There’s language in the eye, the cheek, the lip
It hits me in these moments that there are worlds – literary, familial, cultural – that are almost entirely inaccessible to me, in a language that was meant to be mine.
The other night, my 11-year-old brother teased our mum about her pronunciation of the word ‘queen.’ Apparently, she had pronounced the ‘q’ weird. Amma just laughed and commented some version of her usual ‘I got you here because of this English, it’s good enough’.
This is a common occurrence in our household; my parents’ Indian tongues slipping and stuttering over English sounds that don’t match up the same to their native Malayalam, while my brother and I offer corrections. There are also similar inverted occurrences where our parents tease us back for stumbling over Malayalam words we’re not accustomed to using, or had just heard of and attempted to pronounce, curious to know its meaning. Maybe this is a mutual language exchange, but oftentimes I think it’s just loss.
Take it like this: despite Malayalam being the language I was born into, I think in English now. Even though I am fortunate to still have Malayalam in some way – in that I speak it fluently, even if my reading only consists of slowly sounding out letters until they become a word I recognise, and my writing is limited to scratching out my name in corners of my study notes when I can’t focus – its use in my life is limited to the time I spend at home talking to my parents, or to relatives back in India. As a result, my vocabulary only consists of the everyday speech; of places, food, and the ‘what I’ve been up to recently’. Sometimes I’ll watch a Malayalam movie and need English subtitles to put together meaning from unfamiliar words. Or my parents will recount a story and every so often, I’ll have to make them stop and ask ‘what does that word mean?’.
It hits me in these moments that there are worlds – literary, familial, cultural – that are almost entirely inaccessible to me, in a language that was meant to be mine. It makes me wonder what kind of person I would be if Malayalam remained my native tongue, or at least my most used one. Would my thoughts run differently? Would I interact with my surroundings the same way? Would I fundamentally be the same person I am now?
Of course, the answer is probably no. We underestimate, I think, how big a role language has in shaping us and our identities, since, at the end of the day, it’s more than just a communication tool. Woven into language is history and connection and specific niches of humour, passed on through generations and generations and generations. A legacy of language is constructed, more often than not without intent. That’s why losing your heritage language, or never getting a chance to really have known it in its intricacies, is such an esoteric kind of grief. I’m mourning not just the present loss, but the past and future too. Because the realisation comes to me, on a random Wednesday afternoon, that I can only pass on what I know. And what I know is: there’s a gap between my ethnicity and my identity that will never quite be filled.
The words just aren’t there.