It was right around my first birthday when I said my first word: “punkha,” which means “fan” in Hindi.
We lived in Singapore, where English is one of four national languages (Malay, Mandarin and Tamil being the other three). Despite this, I was a preschooler before I learned to speak English; my mother says my teachers often asked why I wasn’t able to “communicate.”
At home, we exclusively spoke Hindi — a conscious choice my mom made about how I would acquire my linguistic skills. She knew I’d learn English through my education, but wanted to ensure I’d have a chance to acquire native proficiency in Hindi. Eventually, though, she couldn’t ignore the English that crept in at home from my schooling. (Not to mention, my early passion for Shakespearean literature.)
As I grew, keeping up my Hindi proved more challenging. The language is written in devanagari script, so not exactly easy to keep up in addition to learning French at school. Plus, kids at school laughed at non-white people who didn’t speak English well, further encouraging me to tuck my Hindi-speaking self swiftly away.
And there it’s stayed, except on special occasions. As an adult, I spend almost all my time speaking, reading, writing and even dreaming in English; although my husband also speaks Hindi, we typically reserve it for talking privately in public or when we’re chatting with relatives in India.
Then, last year, I became pregnant and we consciously decided to speak our mother tongue more frequently and to eventually make it our primary language at home.
We have many reasons for the switch. New research shows that language lessons start in the womb. Naturally, we wanted our child to feel connected with our roots in India, and to get a jumpstart on acquiring native proficiency before he learns English outside our home (as I know he will).
There’s also the ubiquity of our language; some estimates claim Hindi is the fourth most widely spoken language in the world (Mandarin being the most widely spoken). Plus, being bilingual can make people smarter, have better job prospects and could even delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Now, there are times I have trouble expressing complex thoughts in the language that was my first.
As my son, Veer, fast approaches his own first birthday, I find myself reflecting on my mother’s choice all those years ago. Will Veer call me “mother” in Hindi (Mummy) or in English (Mom)? Will it be “Daddy” or “Papa” for my husband? Will he find friends with whom he can use Hindi (I know from personal experience how kids can be brutal when children of other ethnicities can’t speak English, or do so with an accent)? Can my husband and I even expect Veer to ever feel fully proficient in Hindi, considering I never lived in India and my husband has spent more than a decade away?
In my own experience, being a bilingual child creates identity challenges. In my teens, I started noticing that when I spoke Hindi, I assumed a different personality than when I spoke English. In Hindi, I’m more agreeable and generally express my opinions more sparingly. Part of this, I assume, is rooted in cultural expectations of what South Asian girls and women should behave like. There’s research to back up my observation. One study of more than 1,000 bilinguals found that close to two-thirds felt “like a different person” when speaking different languages.
In English, I find myself behaving more assertively and articulating my opinions with ease. The “English-speaking” Ruchika is the one most people in America encounter. It’s also the one to whom I’ve started feeling most attached. Now, there are times I have trouble expressing complex thoughts in the language that was my first. I’m not alone — many second generation immigrants who are born here, like my son, tend to feel most comfortable speaking in English.
My experience as an immigrant Singaporean has made me far more empathetic to my son’s forthcoming grasp of language. While I want him to speak Hindi fluently — and will help him get there — I can’t expect him to keep up native proficiency once he’s in an English-speaking school. It would be incredible if he truly feels comfortable in Hindi even while being educated in English, but, realistically, I know that the more time he spends outside our home, the more instinctive English will become.
The most I can hope for is he’ll think of his bilingual skills as something like a coat: He’ll reach for the right language when the right occasion calls for it.
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