The Beloved Mother Tongue

By Anonymous Author

I was fluent in my mother tongue – Hindi. I didn’t think about the words before saying them; they flowed effortlessly. We lived in Mumbai at that time. I easily conversed with people in the park or at the local store. As easily as a four-year-old could. I understood every word and had the perfect pronunciation. My nanny was like a second mother to me for my first ten years. She only spoke Hindi, and I learned the language from her as she fed, played with, and put me to bed. She taught me colloquial phrases like Arrey yaar, which translates literally into ‘Come on friend’ but means much more culturally. My parents said I was much better in Hindi than my brothers, and I was delighted with that assessment.

As I grew older, my connection with the language started getting hazy. At school, I had to speak English with my teachers and classmates. Many of my closest friends didn’t speak or even understand Hindi. Even though I lived in Mumbai and heard Hindi daily, my subconscious mind started translating words into English. At home, I would respond to my nanny’s long questions in Hindi about my day with monosyllabic answers. Somehow the words in my head didn’t come out right in Hindi sentences.

I lost my bragging rights. I went from understanding every line in Bollywood movies to hearing vaguely familiar sounds and needing English subtitles. From being the best Hindi speaker out of the kids in my family, I became the worst. I would fumble for words, and my accent started sounding American. My brothers would laugh at me and pass comments like, Aap ko ye bhi nahi pata? (Don’t you even know this), while my parents looked disappointed.

Moving from India made my Hindi worse. My nanny did not move with us. I stopped speaking Hindi altogether. If my mom pleaded with me, I might say a few words. If I were talking to a South Asian and didn’t want anyone else to understand, I would speak in broken Hindi phrases. But never otherwise.

I try to stay connected to the language and my culture. I love Bollywood movies and can talk about them for hours in English. I constantly play my Bollywood playlist, but I only hum along.

I’ve tried to re-teach myself Hindi. I’ve used all the apps. Duolingo, Rosetta Stone: if it’s on the app store, I have tried it. I’ve even tried learning by watching Algebra videos in Hindi on Khan Academy. That didn’t go too well for either Hindi or Algebra. My mom has tried to teach me Hindi, but that has always ended in mutual disappointment. I never tried to get a Hindi tutor; I don’t think I ever will. It would hurt my ego and pride.

If it’s meant to be, my first language will come back.

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