A Language Few Cared to Know

Growing up in the United States as the child of immigrants has presented me with unique circumstances, particularly with respect to language and culture. Unlike the majority of my classmates in elementary and even middle school, I had grown up immersed in two different languages. When I was young, a speech problem prevented me from speaking in complete sentences. When the doctors told my parents that two languages would confuse me, my parents obviously chose English (this notion that multiple languages confuse children is patently false, by the way). As a result, my Kannada was effectively non-existent in my childhood. And it hung over my head like a rain cloud, the pangs of guilt hitting me like raindrops.

Even though I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, it was very much a part of my life. My parents used Kannada at home to talk to me, despite the fact that I would most likely respond in English. And when I tried to respond in my mother tongue, I was miserably poor at it. It was only after years of practice and many instances of trial and error that my Kannada became better. Granted, I still have problems with rhythm when I speak, and an unfortunate tendency to speak too fast. The Kannada Duolingo project that I’ve been working on has helped me in expanding my vocabulary and knowledge of the language, though.

But all the same, Kannada is very much a present language in my life. As a child, there were several words in Kannada that I thought were words in English, often leading to my teachers and classmates’ confusion. Growing up, most of my school friends spoke Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, or Gujarati. My family friends largely spoke Hindi. Kannada is a language spoke in one state in India, and the proportion of immigrants to the United States from that state is much smaller. As a result, I had little exposure to other people my age who spoke Kannada. This has change the way I view Kannada, because when I translate it, the English always feels very archaic or formal, in my mind. This might be because the only people I ever spoke it with were my older relatives, my parents, and my older brother. In the present, I try to keep in touch with my mother tongue as much as possible, because it is something that I’m passionate about passing down to my children. I speak Kannada to myself because I have very few opportunities to use it at NYU with other students or anyone else, for that matter.

Over the years, I’ve become very acutely aware of the fact that there is little demand for Kannada at all. This is a reality that I accept and deal with. But that’s not to say I like it. But it’s not even that I wish people needed Kannada more. I grew up around people who spoke different languages, and we often shared our unique cultural practices and languages with one another. But I don’t think I’ve really met anyone who was interested in Kannada, even as a polite gesture. While my Telugu and Korean speaking friends exchanged their languages, I sat silently, because no one asked. Kannada was really just a language that no one really cared to know.

Part of me hopes that this Duolingo project will help bring more awareness to the Kannada-speaking community. Kannada youth in the United States are in dire need of modernization of Kannada and the ability to converse with people their own age. The Kannada-speaking community is scattered, at least where I lived. This prevents real engagement with our language, since we don’t feel the need to use it with anyone else outside our families. I’m fairly certain that this is the case for other lesser-known languages of the world. Why would we speak the language as much if we have so few people to speak it with, and in very limited ways? I almost never talk about politics in Kannada, so my ability to discuss it in Kannada is basically non-existent. It would consist of lots of loanwords from English, to the point that an English speaker can probably still figure out what I’m saying, without any knowledge of Kannada. This is my philosophy for including a wide variety of topics in my language guides. Being able to discuss many different topics with a basic set of core vocabulary words helps with making the language more useful and more applicable to one’s daily life. The more situations you can use the language, the more likely you’re going to use it. At least, that’s what I think.

Ideally, I’d like that people of different language communities can actually find each other, instead of giving up on their language entirely. But only the future can say what will actually happen.

A Rundown of Indian Languages

A lot of people are becoming more aware that India has more than a single language that is spoken across the country. Even though Hindi is the official lingua franca, there are twenty-two official languages of India, which come from four different language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Munda, excluding English. 

 549px-South_Asian_Language_Families

However, only six classical languages recognized by the government as such, which include Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Oriya. In 2006, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni defined a classical language as:

“High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500–2000 years; a body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; the literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; the classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”

This is not to say that the other languages are rich in literature of their own. In fact, many modern works of literature from India were written in non-classical languages, as defined by Soni, including, but not limited to, Bengali and Marathi.

Some history is required to understand why there are so many different, non-mutually-intelligible languages in India. There are at least two major progenitor languages that are seen as major presences in India: Sanskrit and the Proto-Dravidian. It is hypothesized by scholars that migrants from what is modern day Turkey and Iran came to India from the northwest, through Pakistan, settling throughout the north, in around the 2nd millennium BCE. Proto-Dravidian, on the other hand, is native to the subcontinent, existing for much longer in India than Sanskrit. Proto-Dravidian was spoken primarily in the South. The origins of the Munda family are unknown, though it has been shown that they are distantly related to Khmer and Vietnamese, as well as  other minority languages through Southeast Asia. And it is important to remember that another large influence on Indian languages are the Farsi and Arabic languages, which came only much later to the subcontinent, through the Mughal empire. It is for that reason that the Arabic and Farsi heavy form of Hindi, known as Urdu, exists today.

Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, and is used almost exclusively as such today, though it is an official language of Uttarakhand, and there are efforts to revive its usage. It is the language of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas, the core texts of the Hindu religion, though all of them have been translated into the other languages. It is also studied as a classical language in schools, in much same way Latin used to be a required subject in Western schools. Many languages, primarily in North India, borrow much of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, so it is very helpful to know. Classical Sanskrit’s formal grammar was standardized by Pāṇini, a Sanskrit grammarian, in his major work, Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight-Chapter Grammar”), written in 500 BCE, and is still used as the authority on the Sanskrit language today. Some of the South Indian languages, which are primarily Dravidian in origin, also borrow, to a lesser extent, from Sanskrit. Words from Sanskrit in Dravidian languages are often easily noticed by features such as the presence of aspirated consonants, and the consonant clusters dr as opposed to ḍr, and tr as opposed to ṭr.

Now, Dravidian languages are from a completely different family from the languages of the North, and share no similarities with them. Sanskrit penetrated South India as the language of the Maurya Empire, which included all of North India as well as much of South India, save for the tip of the peninsula, which largely encompasses the Tamil-speaking state of Tamil Nadu today. Tamil is not at all intelligible with any North Indian language, and influenced many Southern languages as well. The Dravidian ancestor language developed solely on the Indian subcontinent, eventually dividing into the Southern languages, such as Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and Malayalam. Tamil remains a sort of oddity among the Indian languages, as it is a liturgical language, of the Ayyavizhi tradition, and also exhibits unique traits as a language, because it distinguishes three different forms: a classical form based on the ancient form of the language, a modern literary form, and a modern colloquial spoken form. Tamil is also spoken in other countries as an official language, including Singapore and Sri Lanka, making it more relevant than just within India.

References:

Kuzoian, Alex. “This Animated Map Shows How European Languages Evolved.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 June 2015.

“Geography and India’s Language Debate.” Z Geography. 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families.” 27 Oct. 2007. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families” links to: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/12/South_Asian_Language_Families.jpg

CC BY-SA 3.0 links to: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

My Language Learning Calendar!

This is a picture of my language learning calendar, to mark the order in which I learn languages. It may not end up being in this exact order, but I aim to do so! Wish me luck, as this may take several years!

My language calendar!