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“Omg, dude! Like…OMG! That was…awesome. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it in real life!”
This was my friend on Zoom.
He and I were having a nice little chat (me in India, him in the U.S.) when my doorbell rang. I took my phone (and him) with me to answer it. It was my neighbor two apartments away.
I knew why she was there. She “borrows” my internet Wi-Fi connection and since I’d recently changed the password, she dropped by to get the new one. Some pleasantries later, she left and I got back to my friend.
All that OMG-ing was because he’d just heard me speak to my neighbor in multiple languages. But I wasn’t surprised as I’ve heard this kind of response from monolingual Americans multiple times.
Let me switch gears for just one second.
A few days back, I was falling down the internet rabbit hole when I chanced upon a poster that said, “Keep Calm and Speak American.”
I’m not sure if the phrase was meant to be ironic or literal, as in, if you can’t speak American—English, basically—then leave America.
And that’s so disheartening.
Because, apart from the very practical uses of being bi- or multi-lingual, it’s also one of the greatest joys in life.
There are so many studies out there that highlight the many benefits of being bi- or multi-lingual. It increases your prospects in the job market, gives your children an academic advantage, makes the prospect of picking up another language a lot easier, helps you understand different cultures better, increases your cognitive abilities, and makes traveling easier.
It wasn’t until I lived in fairly monolingual America that I realized, for the first time in my life, that speaking, reading, and writing in multiple languages was such a special thing.
Back in India, it’s just a way of life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve floated in and out of experiencing life and communicating with the world by way of multiple languages. I can read, write, and speak English, Hindi, Marathi, and Tamil fluently. As an urban Indian, English is my first language but Hindi is spoken by a significant number of Indians across the country. Tamil is my mother tongue (we speak Tamil at home); and Marathi is the official language of the state of Maharashtra, where I grew up.
While I “think” in English, and it’s as much my native language as it is to Americans, Brits, Aussies, and more, I’m also extremely fluent in all the other three languages. When I got to grade seven, we had to pick a mandatory foreign language as part of our school curriculum, and I chose French. While I can read and write it fluently, my spoken French has taken a bit of a hit in recent years since I have no one to practice it with on a daily basis.
When you grow up in a country where the population is remarkably diverse (India has over 400 languages and dialects) but also far outpaces the availability of space, two things happen. Either you get used to being perennially surrounded by people (especially if you live in a bigger, more crowded city) or you crave your own private space. And when “space” itself becomes the most sought-after commodity, privacy becomes the second most sought-after.
Speaking in multiple languages gives you that sense of privacy. Knowing multiple languages imparts a sense of security. It can be difficult for me to explain the sense of comfort and peace I feel when switching back and forth between languages. It’s one of those instances where “feeling” is “knowing.”
Now none of this is unique to me. Anecdotally speaking, I don’t know of a single Indian family or friend who cannot speak at least two languages fluently. This is just normal for us. And I never thought otherwise.
And then I moved to the U.S. for grad school.
I still remember that day well. It was a Saturday afternoon and me and my four American roommates were getting ready to go see our college football team play when the phone rang. It was my dad calling from India. I was surprised and excited to hear from him and launched into a long conversation.
After I was done, I turned around to find all four roommates watching me with their mouths wide open. I figured they were waiting for me to wrap up my phone call so we could make tracks and get to the game. When I prodded them, they said, “Dude! WTF was that? What language did you just speak? We heard a few words in English and then you spoke in another language and then we heard phrases like ‘going to see football’ and ‘call tomorrow’ and then you switched back to a foreign language!”
I explained that I spoke to my dad in Tinglish (a combination of Tamil and English), and that I typically spoke in Hinglish with my sibling (Hindi and English), and in Hindi and Marathi with my mom.
My roommates were genuinely stunned that, first, I knew so many other languages and, second, that I moved between multiple languages so seamlessly.
And I was stunned that they were stunned.
Because, up until then, I hadn’t thought this was a big deal.
But a few years in, I started to miss being bilingual with my monolingual American friends like I was able to do with my Indian friends and family. I didn’t realize how much I missed speaking other languages until I couldn’t do it anymore.
I also remember another afternoon a few years later when I went out to lunch at an Indian restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, with an American and a fellow Indian-in-the-U.S. friend. English was, obviously, the default language that afternoon.
Maybe it was because my Indian friend and I were wearing salwar-kameez (a traditional Indian dress), digging into some sensational Hyderabadi biriyani, and listening to Bollywood songs playing in the background. But soon after, nostalgia hit us two Indian girls with a vengeance and we started to sing along to the Hindi songs playing on the jukebox. Before we knew it, the two of us caved and started speaking to each other in Hindi.
Obviously, we knew it was wrong. Of course, it wasn’t polite. And it was no secret we were making our American friend extremely uncomfortable.
But old habits die hard.
And as much as I loved (and still love) America, not being able to communicate with my monolingual American friends in another language has always been one of my greatest regrets.
Apart from the real advantages of being bi- or multilingual, there are also a lot of real-life, practical benefits to speaking in multiple languages.
If you feel like exploring a sensitive topic with a friend in a public place, a second language gives you a sense of privacy, protection even, and the knowledge that you’re discussing the issue with just that one other person even when you’re surrounded by many others.
For example: I was in a movie theater with an Indian friend once in Los Angeles and we saw a couple ahead of us at the ticket counter. He was in his 70s. She was…in her early 20s. It seemed like a sugar daddy with his wannabe-actress girlfriend. My friend and I were itching to gossip. And guess what? We did. We quietly switched languages and whispered about said mismatched couple in Hindi.
You can also have full-fledged conversations about sensitive topics (racism, sexism, gender inequality) and say risqué and bawdy things to each other—”Is the new brand of vibrator really worth the money? Does he know that size matters?—with full freedom because no one else around you can understand. My parents would switch to Bengali when they needed to speak privately, especially when deciding on a suitable punishment for us, because it was a language that my sibling and I did not know.
Unfortunately, I’ve never felt that freedom with my mostly monolingual American friends.
So, back to my friend on Zoom. Since I’d experienced his sense of awe before, I just asked him to chill and explained a bit about being multilingual before we moved on to discussing far more important issues, like whether Prince Harry will make it work in America or not.
And when, shortly after, I read the phrase “Keep Calm and Speak American,” I felt sad. Sad for those who will never understand and appreciate the joy of knowing, understanding, and communicating in more than one language. And circa 2022, it’s still a very unequal world when the power structure is always tilted in favor of America.
As an Indian, I hail from a developing country. And while being an American brings with it a lot of benefits—including my biggest pet peeve, which is that Americans can fly into most countries without needing a visa, unlike most people from developing countries—when compared to a largely monolingual America, hailing from a multilingual India feels better than sliced bread.