A Helpful Chart:
Number of Languages (not including dialects) Spoken in India: 1,652
National Language of India: Hindi
State Language of Karnataka (where Bangalore is): Kannada
Common Language of Bangalore: English?
Language JP’s parents spoke to him at home: Tamil
Language JP spoke with brother, James: English
Language JP’s parent’s spoke to each other: Telugu (a particular dialect)
Number of Languages JP learned in school: three
Number of Languages JP can communicate in today: six
Indian Language we hope that our children will learn: Tamil
India speaks 1,652 languages. Nearly as long as I have known JP, I have heard this number rattled off in sermons, presentations, video clips, around dinner tables, in personal conversation, and I even remember being tested on it during one of my bridal shower games! It is a big and rather overwhelming number. Even Indians tend to be surprised when they learn there are so many languages spoken in their country. I always giggle inwardly at their surprise. Indians seem to overlook and disregard the constant shifting between languages that happens all throughout every single day. I think I notice it because I am a foreigner, dabbling in a little bit of several languages, but never excelling in one. Growing up in the midst of so many languages– learning three or four in school, using one language for home, and maybe another for work, and yet another with the auto driver, or the guy selling you a pair of shoes– languages just seem to flow naturally in, and around, and off the tongues of Indians.
Example number one:
I have a favorite fruit vendor. He roams up and down our street, pushing his cart during the afternoon and early evening hours. He became my favorite fruit vendor when he once sold me 3 kilos (6.6 pounds!) of my favorite fruit, the red banana. Every time I see him, he is always happy to offer his sweetest, ripest fruit to me with a flourish and an eager smile.
Most every evening, after the office closes, JP and I take Reuben out for a walk in the stroller to the end of the street and back. Every day we pass “my fruit guy.” On the days that we stop to buy fruit, I let JP do the talking because English does not seem to be this guy’s forte. I should mention that many, many people in Bangalore do speak English. Bangalore is a very cosmopolitan city, and rather than Hindi, English has become the common language among the myriad of Indian and other languages here. Despite this, I am not bothered or irritated by the fact that the fruit man does not speak to me in my native tongue. Instead, I have been quite interested in the conversations that take place between him and JP. He does not usually speak to JP in Kannada, the local (state) language, which is what I would have expected. Rather, he speaks to JP in Hindi, which is the national language of India, but is more commonly used as the common language in the northern parts of India. Now, JP does speak Hindi, (and Kannada) but has said a number of times that they’d have a much easier transaction if they just spoke in Tamil, which would the first (heart) Indian language for both of them!!
Yes, it is interesting on a certain level that this guys speaks to JP in Hindi first, but this happens regularly, and has to do with the way he dresses and the very fair wife that often tags along with him. What is definitely more interesting to me is that this humble fruit cart vendor, likely uneducated, or not very educated, is able to communicate in at least three languages. This is so striking to me, coming from a country where even some of our most educated individuals do not speak more than one language, and might not even value speaking in more than a single language. Here in India, it is very often the case that speaking more than one’s own heart language is both an every day fact of life, and a necessity.
Example number two:
In January, we went to visit JP’s relatives, and had the chance to eat some of our very favorite Indian bread, called parottas. Parottas are pretty much delicious when eaten plain, with chutney, or with a special gravy that I learned is called salna. When it comes to learning a language, I seem to have the easiest time remembering words for food. So, given my affection for parottas (and something yummy to dip them in) I had no trouble filing this new word, salna, into my brain.
Fast forward to sometime in the middle of March. We’re sitting at the table eating lunch with JP’s parents and his grandfather, Tata. Mom is serving Tata, and I keep hearing her say “Salna?” Tata, seemingly engrossed in his food, replies, “Salma.” This sort of exchange happens at almost every meal, and sometimes multiple times during the meal. Ever since January, that little salna file card in my brain flutters a bit every time this conversation takes place. However, on this day in March, the conversation did not compute. We were not having gravy. There was not any salna on the table.
Later, I asked JP about this and learned that Mom was actually asking, in another language, Sal na? (Is that enough?) and Tata was responding, Sal ma. (Enough, dear.) Interestingly, no one else around the table had ever once thought about the similarity between word and phrases in the two languages– and they all speak these two languages! This is what I mean when I say that people here in India are so surrounded by, and used to navigating between, multiple languages that they are
Example number three:
This past weekend, JP’s cousins’ family came to visit. This meant that Leila got to meet and play with their little girl, Kaushika, for the first time. They put on a delightful cooking show for us after Sunday dinner. I can’t help but put it with this post because I feel it illustrates to a certain extent 1) the multi-lingual world in which I spend my time… you’ll hear English, Tamil, and Telugu in the background, and 2) the beauty of learning to play together in this multi-lingual world. This was not the first language that Leila has learned to play in, and I hope it won’t be the last!