Linguistic promiscuity

I often wonder whether I have a natural language; natural to the extent that anyone can have one. After all, language is acquired and is not innate.

My first acquired language was Gujarati. That was the language of all existential references but before I could graduate to its mature expression I switched to English for professional/survival reasons. I had never conversed in English till I turned 20 which was also the age when I started writing it as a means of earning.

It is my distinct memory that in those days my thought process was a sort of parallel processing in two languages—Gujarati and English. I never translated one to the other in my mind. They both blossomed on their own. All this while, a mixture of Hindi/Urdu had already become a third track from my early teens because of my natural affinity for poetry. As far as I can tell Hindi/Urdu too were getting fine-tuned in some corner of my brain simultaneously but independently. I am not going to include the other two languages that I understand very well—Marathi and Punjabi.

After living with four (actually six) languages for the better part of the last nearly four decades I could not say with any degree of certainty which is my default language. Purely in terms of the frequency of use, English wins hands down as the likeliest default language. The reasons for that are obvious because it is as much a language of survival as it is of predominant communication. However, if the ease of cursing is used as the yardstick to measure my linguistic proficiency, then I would say it is a close contest between English and Hindi/Gujarati. I would define your natural language as one in which you would curse severely under your breath.

I feel linguistically promiscuous. The brain often indulges in verbal orgies of threesomes or foursomes or even sixsomes between these languages. Marathi and Punjabi remain only reluctant participants in these acts but they are there, hovering around.

These thoughts came to me this morning for no apparent reason. It would be interesting to see which language I might die in. One cannot foreshadow the circumstances of one’s death but I am curious to find out which language I might be thinking in when the end comes in whatever form it does. It is possible that I may have a reflective death where as I am fading away I am actually reflecting on this, that and the other in a particular language as opposed to an unexpected end where I have no control on such details.

I am at a stage where it is no longer possible to say which is really the language of my thoughts, the process of thinking. One wakes up with any of these six languages and goes to sleep with any of them. My monolingual American friends freak out when I discuss this with them. Many of them are unable to process a creature with so many languages rattling about in his brain. I compound it by saying that there are hundreds of millions of people in India and elsewhere in Asia and Europe who speak/understand/write more than three languages without consciously trying.

As one friend put it so eloquently sometime ago while discussing this at a Thanksgiving dinner, “Get the fuck outta here.” Of course, he did not mean for me to really get the fuck outta there but it was his way of expressing bewilderment at the idea that people could be proficient in many languages simultaneously.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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