The Sentimentality of a Polyglot

I’m sure I’ve waxed eloquent on how different languages communicate identities and the values and the beliefs of various communities. But this is really only relevant to the people who grew up speaking the language. Polyglots like Benny Lewis and Luca Lampiarello frequently talk about how different languages allow them to interact and understand other people. While I can’t speak for every polyglot, I believe there is a certain amount of self-discovery in becoming a polyglot.  Languages are reflections of the same human experience, seen from different angles. As a human, I share many experiences with people across the globe. Our mother tongues differ, which makes certain things more apparent or important to us. But if one learns other languages, one is greatly more aware of things we do that seemed normal once, and are odd to others.In this post, I’m going to talk about what the languages I speak reveal about myself, rather than what they reveal about communities and cultures to me. Note: I’m not going to talk about Kannada and English, since I grew up speaking them.

Spanish

Spanish was my third language, and I began learning it in middle school. This was purely as a matter of course, rather than me wanting to learn it, as we had to learn a foreign language as a part of our education. It was really only in my fourth year of study that I really began to appreciate the language, as we began to examine more genuine texts in the language. There were things in the text that were deeply foreign to me, and that inspired me to learn more about them. I wanted to know what Spanish speakers thought, and how they saw the world. Learning Spanish provided an opportunity for me to take a step outside of myself, and see the world differently for the first time.

Italian

I must admit that I learned Italian on a whim. I thought the language was beautiful, that the country of Italy was fascinating. Italian was similar to Spanish, but I wanted to speak this rhythmic and melodic language, which felt very different from the more dramatic Spanish. Italian was carefree and light, qualities that I personally lacked at the time. I was a very serious and severe sort of person, and Italian was the polar opposite of what I was. Italian allowed me to open up and become less stiff as a person. It was through the Italian language that I really embarked on the journey to becoming a polyglot.

Hindi

Despite having grown up around mostly North Indian family friends who spoke Hindi, and watching Bollywood, Hindi did not appeal to me initially. I saw no use in learning it, as anyone who spoke Hindi almost invariably spoke English as well. I only began to appreciate Hindi after I began listening to more music in Hindi and in Urdu. My father explained verses to me, and I thought the poetry about God and love was beautiful. Such poetry allowed me to appreciate my heritage more, because Urdu was the language of our poetry, and Hindi was our national language. It inspired a pride in my background, as I had been once apathetic and unappreciative of what my culture had to offer.

Korean

In a rather comical way, I started learning Korean because I was reading about the language on my phone in the middle of Biology, during the break between lectures. The language was interesting, because unlike Spanish, Italian, or Hindi, the Korean language’s dynamics were much more deeply rooted in a system of familial and social hierarchy. While not an unfamiliar construct, it was a system that I did not observe in my own home. My own culture and language placed an emphasis on respect for superiors and elders, but because I spoke mostly English at home, it often did not manifest itself. Even now, as I’m learning more Korean, it has made me aware of my deep lack of manners and respect for my parents. Korean led me to correct my ways in treating my elders and understand them differently. Oddly enough, it was a foreign language that allowed me to connect with people at home, rather than abroad.

Catalan

Catalan was my first step into the world of the minority. People found it exceedingly strange that I chose to learn a language of the small nation of Spain, spoken in an even smaller province called Catalonia. I had read much about Catalan nationalism in Spain, and I was interested to learn the language of these people. In doing so, I saw articles that openly criticized Spain, and fostered a respect for the opinion of the minority. It seemed awful that one’s own language was being silenced, effectively blocking out one’s heritage at the same time. It made me realize that I wanted to help the minority gain equal respect from others, no matter who it was.

Portuguese

The most recent addition to my languages, Portuguese piqued my interest because it was spoken by two underrated (perhaps “under-discussed” is a better word) countries in the world: Brazil and Portugal. Nobody really talked about either country, or the language. In the same vein as my reasons for learning Catalan, I wanted to learn Portuguese because it was off the beaten track. It was not common, and to make it even stranger, I chose the European variety of Portuguese, which very few, if any, were likely to speak in the US. European Portuguese, much like myself, is a rather sentimental language. Fado, the national music of Portugal, is a very tragic and melancholy form, deeply involved in the misfortunes of life. Portuguese is the vessel of my own sentimentality and emotional beliefs.

I hope you found this piece about myself interesting. Please go ahead and share this on Tumblr and Facebook and wherever else. Feel free to comment and share your own experiences in learning languages.

That Accent Though

There’s always that one girl who says, “I love men with accents.” Well, what kind of accent? Accents are always very particular things with people, especially this hypothetical girl, because what she means is probably a man with a European (probably British or Italian) accent. While people may not make fun of you for having an accent (though some definitely will), they won’t see you the same way if you didn’t have an accent. This is very evident in India, where the slightest country twangs and upper class pretensions are taken into account. My dad (though he will never admit this), when reserving a restaurant for my birthday while we were in India three years ago, used a British accent to talk to the host on the other end. This came somewhat as a surprise, because I expected him to say it Kannada. My grandfather explained that people who speak English, especially, “without an accent,” (which is to say with a British accent or American accent), are given priority in reservations and such. Even if they tack on a couple thousand rupees, it’s apparently worth it to get the restaurant to wait for you while you’re stuck in heavy Indian traffic.

People who speak English natively usually notice when someone has an accent, but have no problem saying that a person is fluent if that person has great command over the language. Some might argue that accent doesn’t matter as long as you get your point across. Some might also say that accent shouldn’t be used to judge language proficiency. If native speakers think that your speech sounds unnatural, weird, or is hard to understand, you cannot be called fluent.

I believe that accent plays a very big role in how people view each other, not simply in terms of societal views that judge people. Accent distinguishes people via background, social status, and other criteria. It’s a mechanism for people to categorize people, and also find other people from their background when they’re away from home.

But, English is a special case. As an international language, it has the status of having multiple accepted accents around the world. However, for nearly every other language, this is not the case. Most languages in the world have very restricted subsets of what are considered, “correct,” accents within the standards of a particular language. As one of my Chinese friends put it, one person who speaks Mandarin with Fuzhou accent and another that speaks with a Shanghai accent are both fluent with “correct,” accents. But a French person that has a French accent when he or she speaks Mandarin (even if it’s the standardized version spoken in Beijing) is not considered fluent. I agree with this, and I think that part of learning a language (eventually), entails learning to perfect the accent.

Accent is very closely linked to pronunciation. Pronunciation makes up maybe 65% of one’s accent, and the remaining 25% is speech rhythm and cadence. Speech rhythm is how it sounds when somebody talks, and you describe it as, “singsongy,” or, “choppy.” Cadence is when you describe the way someone speaks as, “gravely,” or, “measured.” These are things one should learn eventually, and it goes without saying that the last two can only be learned by listening to native speakers. Accent is not necessarily something people use to judge and criticize. But it is important to try and sound as native as possible when learning another language! Feel free to leave any comments you might have!