I made an amusing discovery about myself while talking to my girlfriend’s family over the Christmas dinner table – that I had an attention span of about one minute to follow the topic of discussion. Like a ripple on the surface of water, this one-minute long window followed me through the conversation. I had no recollection of what was being discussed one minute and one second ago. Like the hero in the movie Memento, my life started afresh every single minute at square one. This remarkable handicap owed itself to the fact that the conversation was in German.
I think speaking a different language brings a clear shift in consciousness – like putting on a new persona and opening up to the world in a different new way. This obviously takes time and the first few months are bound to be painful, as we struggle to keep conversation and keep missing important chunks of information. And tuning of our ears will be perfected over time. What will never be perfected is the reciprocal chiming of our voices.
For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we humans lived in small sized groups of hunter-gatherers, where we knew not only how every person in the group looked like, but also how every person sounded like. We were trained to spot even subtle changes in accent and emotional signatures of voice, as that could potentially mean warding off a vicious assault on our group. The neural circuits responsible for making fine-tuned judgement about accents and dialects are buried deep within our brains. In our uncharitable moments, we adopt this deep-wired prejudice to exclude foreigners from our in groups, and make them feel like the other.
As an Indian living abroad, I am ashamed to say that the most excluded I have ever felt was not while living abroad, but right in India. I grew up in coastal Andhra Pradesh, speaking Telugu for my mother tongue. When I moved to Hyderabad – the erstwhile capital city of the province – I was immediately made to feel self-conscious by the thick accent through which I spoke Hindi. Although I learnt Hindi at school, I never had the opportunity to speak it colloquially with friends. In Hyderabad, though Telugu was spoken and understood by the majority, a significant minority did not understand it. Thus, the default language of conversation was not Telugu, but the Dakhini dialect of Hindi / Urdu, a language that I grew to be very fond of. However, despite my best attempts to speak this language, I always sounded like an outsider. To make things worse, my friends relished in making fun of my accent and this put me off psychologically to even try, and I spoke with them exclusively in English.
This early experience of trying to speak a foreign language helped me immensely when I went abroad, first to the USA and then to Europe. In USA, I had great trouble in making myself understood in English for the first few weeks. But over time, as my accent got relatively neutralized and comprehensible, I did not feel excluded by the others. I attributed this to the relative high level of immigration in the USA and the steady incoming stream of foreigners, especially from India. But I had very similar experiences in Europe.
I moved to France in my mid-twenties to do my PhD. One of the main motivations for me to go to France was to put myself into an unfamiliar culture, speaking a completely foreign language. When I was in the USA, especially in my field of computer science, I found myself to be surrounded by Indians. I had a great time, but I was left to wonder if I was really gaining any new experience. In contrast, there were few Indian students in France, mostly owing to language difficulties. I was forced to move out of my comfort zone. In the first few months, I felt helpless. Learning French was hard and the French speakers were unforgiving with how you pronounce the words. I remember getting into my room and shadow-boxing in the air to express the frustration in not being able to communicate. But the initial efforts soon paid off. Within half a year, I was able to hold conversations and attend parties. The student life in France was glorious, far more relaxed than the USA, and with far better food and drink. I met with people from unfamiliar countries in South America and Eastern Europe. I made good friends with them. Some of my close friends came from the Francophone countries of Northern Africa. I also met with Chinese and Korean students, who quickly became far more fluent in French than in English. Despite us coming from many different countries, our common language of conversation, our Lingua Franca, was French.
Compared with my previous experience trying to speak Hindi, I noticed a few differences. Firstly, I had a free pass as an unfamiliar foreigner. People were far more forgiving with my accent and grammatical errors while speaking. Secondly, I found myself making good friends with other foreigners, equally maladroit in speaking French. Like kids in the kindergarten, we comforted each other and forgave our mistakes in language and cultural faux-pas. It also helped that most of these conversations were held in student dorms and picnics, when we were nicely pickled in alcohol. Thirdly, the French people have a hard shell but a soft inside. Once you crack the tough task of speaking French, at least in a moderately comprehensible manner, the French warm up to you and consider you as one of their own. My experience is no doubt very unusual, because I am a highly educated Indian. Immigrants from former French colonies in Africa do not feel the same way. But I felt that a rich and wonderful world in France was opening up to me as I picked up the language.
Apparently, Chinese people have an idea of nationhood based on a common language and civilizational norms. Once you start speaking Chinese, everything is forgotten and you become one of them. In contrast, Japanese people consider themselves to be descendants of the Amaterasu and have an idea of nationhood based on ethnic origin. In Europe, the legend goes that the French have a concept of nationhood similar to the Chinese, while the Germans agree with the Japanese. This is not completely accurate, I will speak about Germany later. But I agree with this understanding of the French mentality. The fact that I spoke French with a funny accent or that I looked funny did not matter as much as I spoke French. The French are very conscious of their limited English skills and would switch to speaking in French with me, even if their English was substantially better than my French. All these aspects helped me immensely to pick up the language and within a few months, I was even dreaming in French.
