Let’s talk about Linguistics

A post about a Malaysian girl accepted into all the Ivy League schools has been doing the rounds on the internet today, and when I read parts of the letter that apparently got her in, it got me thinking about how I feel about English as a language.

Having had a privileged upbringing and having attended an English-medium education all my life, has led me to treat English simply as a medium of communication rather than a language I specifically had to learn and incorporate into my life. Being a non-Hindi speaker at home, who lived in a primarily Hindi-speaking part of India, I ended up learning these three languages – Bengali (my mother tongue), Hindi and English – pretty soon in life. The first I learned organically at home, the second I learned so as to interact with other children my age (but not from my language-community), and the third I learned so that I could enter the English-medium schooling system and make the most of it.

The interesting thing is that Bengali, my mother tongue and the language I encountered the very first, ended up being the one script which I had to put in the most work to learn – living in a non-Bengali speaking part of India, there was next to nil chance of encountering the script in everyday life. So I learned from my grandmother’s enthusiasm to teach me, and, surprisingly (or not) from Bengali TV channels. Television was in fact a big tool in my language learning, now that I think about it. My mom says that watching English cartoons as a kid was what introduced me to the colloquial way of speaking English (once I mastered the ‘A for apple, B for bat, C for cat).

Since coming to the US, I have been forced to analyze the English that I know, the one that I mastered as a student, and the one which I have always been strong in when it was a school subject. I have already been asked numerous times about how my English is so good, and whether I learned it after I came to the US. These questions have affected me differently over time – first I was irked, then it made me ruminate over it, and now it just amuses me a bit, but I am open to talk about it and clear any misconceptions. Another thing I have had to deal with is my English ‘accent’.

And this brings me to my first epiphany – everyone has an accent when speaking English.

English as a language has become a global language, a language that is seen as a bridge between people who cannot communicate otherwise. (For now, let’s not get into the whole underlying notion of superiority this exudes (and which is, for the most part, unacknowledged), because that’s a whole another post.) So it is expected that based on what a person’s mother tongue/native language is, they will have an accent when speaking English. But here’s the thing – when you live in your own community/country, you rarely realize that you have an accent – you are simply speaking English. In fact, I find it funny now that I think that even in my home city, I used to pass judgement on people who spoke ‘accented’ English, because I apparently spoke non-accented English. When I came here and had to repeat myself sometimes because people could not understand certain words in the accent I spoke it in, I realized suddenly how strongly linked to English is the accent behind it.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to different English accents, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I can say that I understand what people are saying even when they speak with somewhat heavy English accents…simply because I probably had a knack for it. So, I also realized after coming here that I used several words which are prevalent in British English (having grown up in a country the British ruled for almost two centuries), and which I have to explain to people who only know American English (Side note – thanks to the Harry Potter movies though, my excessive use of ‘bloody hell’ has not been questioned. Yet). I find that I have started using the American pronunciations for some words, especially related to my field of study, because people simply don’t understand what I’m saying otherwise. But overall, I think I still have my ‘Indian accent’, which I’m quite relieved about.

Apart from learning that I have an accent, I have also met a lot of people from a lot of other countries, and I’ve been exposed to the accents they have. Its been interesting to say the least, and now, rather than commenting on how their accent is different from mine, I’m just excited to hear a different accent.

I might have identified as a ‘Grammar Nazi’ at some point, but I don’t see myself ever being like that again. From now on, I’m simply happy to…

…hold onto my accent, because its part of my identity

…learn more about how accents change with different countries

…readily explain new words to people who haven’t heard it before, and make them realize the flexibility of English as a language too.

All in all, be willing to learn, but understand that how you sound does not necessarily dictate your proficiency in that language; you could sound completely different from the majority, and still have better spelling and grammar than someone who sounds like the majority.

You Do You, and respect others doing that too ✌