Ethnic block

India is a great place to think about language.  Nearly each of India’s 28 states has its own regional language and culture.  There’s Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Kannada in Karnataka, Marathi in Maharashtra, Gujurati in Gujurat… I could go on.  Not to mention, Hindi and English is common to most states.  Imagine moving from New York to California and having to learn a whole new language and script!

My mother tongue is Marathi but my ancestors settled in Tamil Nadu generations ago, giving rise to a small group of people whose Marathi evolved into an interesting dialect due to geographic separation; it’s basically old Marathi admixed with the local Tamil language.  Now, I speak my mother tongue fairly decently.  Not fluently enough to communicate complex thoughts and emotions (and basically no one in my extended family knows how to write or read it), but I can hold a decent conversation with my grandparents.  My parents also read, write, and speak Tamil fluently – but I can’t.  In fact, on this trip to India, I came to realize that the Korean I learned in 2.5-3 years is better than the Tamil I’ve been hearing on and off my whole life.  My listening comprehension in Korean and Tamil is about the same.  And I can read, write, and somewhat speak in Korean, but not at all in Tamil.

It’s odd.  I love language.  But I have never felt the desire to get better at Tamil or even Hindi, which you think I would want to learn at least as an Indian (and yes, I was raised in America, but I do consider myself Indian).  It would have benefited me to do so and certainly I had plenty of opportunities to learn, but in my head, I had already made up my mind to not learn it.

One of my good friends is of a mixed Japanese and Korean ethnicity, but speaks neither language.  She has said a few times, offhandedly, that she’d like to learn but something’s holding her back.  I think it might be the same something that’s kept me from ever wanting to learn Tamil, or Hindi, or Sanskrit seriously:

Pressure.  An ethnic blockage of sorts.

Learning French, Korean, Japanese, etc. is fun for a lot of reasons and one of them, for me, is because there’s no ethnic pressure.  I have no cultural ties to Korean or Japanese.  I can learn it when I please, how I please, and progress at my own pace.  I can also fail at my own pace.  I can hit plateaus.  I can make mistakes.  I can learn from those mistakes at my own pace.  I have this thing that defines me, makes me unique among my family and friends.

Not so with Tamil or Hindi.  The pressure is there; it is very tangible and it manifests itself as a mental block that prevents me from ever wanting to pursue those languages seriously.  I have this fear of failing and disappointing others or not progressing fast enough because, somehow, because it’s an Indian language, it matters more on a personal level.  Same with with my Japanese-Korean friend.  When I try learning Indian languages, it’s as though I’m affected more deeply by the normal trials and tribulations of language learning (making grammar mistakes, having bad pronunciation, etc.) because I somehow interpret my language difficulties as a failure to be a proper Indian.  And that just makes me feel shitty.

It’s sadly ironic.  If, at this very moment, I decided I wanted to learn Tamil, I would be completely inundated by family, friends of family, and random passersby on the street, every single one ready and willing to correct my pronunciation, criticize my handwriting, correct my grammar, quiz me on my “knowledge” of the language, instruct me about their culture.  Oh, if only I could have the same experience in my Korean-learning endeavors.  I would be so happy.  Instead, that fear of disappointing them and disappointing myself prevents me from even trying.  Amazingly, I still feel this pressure even when I’m in America.

I know this is all mental.  If only there was some way to divorce my everyday, culturally-conscious self from my language-learning self, at least for some period of time!

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