Language Lessons

My parents were in town this past weekend for the girl’s birthday, and everyone had a great time. My mother outdid herself making delicious food for every meal that both kids gobbled up eagerly, and both grandparents enjoyed playing with the kids.

One of the things I do with my parents, often without knowing it, is slip into speaking Marathi. Once, at the lunch table, my parents and I were having some rather simple back and forth in Marathi (“Can you pass me the pickle?” “Here, take it”) and the boy started to hyperventilate in his dramatic way and wailed, “When am I going to learn that?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“When am I going to learn to speak Indian?” he replied. “Aaji,” he said, turning to my mother, “Where did you learn to speak Indian?”

I had a twinge of guilt over not being better about teaching him any Marathi, but the truth is I’m not very good at it anymore after years of not practicing it, and was never fluent in the first place. And another truth is that, well, it simply isn’t that useful to know Marathi.

In a country with hundreds of beautiful melodic languages, Marathi is like the German of the Indian languages, in sound and in culture. It’s just rough. There is no common way to say, “Please” or “Thank you,” and no one would say it anyway. The typical greeting when you answer the phone is not “Hello,” or even the elegant “Moshi Moshi” of Japanese, but is instead, “Kon aye?” which means “Who is it?” I recently learned that there isn’t even a true word for the color brown–everyone just says “chocolatey.” This in a country where EVERYONE IS BROWN. How does that make any sense? (My father told me that there is technically a word for “brown,” but no one ever uses it.) Even the way to say “I love you” is somewhat convoluted and people just end up saying it in English.

We use Marathi when we wish to gossip about someone who is right in front of us without them knowing. This works poorly for two reasons. First of all, in accordance with the language, Marathi speakers are not typically subtle. This means that we will walk up to a grocery checkout line speaking in English, then see the lady with the crazy curly red hair wearing large polka dots in line, look her over, make eye contact, and then promptly switch to Marathi. When gossiping about how her hair and clothing makes her look like a clown, we will speak the word “clown” in English, which the woman will overhear and be able to deduce that we are talking about her, which makes the entire switch to Marathi completely pointless in the first place.

Now of course, Marathi is apparently the 17th most commonly spoken language with 70 million speakers worldwide (surprisingly, more than Italian)–I don’t mean to say that the language shouldn’t exist. After all, people still learn Latin and it’s not like you ever have a riveting chat about how the Nuggets are doing in Latin. But the sad fact is that my kids will probably find cause to speak Marathi about 20 times in their life. Even when my sister and I TRIED to speak Marathi with our cousins in India growing up, they generally mocked us for our poor grammar and we ended up just using English–in this lies the big problem, which is that most Marathi speakers we would interact with speak English just as well. Many first-generation Marathi kids speak less Marathi than I can and it’s doubtful that they would be able to speak to each other in Marathi without a great deal of effort. If kids that are raised by two native Marathi speakers don’t speak Marathi fluently, then there’s no hope for my kids at all.

From a cultural heritage perspective, it would be great if they spoke Marathi but the reality is they won’t. Of course, I could just focus on the more useful vocabulary and mild swear words that I know so that at least we could insult each other in Marathi when necessary. That would probably stick.

7 thoughts on “Language Lessons

  1. Radhika says:

    I saw this link on Sapana’s gchat status. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have to say Marathi has helped me tremendously. My parents made sure we were atleast fluent in it to survive family gatherins and trips to india. It allowed me quickly pick up Hindi because many words are similar and even the alphabet is the same. I think it opens up many doors we don’t forsee just yet. ๐Ÿ™‚ That’s just my take though.

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    • sajbat says:

      Radhika–thanks for the comment! I agree that I’ve been really glad that I learned Marathi, for all the reasons that you mention. Our family took trips to India almost every other year growing up, and Marathi was invaluable to me. While I can read the Devanagari script too, I never did learn Hindi, which I regret because that would have been wonderful for travelling around India. (I know, I know, it’s not too late.) I also think that learning a second language earlier in life makes it easier in general to learn other languages–something about getting those neuronal pathways in order.
      I don’t foresee that we will go to India anywhere near as frequently–we haven’t been once yet as a family, honestly. So I still wonder how much my kids would use it and if they would find it as helpful as we did growing up. Do you think you will teach your kids marathi?

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  2. Shree says:

    (Sorry, technical difficulties earlier)

    Clown = Vhidushak

    When my kid was not quite 3, I said,”Andhaar zhala” to my mum over the phone…the child promptly toddled over and turned on the lights!
    (She learned to say, “Nako” rather quickyl, and eventually the occasional, “Ho, paije”)
    Hoping she’ll coverse a little in Marathi when immersed in the language after our move.

    Bhetuya.

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  3. Radhika says:

    Hey Sujata! First of all, I am now a fan of your blog..love it! And yes I like to think that I will teach my kids Marathi. But again, you never know unti you are face with those responsibilities how ambitious my plans will remain. Haha. Plus how many of us really end up with a marathi boy…that adds another facet to it all.

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