Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Crabby Linguist

I’m an adult, sitting in a sunny Virginia classroom with a group of children, ages four to seven. We’re all here to learn spoken Hindi. We’re all of Indian ancestry. All except for the thankfully one other adult, a white American woman married to an Indian, and her teenage daughter. No one's here to judge. And no need for pens and paper or learning squiggly marks with lines running up top (as written Hindi appears). Instead, we’re just focusing on everyday conversational skills. “This door is red, that chair is yellow.” A good, safe environment for me to learn a language I’ve heard most of my life but have never mastered, right?

Wrong, of course. Most of the kids had heard their parents speak Hindi at home so they knew their vocabulary and could perfectly mimic the teacher’s proper accent. But even the American woman and her teenage daughter, who had heard the language far less than I had, fared better in this class than I did. My local cousins made fun of my “neela, peela Hindi.” (That's a reference to my mispronunciation of the words for blue and yellow. Did I even make it past the primary colors?) I'm a stickler for good grammar, but Hindi's so flexible, so easy going. As with Konkani, it doesn't even matter in which order you put your clauses. But my lifelong struggle, through years of classroom French and Spanish, through years of trying to speak various Indian languages is this: I can't overcome my American accent.

Which reminds me of another incident. As a four-year-old, I made my first trip to India. I have a vivid memory of meeting a beautiful cousin, the same age as me, for the first time. She couldn’t understand a word of English, and I was too embarrassed to attempt speaking Konkani in front of everyone. So when I found myself alone in a room with her, I tried to squeak out a few words in our shared mother tongue. "My name is Supriya. What is your name?" She blinked her beautiful doll eyes at me, probably wondering whether this was that thing called English our grandparents had warned her about. From behind a door somewhere, I heard a gaggle of older cousins break out in hysterics. (What is it with my cousins, anyway?)

Since then (sniff), I’ve suppressed my interest in learning new languages. I know when it comes to practicing in real life, I’m too self conscious. I placed out of most of my college language requirements through advanced credits in high school French. But I completed my remaining requirement by taking a class that focused on reading Sartre and Camus and writing stiff, formal essays about them. No one really needed to hear me stumble over my embarrassing, unwieldy accent, after all.

I do have one unusual linguistic skill that will likely get me nowhere but which I attribute to being a Cancer. If anyone speaks to me in the languages I’ve studied, chances are, I won’t catch the gist. But like a true crab, everything comes to me sideways. I can overhear a detailed conversation in these languages and pick up nine tenths of it. (I know this, because I tend to verify it later.) So small comfort: I may never be proficient in a language other than English, but at least I’ll understand what people are saying behind my back!

Anyone else a dud with languages? I’d really hate to be the only one! Talk to me. In English, preferably.


  1. My hubby's a double dud! Dig this: back in the eighties or whatever the year it was, he studied Russian in college to be an exchnage student and go to live Moscow for a few months. Couldn't pass the test, didn't go. Well, Russian IS a hard language. But, after living with me for 12 years, he learned about a dozen Russian words, which makes it a word a year, and he still can't get them out right. The good side of it -- he thinks I'm totally awesome because I write in my second language!

  2. This was a great read. I totally know where you are coming from and how you felt because the same thing use to happen to me as well. Whenever I tried to speak Bengali or Konkani I would get made such fun of because of my American accent that it made me feel very self conscious and that stopped me from really ever learning and trying to speak. I can understand Bengali pretty well, have just started to understand Konkani and have picked up Hindi from watching Bollywood movies. So I'm with you that I understand enough that I know if someone is talking about me. But would I ever try and speak any of those languages now? Not sure, because I am still very embarrassed that I sound so strange. I'm annoyed with myself that I never took the time to stop worrying that everyone was making fun of me and just keep at it. Practice makes perfect, but that mantra never stuck in my head long enough to learn to speak properly. I guess it's never too late. Thanks for sharing, really enjoyed this.


  3. I pride myself on my French accent. French people think I know far more than I do and start rattling things off to me. The same thing happens in Greece and my Russian accent used to be OK. But German? Forget it! I asked 3 people in Heidelberg where the beer garden was(biergarten--same word almost, right?). No one could understand me.

  4. Supriya, I would challenge your notion that you're a dud at languages. You were able to write essays on Camus in French? Writing another language is far harder than speaking it. And understanding conversations by native speakers is no easy thing, either. You just lack confidence in speaking.

  5. Lina, I hope your husband knows he lucked out getting a live-in tutor. Just don't charge him by the word. :)

    Pallavi, thanks for the kind words! It's never too late, you're right, but somehow the older I get, the worse my accent and also my ear for hearing the subtleties of the sounds. I recently tried repeating a few Korean phrases and I seriously thought I needed a hearing aid. (Re dud).

    Kaye, your "biergarten" experience perfectly describes my predicament!

    And Heidi, I've just given up. As I mentioned above, it gets harder as the years go on. And after all that classroom French, I can barely understand more than a few phrases these days. Sigh.