Mark Twain, in his essay ”the Awful German language”, wrote that a person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is. He found that in German, a young lady had no sex, while a turnip had. Think what high-strung reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.
To illustrate this, he translated the following conversation from a German Sunday-school book:
“”Gretchen – Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm – She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen – Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm – It has gone to the opera.””
Twain had concluded through his philological studies, that a gifted person could learn English ( barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. To him, it seemed manifest that the German language ought to be trimmed down and repaired. Or if it was to remain as is, it had to be reverently set aside among the dead languages. Twain had, however, not informed his readers that he belonged to the category of the mono-lingual populace, which spoke English as the native tongue!
My dear friend Pattabi from my days in Chennai may have drawn the same conclusions as Twain did with German when he attempted to learn English in the 90s. His eagerness to learn the language compensated for his acute deficiency in vocabulary and pronunciation. Daily he would select one word randomly from the Oxford English Dictionary and memorise its meaning. He would then proceed to insert this word into various conversations he held in Tamil and English during the day, whether it matched the context or not.
“”Pattabi – It is a mundane day to day.
Me – Why, Pattabi?
Pattabi – Because I plan to submit my thesis today. I am going to have a mundane coffee after that. Would you like one too ?”
Pattabi’s English gave us mirth and may have inadvertently tainted our shaky knowledge of the language. Like Twain, he, too, was tortured by the fuzziness of a foreign language and decided to create a version that he could relate to and use alongside Tamil, his mother tongue. Last I heard, he had managed to shape a career as a Tax Inspector for himself. Wonder whether the defaulters under his watch encountered obscure English words inserted into the various punitive orders he issued them with. And for those who were diligent in paying their taxes, he unfailingly offered “”A thousand grateful thanks.””
I too was to discover the opacities of the English language at a tender age of thirteen sitting in front of Ms.Totts, Head Mistress of Kitwe Girls’ High School in the southern African nation of Zambia. My handicap in not knowing any other language apart from Tamil starkly dawned on me that day. My mother had insisted that we speak only Tamil at home. Coupled with the superior tutoring I received in school, I became proficient in Tamil by the time I was nine.
Four Years later, Ms.Totts cut me to size with her sharp British accent and a half-smoked cigarette, which perched precariously on a metal tray on her desk. She sat with her imposing frame, staring down through her bifocals positioned on the edge of her nose. My father, who had been the reason I had uprooted myself from my comfortable Tamil existence and moved to Kitwe, had carefully coached me that morning. I greeted her in English, somewhat hesitantly upon entering the room, and then tried dredging other words in English but could not remember any worth stringing into a conversation. By the end of the afternoon, I was enrolled in Kitwe Girls’ High School in a class two grades below what I had already completed in India. I was packed off with a stern warning to buck up my English if I wanted to survive as her ward.
Thus, I started to learn a foreign tongue in a foreign land at the age of 13.
Determined to master English after receiving Ms.Totts’ close attention, I devoured Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, and Perry Mason. I read essays by Benjamin Disraeli and my grandfather’s collection of Indian classics in English in rapid succession. I gathered flowery, staid, racy, prosaic, and sometimes violent vocabulary all in one go. I majored in English. I was taught by Professors who had themselves been tutored by the English from colonial days and was introduced to Shakespeare, the history of England, Seven types of Ambiguity, and Renaissance. By the time I was 19, I had left my mother tongue far behind somewhere in the dusty back streets of my hometown Chennai.
I met Mr.Zhang in Beijing last month. He drove us to the Great Wall in a luxurious sedan and regaled us with his political commentaries, and reminiscences in rapid succession, all delivered in Mandarin. Barring one or two passengers who spoke Mandarin, the rest could not proceed beyond ”Ni hao” ( hello). He talked loudly, gesturing with his hands (occasionally taking his hands off the steering wheel) and picked up stray words from us to continue his stream of consciousness. His mother tongue was central to all his communication. He presented it with unswerving devotion and unshaken belief that we understood all that he had to say. It remained a mystery to me, however, as to why Mr.Zhang chose to call his company ”The Histotic Monuments of Beijing”. It was spelt out in English in the business card he handed each one of us proudly at the end of the journey.
Like Mr.Zhang, my mother tongue still remains my frame of reference, whether I communicate my thoughts in English, Hindi, or Bahasa Indonesia, the three other languages I now speak. The other day an elderly gentleman in the gym in Ballarat complimented me on my English. I did not tell him that I still thought in Tamil before responding to him, however ‘mundane’ his questions were.I was afterall a ‘native’ speaking English.