I’m a half Indian woman, with the Indian bit on my dad’s side. For the most part I’m happy with this, but sometimes, just sometimes, I wish the mother-caring father-providing roles had been reversed for, oh, say, one day a week, two at most.
Entirely selfish reasons, of course. You see, children who grow up with a primary carer, (in my case, my mother) who speaks two languages tend to acquire the second language very quickly. Children growing up with their father (or secondary carer) speaking two languages, however, rarely acquire the second language. If children do end up learning some of the father’s second tongue, it’s usually the result of a concerted effort by both parties.
A Scottish immigrant, my mother only speaks English, which,of course, made it much simpler to speak only English around the house. So my father didn’t teach us Hindi. Not beyond dud (milk), pani (water), khana (eat), kuta (dog), anyway. Useful as these words might be (especially kuta), I always felt I was never quite up to scratch, always playing catch-up at family parties and weddings, always begging my aunts and cousins to help me learn a few more words.
When I started university, my lack of Hindi skills faded into the background - until I met my husband. The day he proposed, I swore that I would learn Hindi before I had children, and keep them from playing catch-up the way I had. And I tried, sort of, picking up a few more words, like bili (cat), and aam (mango), but nothing of substance.
Fast forward nine years - I’m 28, and the new mother of an eleven week old baby boy. I’ve been taking Hindi lessons (intermittently - pregnancy does that) since January.
Finding a Hindi tutor was hard - despite Hindi being the official language of one of the most densely populated countries in the world, it’s not something many Westerners set out to learn. I advertised on Craigslist, posted to Facebook, and asked pretty much everyone I’d ever met for contacts and connections. And after about a month, it paid off, with my friend Dorea introducing me to Priyanka, very kind, very sweet, very well-educated Indian woman and native Hindi speaker. She was perfect.
At our first lesson (my wonderful husband, Joe, decided to take lessons, too), Priyanka assured us learning Hindi would be easy. And, of course, after having spent a lifetime surrounded by cha (tea), baingan (eggplant), and larraki (girl), I envisioned the process less as learning, more as filling in the gaps.
That was a kick in the teeth. Eleven weeks after Mir was born, I can read Hindi relatively well, if the typeset isn’t too confusing, and I have a cheat sheet of the more difficult characters nearby. I can also write Hindi passably, if it doesn’t involve too many bh, sa, or ca. But, no matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get to speaking it.
Aap kaise hain? (How are you?) is about the most conversation I’m comfortable with outside of our class of three. Even my father hasn’t heard me speak it, beyond telling Mir that he’s an acha larraka (good boy). Some of this, I think, is that it’s simply harder to learn to speak a language as an adult. But a good dose of it, I’m sure, is fear - I’m afraid that, as a half-Indian, I won’t ever be able to speak fluently, so I keep quiet rather than risk exposing myself. And yet, when I’m on my own, I do speak Hindi to Mir, mumbling Tum kaise ho? and Meraa chota meer-kat hain when I think no-one is listening.
Then, by the time he’s ready, with a little luck I will be, too.