Of Language, Thoughts and Semantics

Are you multi-lingual? What language do you think in? Is there a language you are most confident about? Are there different languages in which you dream, think and talk in the head? Is there a different language for your thoughts and another for speech?

How important is language and semantics for you? I discovered it is very important for me…


I went to the book fair recently and picked up a hoard of books. No, these books aren’t the ones I picked up. Not all of them at least. I bought books mostly for V. Board books, picture books, funny books, colourful books…all kinds. As V turns two later this month, as a parent and book lover, I hope he grows up to love books.

What I really want him is to enjoy stories. A well-told story is a joy. It is a lesson, an experience that promises to stay forever. There are stories that one revisits from time to time. There are stories that are worth re-reading. A story sparks imagination. It takes one into a world of possibilities. It gives shape to thought.  To reason. And language.

When I was much younger, I had a stammering problem. It wasn’t severe, but it was enough to have some of my cruel classmates laugh at me. I remember being hurt that I couldn’t read a sentence without stuttering. I remember elocutions were extremely painful. There wasn’t much self-confidence to talk about. Until I decided to shake things up a bit. I started reading aloud. I read my story books aloud. I read them to myself, imagining an audience before me and mostly aloud. By and by, it helped. And I found that I could read without a single stutter.

I read mostly in English. Mostly fiction, because when you work in the field of non-fiction, a little make believe is very good! For your mind and your well-being. I have a working knowledge in Hindi. As in, I can read and write. But if you ask me to read a Premchand or Harivansh Rai Bachchan today, I am not sure I am game. Similarly, ask me to write a script or story in Hindi, and I will definitely run away unless my job depends on it! Bengali, though it is my mother tongue is the most alien to me. At 32, perhaps it is too late to begin, and maybe I will have to reconcile with the fact that Bengali will remain a spoken language to me only.

So when I was picking up books for V, I discovered some amazing titles in Hindi. The stories were short, simple and the pictures beautiful. I couldn’t resist but buying a couple of books for him. The ones in the foreground are the ones I bought for V. But there was a few precious minutes that were spent thinking whether I should buy the Hindi ones.

And here is why…

By 2, an average child speaks 200 words. Until two months back, V barely spoke 20. And that got me very worried. I am a talkative parent and my mother assured me that there is no way V would grow up to be a man of few words! As a parent, I am keen my child understands language. I am keen, he understands instructions. I hope he grows up to be articulate and communicates well. But I am also keen that he doesn’t get confused between languages.

As a Bengali household, we usually speak in Bangla. I talk to him in our mother tongue and tell stories to him in Bangla too  I read his books in English and often find myself translating them to him…as if he doesn’t understand English. Actually, he doesn’t. There are very words in English that he is familiar with. There are few that he knows and uses in his language. But I am not worried about his English yet. There is still some time to go before he goes to school!

As a parent, I realise to my horror, I share my mother’s view of Hindi! As a young girl, if I spoke to my friends in Hindi, my mother would often get offended. It had to be in English! If I spoke to  my Bengali friends in Hindi, she was more cross! Why? I should speak to Bengali friends in Bangla or English, she used to say. I found her logic very funny! I mean, how does it matter which language I speak in? As long as I am articulate and communicate? Then, it didn’t matter to me that I wrote my Hindi essays by thinking in English. Today, however, language plays an important part in almost everything I do.

My job requires me to think, write and talk in English, something that it is not very difficult to do. I watch a lot of Hindi movies. And while I sing their songs, I don’t interpret them or dissect them in Hindi. And the same goes for Bangla cinema. There is very little Bengali music that I listen to and let us not get into reading yet. I try and read a few translations of Bengali literature. And here in most places I have discovered that English has failed me. Even though I cannot compare texts, and no matter how well texts are translated, I can sense that there is something missing. A distinct flavour, an accent, a nuance that can only come from reading a text in the original.

Hindi to me is mass. It is a language that I see V will naturally learn even if I don’t expose him to it. From television, from maids, at the park, in school, with friends…he will pick up his Hindi from so many sources. He already has many words in his dictionary. For the longest time, I have tried to control his use of Hindi. I have been very disturbed to see my 3.5 year old niece speak more Hindi than Bangla or English. Some days back she crooned, “1,2,3,4…Get on the dance floor,” I laughed saying that she’ll get an admission into school if she says as much English. What I said and feel about her use of language is by no means a critique on how she is growing up. It was in fact an eye opener. A child, much like an adult chooses a language that he/she prefers to communicate in. As a parent, I can must strive to see that my child learns to communicate first. He should understand what is pain. He should be able to tell me if a shoe is not fitting. He should be able to tell me if he has soiled his diaper. Or if it is time to go to the loo. Today, if my child achieves that, I will jump with joy than see what language did he use to communicate it in!

And so I picked up a book in Hindi, hoping that it would be a first step in dispelling the pre-conceived notions of language that I have. I have nothing against a certain language. And neither do I consider one to be superior than the other. But  like I think, articulate and communicate in English better, I hope my child grows up to equally at ease with all languages he knows.


One thought on “Of Language, Thoughts and Semantics

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Watch Out | On-board the Mommyship!

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