Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why did you learn Bengali?

I saw this question float through my Facebook timeline today. And was surprised to see so many responders who had learned Bengali or Hindi! Most for religious reasons. Some lived in India and picked it up that way. I didn't really respond except to post links to Let's Learn Bengali, the Facebook group I admin. But that is my way, isn't it? When confronted with a question, I take the intellectual route. If I can examine something, analyze it, then I don't have to provide a narrative. I can easily tell what I know, give you the right answer, get an A+, but I don't give away my stories, my motivations so easily.

So to correct that lapse, I shall answer that question here.

I have always loved languages. I started learning Spanish and French from childhood, majored in French in college, started learning Hindi while finishing my French degree, and had a brief foray into Norwegian before I realized I had no one to speak it with. I have been told I have a natural talent for language, and found that the one thing that my extremely right-brained orientation was good at was translation. My only real problem was that I was casting my net too wide, trying to learn too many languages, when it makes more sense to dive deep into one. If I had known then what I knew now, I would have chosen Bengali from the start. Its rich literary and film traditions would have been enough. But they do not teach Bengali in school, and so I went with French instead. Je ne regrette rien, but it would have been nice not to have to wait so long.

I suppose if I had paid better attention, I would have started learning years before I actually did. Here are some snippets of conversations I had throughout the years:

A: You should learn Bengali.
Me: LOL, no, Hindi's hard enough.

P: You should learn Bengali.
Me: What for?

F: You should learn Bengali.
Me: Maybe later. Let's practice singing.

S: You should learn Bengali
Me: I don't understand why people keep telling me this.

Or maybe I could have started learning in 2006, when I went to Mumbai amidst the glowing reviews of all of my closest friends and found it left me cold. In the airport, I began reading a book about Kolkata and said, "Well, if I ever come back to India, maybe I'll like that place." I could have prepared myself, but I didn't.

Or I could have started learning once Hindi started making more sense, and I began listening (on 2006's recommendation) to Bangladeshi rock music, just to listen to music whose lyrics I didn't understand once more. But that would have defeated the purpose.

But I did go back to India, and upon invitation from a friend, I did go to Kolkata, in a rare monsoon weekend where the clouds gathered angrily, then dispersed to reveal the most brilliant blue sky without a drop of rain falling. At the risk of sounding like a second-rate travel novel, everything seemed to fall into place. Yes, the roads were full of people, full of monsoon mud, animals roaming the roads - everything you would expect from having read all those other India travel novels. But there is a palpable difference between Kolkata and Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. Those two metros, they move quickly. Business gets done. The trees do not have time to really be green.

Kolkata was different. It was slower; it seemed more concerned with the things that matter to me. It revels in nostalgia. Art and music were important, not just resume-fillers and networking opportunities. As in other cities in India, I did attract attention as a foreigner and people approached me, but simply for a minute's chat at a store counter or crossing a street, then they said goodbye and we went on our separate ways. I felt safe there; I felt home. Of course I wasn't; it was my first time in a city I have, as of today, spent less than a total of thirty days in. But it felt the same way it did the first time I went to Dallas as a child, enthralled by the streetlights; my heart settled there and the Life I Had Always Wanted found an ideal setting.

In some ways, I suppose you could say I fell in love. With the humidity, the tree in my courtyard, the house behind mine. With turning the pages of Tagore and reading the words of Gitanjali for the first time. With Music World, where I deciphered characters round, angular, and elegant and vowed to learn this alphabet. And so I bought a book.

But love did come later, and with it even more reasons. In-laws, naturally, but there is also another reason. We communicate in my native language. English has so many twists and turns of phrase, hundreds of synonyms, dozens of ways to say the same thing, each variation carrying its own shade of meaning. I speak various dialects, including Texan and LOLcat, switching effortlessly between them. I write songs and poems, drawing upon the richness of the language. But Bengali is just as rich, with words carrying so much meaning, connotation, and power in a way that is not like English at all. Learning Bengali teaches me another way of thinking, and that way conveniently happens to be my husband's native way of thinking. How can I know the context that shapes him, how can I comprehend his hopes, dreams, and fears without knowing his language? Even if we don't speak it together, I find that the more I learn of it, the more I understand of him.

