Updated: Apr 14, 2019
Why language is a key piece in the puzzle that is being a bi-cultural American, here's a look at what that really means
“What language do you speak?”
Many people seem to assume that my brown skin is a clear indication that I speak “Indian.” Unfortunately for both you and I, it’s not that simple.
“It’s a South Indian language called Kannada,” I reply.
“Sorry, you speak Canada??”
This oh-so unique, witty comment is one I’ve learned to smile at and wait for the laughter to die down. It’s also made me reflect upon what Kannada means to my personal growth, and how important it has been in shaping my appreciation for my culture.
As I’ve grown and been a part of this Canada situation more and more, I learned something very important about mother tongues: what our languages mean to us can’t be explained through mere origin stories. The feelings behind our languages resonate a certain depth of connection that is unexplainable through a simple “it’s my mother tongue.”
While I converse in English better than I do Kannada (my mom will tell you that I know how to say about 2.5 words), I understand Kannada fluently. English is more of a learned language, isolated from my emotions. Often, I don’t know the English words for items that I’ve grown up saying in Kannada. Cooking with my roommate, I‘m often mumbling to myself “how am I supposed to say beṇḍekāyi” or “Hey could you get me some nīru?” While these made for moments of hilarity, it’s also made me realize that there are parts of life that I only see through the eyes of Kannada, not English. I’ve learned to treasure this unique dual perspective I’ve gained hearing Kannada and English throughout my life.
As I’ve grown into a writer, I find that I write with English words to create beauty. But as I listen to my mom’s jokes and stories that I wouldn’t know how to translate into English, I realize that every Kannada word holds an innate beauty within itself. I find myself a happier and a more fulfilled person during my trips back home, thinking about what type of experiences and lessons I would be missing out on without understanding Kannada. These moments pull me closer towards the love for my roots, towards the beauty of what it means to be bi-cultural and bilingual.
Living at UF, a school with a prominent Indian population but a small Kannadiga population, has made it clear to me how important interacting with Kannada is to my connection with my culture. I still have fun dressing up in Salwars and singing to Bollywood music in the car with my college friends. Yet, as I Facetime my cousins and hear the ever so familiar chides and teases in Kannada, I realize that this content I feel while gossiping to each other in broken Kannada, laughing as we enter our own little world, is unparalleled. As I grow older I understand the importance of (attempting) to speak Kannada whenever I can, and to build a relationship with the different cultures my two languages bring to my perspective.
I’ll still patiently wait the next time someone’s eyes light up with the realization that Kannada sounds a lot like Canada. But this time, I might try and share a word or two in the language that makes me feel safe, happy, and at home.