Today, I speak and think in English quite comfortably – but this has not always been the case. A not-so-brief timeline:
Kerala (1983 – 2000)
Growing up in a Bengali family in Kerala, I often ended up in peer groups where a good amount of the conversations would take place in English. Until I was about twelve, my English was very limited, and I was extremely conscious of that. My Bangla was, and has always been since, passable. My Malayalam was possibly as good as it could have been for someone in my context.
In one spelling test (think I was 10), I spelt apple as ‘appel’. When I was 12, in another test, I answered that ‘in the long run’ referred to a marathon.
I cannot exactly trace how things changed in my early teen years. But it did change, as my English improved. It must have been the books or newspapers I read, and the English in our CBSE syllabus in school. While my English depended almost entirely on my academics, I learnt the other three languages – Hindi, Bangla and Malayalam – through family, friends and the television.
Public speaking in English got a major boost through declamation contests in school, and then in my senior secondary years, through inter-school debating and playing emcee on various occasions. For most of my last two years of school, my confidence in my own English speaking abilities was super-high.
Delhi, Gujarat and Orissa (2000 – 2007)
Moving to Delhi was a huge shift. Within my different peer groups in Delhi, there was a real struggle between English and Hindi. I think my proficiency in both languages improved as a result, with Hindi gaining the upper hand in most my personal interactions. Inter-college debating made a huge difference to my spoken English, and was a great boost to my confidence in general.
My Malayalam fell into disuse, while my Bangla stayed reasonably steady (several Bengalis in the Delhi University debating circles those days). This changed in Gujarat where I found Malayalee friends, even as Hindi became even more firmly, my primary language of communication.
My English suffered until I started working in Orissa. I specifically remember a conversation in 2004 where I was being spoken to in English, and I kept responding in Hindi. I was talking to a Bengali, and for that performance, got an earful from my UP-ite then-girlfriend.
In Orissa, alongside picking up Oriya, my English improved purely because of the nature of my work. I still spoke plenty of Hindi though.
Chennai, Brighton, Accra, Delhi, Nairobi, Dhaka (post-2007)
Spent a year in the UK – took advantage of the fast-unlimited internet to devour Malayalam and Hindi movies online.
That year (my first ever time outside India), a very good friend of mine, Spanish, broke into tears at being unable to cope with the coursework in English, and several other non-native speakers of English complained how their heads hurt at having to constantly translate thoughts in their heads and then speak out in English. I mention this, because I then realised that the struggle with the language is nothing to be ashamed of, that it doesn’t determine what we can achieve, and how we are liked by those around.
I speak more Bangla than Hindi these days, but watch nearly every Hindi movie, and quite a bit in Malayalam. I now watch a few English-language shows, and have gotten way better at catching the dialogues in the ocassional Hollywood film I watch.
In this period, I have spent about four years in India. I now read and write exclusively in English. But I am conscious that if I don’t speak enough in English, it gets rusty quite quickly. English is now my first language, but it is sometimes hard work.
I am not going to write out lessons for myself out of this 🙂 If you have questions, feel free to reach out.
No one explained it better: