Last month, I visited Canada for the first time. My Canadian cousins, bilingual in Hindi and English, were extremely enthusiastic about my arrival and welcomed me with open arms. At the same time, my visit brought to fore the differences between us; not least, the fact that I didn’t speak Hindi.
An obvious way to interpret my aversion to Hindi is that I’m ‘ashamed’ of my heritage. It’s a popular take, but one that couldn't be further from the truth. Like many first-generation Australians, I grew up carrying a deep unease about my monolingualism, and I longed to speak Hindi with the ease and fluency with which I speak English. Even as a six-year-old, I would harangue my father about failing to pass the language on. “You don’t need it”, was his usual response. Like most parents, he wanted me to ‘fit in’.
Of course, we have the option of learning these languages as an adult. My older brother put the rest of us to shame when he achieved self-taught fluency at the age of 18, armed only with a copy of Teach Yourself Hindi.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I definitely am. My own attempts to strive to that level of diasporic excellence have been less successful. I’ve tried books, audio lessons and apps; but whatever I do, a heady mix of guilt and resentment about not knowing Hindi in the first place would rear its head and I’d give up, again and again.
I wanted to relieve myself of my monolingualism in any way possible, so I looked to other languages for inspiration. I tried to salvage the German that I had learnt at school, and even tried my hand at French at the Alliance Française.
It wasn’t until a few years later, during a chance encounter with some Chileans in New Zealand when I knew that I had found the one. The keeper. The real deal.
I had found Spanish.
One of Spanish's major draw cards for me, an Australian with Indian heritage, it’s a language that technically has nothing to do with me. As far as I know, my ancestry and cultural upbringing bear no connection to the Spanish-speaking world; and unlike the European stalwarts of French, Italian, and German, it’s a language that’s rarely taught in Australian schools. So why would I speak Spanish? There was literally no pressure on me to do so. And therein lied its appeal.
Anyone who has tried to learn a language will know that it’s a journey replete with emotions. Because of my history with Hindi, a language both familiar to me and kept at arms-length; trying to learn it as an adult gave rise to feelings of resentment and loss. It also forced me to reckon with my relationship to Indian culture, which isn’t always a straightforward process. In short, it was a loaded language to deal with.
In contrast, my limited history with the Spanish language allowed me to enjoy the learning process free from the clutches of guilt and obligation.
Spanish also opened my eyes to what felt like a new and more forgiving way of seeing the world. I’ll always remember my first Spanish lesson when my teacher went through the different ways of answering the proverbial question, ‘How are you?’. She covered all the usual suspects—Muy bien (very well), más o menos (so-so), before hitting us with ¡Fatal! (terrible). “In Spanish”, she explained to the class, “it’s socially acceptable to say that you’re are doing horribly, if that’s how you feel”. In a country where the expression of negative emotion is sometimes frowned upon, Spanish showed me that there were other ways to be.
I won't rule out the possibility of learning Hindi at a later stage in life. But I won’t blame myself for not knowing it either. Learning Spanish has taught me that a new language can offer a key to new ways of seeing the world, regardless of the language that you choose.
So you may as well embrace a language that you feel a connection with, instead of forcing one that, for now—isn’t there.