The ability to speak multiple languages is a great help while traveling. I was once traveling solo in Norway and chanced upon a bunch of French backpackers. They welcomed me into their hood and took care of me over a series of mishaps. First, I didn’t have a place to stay over a hike along the Sognefjord. I was welcomed to share the tent. Second, my credit card stopped working after a few days abroad. This was due to an automatic deactivation procedure that I had forgotten to deactivate. I was given money to pass the remaining holiday, on the mere promise that I would wire it back after I returned to France. I was taken aback that people were able to do this to complete strangers. So when I say that I was taken into their hood, I really mean it.
The ability to speak French also helped me find friends while hiking in the Himalayas in Sikkim. We were staying overnight in a remote village without electricity, when I woke up the next morning to hear French spoken next door in a funny Quebecois accent (the accent from Quebec in Canada is always funny to people in France, including foreigners living there). I asked in French who is next door and where they were from. The guys had a fright. They said they had not heard any French in their entire trip in India and then ‘pop’ comes an Indian guy in the most remote place they could imagine, talking to them in French! I had great fun talking to them over the rest of the hike.
When you learn a foreign language, it does not stay in an isolated compartment in the brain, coming to pick up orders whenever requested. It bleeds into every other corner of the brain, especially over the areas concerned with other languages. Right now, the French part of my brain is mixed up with the Hindi part, and supercedes it in some ways. The English and Telugu parts of the brain are secure and unaffected. But when I go to an Indian restaurant and the waiter talks to me in Hindi / Urdu, I mix up random French words while replying to them. It sounds extremely funny, especially when I am not in France but in India.
Speaking French gave me a new love for life, how to appreciate walking without any aim (flaner in French). It taught me the importance of taking time to eat, and to value company while eating. It showed me that beauty is the highest value that one can hold in life. One can have a crappy day, but it should rather be a beautifully crappy day. There is something artful to be found in any object and situation. I think half my personality ended up being French, hopelessly snobbish about minor elements in life. When the French government recently introduced laws allowing for simplification of language, I was more outraged than the French.
After I finished my PhD, I wanted to learn a new language and hesitated between going to Japan and Germany. Ultimately, I decided to stay within Europe and chose Germany. I regretted this immediately as learning German is extremely hard. Also unlike the French, Germans do not really want to talk to you in their mother tongue. Since most of them speak excellent English, they switch to English even if I struggle in German. Many foreigners told me that they found this German habit to be extremely irritating. It is not meant that way, but novice foreigners feel that their German skills are being insulted, when not reciprocated.
We have good reason to worry because German grammar is insane. Mark Twain once mused that God created eternity so that the human being can perfect German grammar. The tricky thing with German is that the sentences (and words) are long and one needs to hold one’s patience until the sentence is finished to gather the basic meaning. Before this happens, grammar can do weird gymnastics and indirections with the jumble of words. I sometimes feel like applauding whenever a native German speaker finishes a grammatically correct sentence. Obviously, I still have a long way to go before I can speak like even a four year old in German. The weird thing with learning German is that it is encroaching into the French areas of my brain, although my French remains far more fluent. I was once facing a job interview in French and found to my surprise that I was mixing up random German words while talking. It was probably the stress that did it.
Before I came to Germany, I thought German was a rather stiff language, starched and ironed out like a shirt. I was completely wrong. It is a very organic language, more like a church organ with hundreds of keys and pedals. One can speak it at different tempos and timbres. Like a complex piece of classical music, one can introduce counterpoints to the melody in the same sentence. The ability to understand German (barely) led me to appreciate European culture in a deeper manner. I can better understand that it is the bloody German language that drove the great philosophers, mathematicians and scientists that I admired, to be who they were! I feel if one can speak German properly, one can crack physics. Nothing complicated about it.
Now I have a far greater motivation to learn German because of my personal life. But it is not that easy as my girlfriend speaks excellent English. What helps in learning are relatively low risk situations with not much to lose or gain – like listening to the radio, or speaking to friends at a party. Talking to one’s significant other is not a low risk situation. You never know what is sneaking up behind the corner. Of course, I am joking, and inventing new excuses to procrastinate learning the language.
But as the world keeps getting smaller, and we keep connecting with new people, each day is an opportunity to put on a new hat, and to learn in a modest way what it feels like to step in somebody else’s shoes. Learning a few words and phrases in a different language is a beginning to something that can turn out to be a great adventure in life.