfully consistent about spellings and phonetics) I had come to the conclusion that the only way to get spellings right was to pronounce words they way they looked like they should be pronounced – enunciating each alphabet. This I always did silently, in my mind, as I knew that the “correct” way to pronounce most words was in all likelihood quite different. By this means, my pronounciation was almost impeccable and – showoff that I was in those early days – I loved to read aloud in class and participate in recitation, drama and other such activities. I also loved dictation tests, in which I usually got full marks, or, at worst 19/20.  This helped me overcome the disgrace of getting 3/10 in Hindi in three successive tests and not being able to string a single sentence together in our national language. (The fact that I was brilliant at arithmetic was a bigger help and won me a certain degree of admiration from peers, but that came later.)

In the playground, I picked up enough Hindi and Punjabi to be going along with. And at some point in school, I had a two-year face-off with Sanskrit. Though I subsequently forgot all the Sanskrit and Punjabi I had learnt, Hindi as  a language I continue to use. Hindi as a subject I dreaded and struggled with all the way through school and till the first year of college; after which, thankfully, it fell off the syllabus and never reappeared. Strangely enough, though, in my Xth standard exams, I scored higher in Hindi than I did in English.

After having the misfortune to marry a Bengali, I realized that I really would have to come to grips with my “father-tongue”. I simply could not go through life with a Bengali name and not a word of the lingo to my credit. So I bought some books and a dictionary or two and elected Amit as my primary teacher. Although, over the years, I have acquired a degree of fluency and sufficient vocabulary to muddle along, my grammar is still a mess and I suspect I must sound offensively inarticulate to a native Bengali speaker.

Living in Karnataka, I tried to acquire a working knowledge of Kannada as well. I attended weekend classes for six months, at the end of which my Kannada was far more rudimentary than my Bengali – but at least I can say “where is” and “how much” (though I can’t always follow the reply).

I think my greatest stumbling block with learning languages has always been speaking (what with my battles with shyness and a dash of stage fright). Because it is so difficult to string together a sentence that is meaningful and grammatically correct in anything like the normal span of time required to make a sentence, I have always hesitated to speak in a new language. And so, of course, I have never managed to really get any level of comfort in the acquired language.

So far,  my efforts at learning German are about par for the course. I have as much of a grasp of the concepts of grammar and syntax as anyone in class. That is to say, I am equally befuddled much of the time.  I can’t string together a spoken sentence in any reasonable span of time, but given ten minutes and a sheet of paper I can usually come up with some good stuff (that’s the writer in me).  So far I have committed myself to seven months of weekends, and got through about five months. If I can endure another two semesters (seven months) of this torture, I might be getting somewhere. Some day, I might even get the better of that dyslexia.

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