Returning home from a dinner at a friend’s home, the last thought that struck me as I drifted off to sleep was that the evening had been unusual. All the guests spoke to each other in the local language of the state, Kannada. The very fact that this happenstance struck me as unusual is remarkable in itself.
Mandarin (Chinese) is the native tongue of the largest number of people in the world, followed by Spanish but it is English which is spoken by more non-natives than natives, making it the single largest language to be spoken in the world.
Our country has 22 languages, not counting dialects, the official language is Hindi. For non-native Hindi speakers like me, Bollywood films and songs have given us an ease with the language that school and government diktats never did. Be that as it may, it is English that has become the medium of communication.
Many Indians are multi-lingual. In the morning, I switch without pausing to think, between Tamil (to discourse with my domestic help), Hindi (with the security guard), and once I get to work, communication is mainly in English. If I happen to speak with my Dad or siblings, I might switch to Kannada but I find that unless I make a conscious attempt, I do not converse in Kannada with other native speakers.
At a very urbane setting last night, I met an old acquaintance and remarked upon this. The funny part was that both of us discussed this in English even though we are native Kannada speakers. I pointed this out and then switched to Kannada. My friend made a strange remark, “I normally don’t come to parties at such places but the host was very insistent. Kannadigas stay away from such settings.” He made it sound as if Kannadigas could not or would not fit into such a milieu. I contested this remark.
The dinner I mentioned earlier was at a friend’s house and the dozen guests constituted a fairly cosmopolitan gathering: artists, writers, bureaucrats and businesspeople who were well-travelled and well-heeled. All of them could switch comfortably to English when they have to.
With Indians moving across the country, it would be hard to expect them to learn a local language immediately. They might not even need to do so, if they are only visiting. I do not mean to be inhospitable or insular; by all means let us speak in English; but let us also not baulk at speaking our tongue in our own land amongst ourselves.
Barring the English speaking nations, I have not met any Spanish people who insist on speaking only in English with each other, nor any French people; the same with Italians, Germans and Chinese. Perhaps it is a colonial hangover that makes us speak English. Or perhaps as one gets older, we reach back to our roots as I am doing now with language. For the time being, I am rejoicing that a Bengali friend who speaks fluent Telugu and Tamil, is now learning Kannada.