On Learning New Languages and Speaking Native Tongues

On any given day, my daughter Kavya can be found hanging upside down on the monkey bars at our local park in Jersey City, where a beautiful mix of languages and cultures is woven together. Sometimes she’s wearing her school uniform, other times a play dress, and occasionally an Indian outfit with purple parandi that’s usually reserved for Desi parties at her grandparents’ house. But no matter what she is wearing, we inevitably meet someone at the playground—a dad, mom, or nanny—who assumes Kavya must speak some Indian language. The question is rooted in the same lightly coated racism as the question, “But where are you really from?” Kavya, in her thick Jersey accent, tells them matter-of-factly that she speaks Spanish and is learning Japanese Hiragana so she can eventually read Sailor Moon mangas in their original form—the central purpose of her life at the moment.

The majority of her classmates identify with cultures from across the world, with differing levels of fluency in languages they’re supposed to speak. Kavya and her friends have all grown up with the idea that everybody speaks multiple languages, and that their linguistic identities are fluid. While still at daycare, she came home and started using Spanish phrases one day. Now she is very comfortable hopping into the Dominican bakery across the street, where she orders cupcakes in Spanish each week, and having mini-conversations with the Puerto Rican crossing guards on her way to school.

When my wife and I meet immigrant families, especially other Indian parents, they are genuinely perplexed by the mish mash of languages brewing within our tiny creature. Some of them have very structured plans for their child to become bilingual, a goal that is usually limited to the younger generation engaging in basic conversation with extended family members. The truth is, I like that my daughter views languages as fun rather than a complex set of grammar rules, a resume booster, or the only means with which to connect with her heritage.

I understand the impulse to immerse a kid in the parents’ mother tongue or cultural language. This is much easier to do when at least one parent speaks at native fluency—however, many households aren’t in that category. My wife speaks conversational Hindi, but never learned to read or write it, while I can read, write, and speak Punjabi at the level of a gifted child. I also learned to read and write Hindi solely so I could read Amar Chitra Katha comic books, with stories of demons, ogres, flying Gods and Goddesses, light triumphing over darkness. Why would I attempt to read anything else?

One of the main reasons I am totally fine with Kavya not fully committing to one language is because I get it. I grew up all over the world and am a “third culture” kid, neither at home in my parents’ culture nor the culture of the places I’ve lived. Like my daughter’s generation, I carved out my own hybrid culture—and at the center is my relationship with Punjabi, the language I always considered to be my parents’ until I immersed myself in it. For years I rebelled against speaking Punjabi because I felt constantly judged for not being at native level fluency—unlike other languages I was learning, where I was allowed to have fun and make mistakes. And that’s an important part of being a kid. Just like reading Sailor Moon in Japanese.