The more Bengali I learn, the less I know. I realize with every new thing that there are a thousand more things I wasn't even aware of, and it is quite unlikely that I will ever speak like a native or near-native. But I really don't care too much about that; as long as I keep learning, I'll know more than I did the day before, and those small moments of learning, those light bulbs of comprehension, the songs you listen to and feel without the need to translate, the times when you realize that you've just had an hourlong conversation in your fifth language and people understood you and you understood them, those moments are why I learn.


  1. It's wonderful to hear your story!

    I have no gift at all for languages. I've struggled through every language I've ever tried to learn and never gotten proficient in any. Sign Language is the closest I've come to fluency and even that only got as far as being able to get across what I needed to, though never being native or smooth. I'm in a similar place now with Hindi and I'm determined to break through that barrier, but my brain has no aptitude for it.

    My cousin, on the other hand, seems to just flow right into new languages. She majored in Spanish and Opera, picking up Italian as she went. In Spain people thought she was a native. She married an Indian man and picked up Hindi, Kannada, and Punjabi. People there think she's a native too.

    Part of my problem, my mother says, is my fear to make mistakes. I don't try because I feel so humiliated by getting it wrong.

    In India I tried my Hindi a couple of times, but we were in an area where Hindi isn't spoken much. I managed to call the trunk of the car an old man and that was about it.

    1. Carolyn, this is my problem too! I have had to work through it. Even little kids learn how to speak by getting it wrong and being corrected. We have to think like little kids and not care so much :) I'm still trying to get to the point where I don't mind getting it wrong because you have to get through the 'getting it wrong' part to get it right.

  2. This is beautifully written, Andrea, and utterly convincing. I know exactly how you felt!

    1. Oh thank you Hanna! I was thinking of your "love affair with Bengali" article (though it is not a second-rate travel novel by any means!) while I wrote this too - how it is possible to just be enamored by a language, a different way of thinking, a different angle on life.

    2. I would also love to read Hanna's "love affair with Bengali" article. Could either of you please share the link?

  3. Hi Andrea!
    Thanks for your comment on my blog.
    What a beautiful article on the love for languages... It is so fascinating and indeed, it makes one understand others better.
    I admire you for learning Bengali. It is such a beautiful sounding language. It must be so fascinating to be able to read Tagore or other poets in Bengali. I only know and understand a few words and hope that one day I will be able to learn it. I could not find any teacher here, did not find any good book either... I even tried a Bengali teacher in Cal' via Skype, but that did not work out ! Maybe it is our little one who will teach me the language, in some time...
    Looking forward to reading your posts.

    1. Hi Sweet Artichoke! I understand your frustration at not being able to find materials and teachers. You should definitely check out Supriyo Sen's website though - he has done a fantastic job with putting the basics online. It is -- eventually I am going to add a list of links on my sidebar with my favorite Bengali resources that are not blogs, so keep updated here too :)

      Also if you are on Facebook you are more than welcome to join Let's Learn Bengali - - come here first and see if you like it and we may be starting a more formal study session in the beginners group in March. :)

  4. You should learn Tamil, It's an old language.

    1. Thanks Mohamed! I think I will stick to five languages for now :) Plus this one is very practically useful for me.

  5. In my hubby's native home, they speak Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Sometimes it is all a mix between all. My hubby did not want me to learn whereas I really wanted to learn. I started by eavesdropping, and doing flashcards. Now I can follow a conversation in all 3 languages but I can only speak broken words, like a toddler. But the point is I know what they are talking about :D hee hee!
    I don't think I will ever learn to speak it perfectly but at least I can understand and that is enough for me. It is really hard, it takes time to pick up a new language.

  6. English vs Bengali is a blog where we can learn English and Bengali languages...


Please comment thoughtfully and respectfully. All comments are moderated.