Languages & Me

by Nandini Karky

Language – What do these words, letters and sounds mean to us? Why do we fiercely fight for it at times and completely ignore it at others? Was emotion always attached to language? Charles Eisenstein in his book ‘The Ascent of Humanity’ says that language is the first technology invented by man and perhaps the first invention that alienated man from nature. When living could be abstracted in the form of lines and symbols, we may have lost out on our intimacy with nature but it was inevitable for what will be, will be and nothing can stop the progress of where the human mind can take us. The distance a language will travel seems to be intertwined with the ambition of the culture that speaks it!

Like many Indians, my mother tongue is one language but the language I’m most comfortable expressing is in another language. The medium of instruction is English in this multi-cultural pot of languages called India. Hence over the years, one’s proficiency in the ‘other’ language grows and academic types like me, end up even thinking in the language. But thankfully, the love for my mother-tongue Tamil was always alive within and after years of meandering, I have returned to that place between two languages, and through my podcast Sangam Lit, I get to appreciate what an ancient language and culture has to say and interpret it in the voice of this modern language that has the fortune to have spread across the world. 

I have always been drawn to the power of the written word. From an early age, I fell in love with books and these opened worlds many to me. Society insisted that my academic proficiency meant that I was to pursue engineering. The unguided teenager I was, I simply followed that pointing finger. After stints as electronics and communication student and a software engineer, I found my identity in subtitling. Here, you are in the midst of two languages, trying to extract the essence of one into another and squeeze a giant within the tight borders of both space and time. Only when I gazed at language this close, I was able to see its glories and flaws too. How words can change the world at moments and how words can be completely inadequate to express all that’s felt within! 

And yet, who doesn’t delight in the well-written word! Today, my passion project involves translation from two thousand year old verse into a modern language using the twenty-first century technology of a podcast. When you love something and when you want to do something, somehow we will find the way to learn things we consider alien to us. For instance, to build a website, you need to understand the language of the machine and even this, something that I was not too fond of, I was willing to learn so that I could do what I dreamt of doing. 

Being in limbo between two languages makes me confused at times. Should I speak that language or this? Constantly, there’s a switch between one language and the other. But, that’s not a bad thing, I read. It’s something that keeps our brains active! Want to keep away age-related decline? Then, learn languages, they say! 

Looking at the fierce fights around languages, I wonder if they are necessary. One need not look at languages as one’s love, the one to whom one’s sworn! I think we can see our language as a mother. There’s a tradition among many cultures in India and perhaps in other countries too, of seeing many as mothers. We call the aunty next door, our friend’s mother and a kind old lady as ‘amma’, though they did not give birth to us. Likewise, other languages can be seen as these mothers. Although we may not have come from that mother’s womb, we can always respect these other mothers all around us!

Speaking of other languages, have you caught the sparkle in someone’s eye when you speak in their language? A powerful tool to touch hearts with your minds! Languages need not be fences that separate the world but a thing of pride that unites us all of us, for that is evidence of the extraordinary power of human creativity. The power that makes a few dashes and curves conquer this universe entire! 

Leave a Reply