Tuesday, 23 August 2016

In So Many Words

"Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it": Christopher Morley, American author.

The incomplete Tower of Babel
Genesis 11:1 - 11:9 of the Old Testament is an interesting segment of the Holy Book. Among other things, it narrates the story of the Tower of Babel. When the children of Noah (of Ark fame) multiplied and had expansive families of their own, they all lived together and spoke one language. Being clever people, such was their pride and audacity that they began to challenge the authority of God. They came together and started building a tower ever so high destined to reach the Heavens, using bricks and tar for the construction. We are so smart, they said, and God is not important. But God, apparently, was smarter, for He had other plans. To disrupt the ego of the humans, one fine morning He mixed up the languages of the people. When everyone no longer spoke the same tongue, they could no longer live and work together in union, and the city was a confused mess. Very soon they dispersed, in groups of people speaking the same tongue, and the city was eventually and quite appropriately named Babel, meaning "confused" in Hebrew. The tower was never finished, and thus the languages came into being.

Languages are the most amazing things we can possibly speak... Duh? Okay, maybe that does not say a lot... When the heart feels a need to be expressed, it conveys a neural message to the brain. The brain in turn decodes it and gives the expression the form of words in a language. These beautiful creations of the brain are then spoken out loud, or as in my case at the moment, written bold in black and white. The joy of expression reaches its destiny of realization.

 The first language we all speak is the gibberish baby-language that a new-born gurgles. Ask the mother and she will probably translate all of it for you, for since when has communication between the child and the mother depended on mere mortal words! Fast forward a few months. The infant brain has grown at an astonishing pace, and the child has probably started picking up the first few words in the language which will eventually own the distinction of being the child's mother tongue. The language in which we laugh at our happiest hour, cry at our saddest, and swear in during the most bitter and resentful times. Over the course of growing up I have heard umpteen times from elders the story of my one-year-old version's journey through my first words, and each time the story entertains me as much! A scientific study had quoted that in times of extreme mental stress your mind automatically switches over to your mother tongue irrespective of the circumstance, and I have personally experienced this. The lengua materna is your identity, your firm ground for life.

Source: https://www.rbi.org.in/
So much for the origins and baby-talk. What about the languages spoken in the world today? Ethnologue, an interesting website about languages and origins, claims information about 7097 living languages. But strict demarcation and distinction among languages is a grey area indeed. Why look further when our country itself has an absurdly varied range of languages? We have 22 officially recognized languages, but that says half the story. In the Hindi-speaking state of Uttar Pradesh, it is said that the language spoken changes with every 100 kilometers you travel by road. In Britain only, the language English takes many twists and turns, with the Scots, Welshmen, Irish and the true-blue Englishmen hanging on to their own distinct styles and vocabularies. Add to that the Americans and Australians with a multitude of unmistakable idioms of their own. The same Spanish word is capable of bearing three or more different and completely unrelated meanings as you travel across South America! So to engage oneself in classifying the languages of the world would be indulging in quite a bit of time wasting.

Have you ever felt the joy of learning a language foreign to you? It is unparalleled. If you have a liking for self-expression, learning a new language is like an ice-cream crazy kid discovering a new untried flavour of Baskin Robbins. If you are of taciturn disposition, it is a new language to stay silent in... Dabbling in a new language opens new vistas for the learner, because you do not simply learn the vocabulary and the grammar of the language, but the essence of the land where the tongue is spoken as well. The manner in which a language develops is a mirror of the entire society which speaks it, imbuing in the history, culture, cuisine, geography and humanity of the people.

We are bound within confines of such a short lifetime, and most of that is frittered away in dull activities like sleeping, eating and creating progeny. Consider for a moment the fact that we are sharing our planet with millions and millions of other human beings and yet we know not an iota of how their journey of survival proceeds day after day. True, we are social media savvy and like to stay updated round the clock, but such media contribute further in consolidating the isolation we suffer from. Friend lists may be increasing by the day but real contact declines.

Antipodal social structures and frenetic lifestyles make each social group a virtual island with little interaction with other groups. Such indifference! It pains me. One of my strongest desires in life is to sit in a room full of people of diverge and polar identities, listen to each of their stories, and share my own with them. It is not merely information which I seek, for the internet is full of them, but the quintessence of the existence which is not conveyable by facts alone. The smallest mundane detail of my everyday life is sure to be a source of amazement for someone without an inkling of how my society lives and works, and the reverse is equally veracious.  But the buck stops there. In reality such desires are far-fetched and impractical; wanting to have a bite of every society of the world is even more silly than it sounds. It is here that I proffer a viable and sensible alternative, that of tapping in to the vast resources of languages. The window to civilizations; the pathway to amalgamation...

21 February, International Mother Language Day
There is no end to eulogizing languages. In the age of cosmopolitanism a successful professional needs a repertoire of communication skills. Be it a budding entrepreneur or wizened corporate honcho, being able to communicate better with a colleague or collaborator in his or her own tongue is a big plus. But to be able to grasp a language as it is spoken, one needs the blessings of an accomplished virtuoso instructor, as well as the will to learn, for dropout rates are alarmingly high in foreign language courses all over the world! But the most effective way to learn a tongue, without doubt, is to go and live in a country which speaks it. True, with the advent of internet you are not in dearth of dictionaries and translators. But the gross limitations of Duolingo and the likes are exposed the moment you move over from individual words and terms to general conversation. Moreover, no fruitful conversation can ever be carried out with one hand and half the mind focused on a smartphone screen! Finally, only two friends sharing a common foreign language will know the usefulness of the same while sitting in a crowd and you need to make a rather shady observation which is not for everyone's ears...

To conclude, surpassing all other advantages is a feeling of immense satisfaction and gratification derived from mastering a tongue. I have only started on my journey, but thanks to the immense spread of the only foreign language I have obtained a certain degree of mastery over (Spanish), I already command the ability to speak to almost 19% of the world's population, in their native tongue! Add to that the non-native speakers of these languages, and the sprinkling of regional Indian languages which most people understand a few words of, and the percentage is bound to increase. Time is ticking on, and I have a world to conquer yet...

There is a vast infinity of stories out there in this world, waiting insistently for a patient hearing. Come let's listen to them together...