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.

The Stigma Against Europe in America

When I started learning Portuguese, I was surprised at how the Brazilian and European (also known as continental) versions are so different. However, I realized this wasn’t completely out of the question, considering that Latin American and European (also known as Castilian) Spanish are also somewhat different (though not to the degree that Brazilian and European Portuguese are). Old World powers that, back in the day, colonized abroad successfully, also transported their languages to these places as well. Words from indigenous languages, and words for things specific to the contexts in the New World came into being. The four most successful powers were Britain, Spain, France, and Portugal (poor little Italy didn’t have its act together yet). You might actually notice that the entirety of political North America is former colonial territory. Many of the colonies of these countries gained their independence from their European motherlands, except for France, which effectively had to give up Canada to Britain after the French and Indian War.

Given all this, the colonial versions of the languages of these countries had their own circumstances to develop within. In modern day America, where people from all over the world immigrate to, many people learn Spanish, Portuguese, and French. I realized this only much later, but people in America typically learn the colonial version of these languages. America had a particularly nasty relationship with Britain, and its relations with France were a bit strained, to say the least. Perhaps it’s only natural, then, that in America, many people have cultivated a distaste for European things (aside from wine that is).

Most people in America will learn Brazilian Portuguese, because people forget about Portugal entirely (Portugal kind of disappears after the colonial era in most history books), and also most Portuguese-speaking immigrants are likely to be Brazilian. Similarly, French speakers in America are likely to be French Canadian, and most Spanish speakers are likely to be from Latin America. Sure, you could argue that it’s just a matter of convenience, but I think there’s more to it than that. Canadians, Brazilians, and Latin Americans are well aware that there exist European counterparts to their languages, in a similar way to how Americans are aware of British English.

But I’m certain that there is some stigma against the European versions. You can see it everywhere, particularly in the media. Europeans, no matter where they’re from, are frequently depicted as pompous, heavily accented, and/or flamboyant. In English, to make someone sound like they’re very proper or uptight, we put on a British accent, for God’s sake!

Up until around my third year of Spanish, I knew virtually nothing about Spain or its particular brand of Spanish. People are often advised to learn the colonial variant because it’s easier to understand, which to a degree, is true. Speakers of Brazilian Portuguese tend to be very distinct when they speak Portuguese, whereas their European counterparts chop off the ends of words, and speak with what is called boca fechada, or “closed mouth.” The seseo, or ceceo (which is the Spanish word for the way you distinguish s, c, and z), of Spain, is often considered an impediment to comprehension when learning. This is because it is not discussed until the latter years of learning.

I have a friend with whom I practice Spanish, and I do try to use the Castilian accent, because I don’t get to hear or use it otherwise (I use the Latin American pronunciation in class, because that’s what’s expected). He doesn’t really mind, but he has said that he thinks that the Castilian accent sounds pretentious. I don’t really see how it’s pretentious, considering that everyone in Spain speaks that way. I’m also learning the European version of Portuguese as well, because it resembles Spanish more, and also because my particular book teaches the European form.

I’m further convinced by the conversations I’ve had with Latin American Spanish speakers and Brazilians that there is a distinctly American aversion to the European versions. Brazilians say that it’s kind of amusing to hear the European version in a conversation, but that’s mostly because they don’t hear it every day. Latin Americans don’t really care one way or another. Overall, they don’t really mind the European version of their language, even if it might be a little harder to understand. This could be because they are taught in school that this other version exists, and that it’s not worse or better than their own. Not that Americans are taught that their English is better than that of the British. In fact, when I was in elementary school, they didn’t even tell us that there was this other way of speaking English, and we only heard about it through TV and other media.

The point here is that in America, language classes should address the predominant forms of a language, especially when it comes to word choice, pronunciation, or even grammar. Language is inherently global, so it’s only fair that you learn about (though not necessarily learn entirely) the other versions. For example, I would say that it’s appropriate for a class to cover Brazilian and European Portuguese, but not for Swiss and Peninsular Italian. The latter two are not different enough to warrant extensive coverage on both, especially considering how close they are. Similarly, you cover Hindi and Urdu distinctly in the same class, but not two very similar varieties of Russian. You might say that Latin American Spanish and European Spanish aren’t different enough, because a Spaniard and Peruvian can understand each something like 90% of the time. But they are, considering pronunciation, word choice, and expressions (and the fact that two different versions of Disney and other movies exist for Latin America and Spain).

I hope you enjoyed reading this post, and I hope to get more out soon! Please leave some comments if you have any! Please note, that my statements about what Latin Americans and Brazilians say about their European counterparts are from personal experience. I’m only saying these things based on what I know, have read, and learned.

Akshay Patra

Akshay Patra is a non-profit organization in India that has collected significant sums of money to donate toward the funding of school lunches to children that go hungry, and then do not come to school. By providing these children with healthy meals, they are encouraged to go to school, and provide not just India, but the whole world with young new minds to improve the future.

My mother has expressed great interest in doing this charity, and I have as well. I have decided that I will donate 100% of the proceeds of the purchases of Scoprendo l’italiano! toward this cause. So, if you wish to purchase, know that you will also be helping improve the lives of many unfortunate children.

If you want to know more about this cause, go to http://www.akshayapatra.org.