Living Your Languages

November 28th, 2013

Ratna speaking

The Canadian current affairs program, The Agenda, has asked people across the province of Ontario to share their stories, photos and videos of learning and living in languages other than English. Maytree President Ratna Omidvar responds by describing her multilingual life.

I have the incredible good fortune of speaking many languages. I was born in multi-lingual India so I acquired Punjabi, English, Hindi and a smattering of Urdu naturally. Others I acquired through a disciplined course of grammar, sentence structure, idioms and metaphors – like German. Yet others I learned on the go, picking up bits here and there in order to survive in a new country – like Farsi in Iran.

By the time I arrived in Canada (sadly not speaking French), it was natural for me to speak in one language and yet think in another. Our young two-year-old daughter had a completely different reaction to the variety of languages we had put her through in her short life. She decided to clam up (we believe in protest) for 18 months. In fact, the first few intelligible words out of her mouth were Mandarin, which she picked up from her best friend in day care. In our early years in Canada my husband and I would revert to German when we did not want the kids to listen in. Or to Farsi when we visited Gerrard Street and wanted to discuss the variable quality of the food or the final price of an item. Or to either German or Farsi when we did not quite understand something that puzzled us about English Canada and needed to quietly consult with each other without being rude.

Over time, some of this has faded. I still speak Hindi at home with my mother. She will often correct me when I make mistakes and so I become much more of her child when I do so. When I speak Urdu, it is automatic to become more elegant, more deferential, more courteous – because that is the nature of the language. When I speak German (less and less fluently), I have to struggle to be more precise. And when I speak Farsi, I am reminded that some languages have innate hospitality ingrained in them, because a cup of tea will soon follow. But it is English that gives me confidence. This is the language which frames my foundational values of freedom and equality.

Some of my colleagues here at Maytree, who speak more than two or three languages, have a different perspective. As one of them so eloquently said: “When I speak English, I am at work and doing business. Tamil is for life, love and pleasure.”

Yet, even for me with my multi-lingual identity, some expressions of culture are ingrained into my DNA by virtue of the languages I grew up with. When someone asks me to sing (thankfully not often) or to think of music, I will always revert to the songs of my youth in Hindi. When someone asks me to name a book that I most admire, I will always think of Charles Dickens. Some people, fluent in English or French, are only able to count in Chinese. Others still dream in Serbian or Arabic or can only find their funny bone in Spanish. And as people grow older and become more dependent, I have witnessed that they revert to their mother tongues more and more.

One of the most moving pieces on this theme comes from Dragan Todorovic, a Serbian journalist and editor who emigrated in 1995 from Yugoslavia to Canada. In an audio clip in his piece “In My Language I Am Smart,” he addresses a woman he’s trying to woo: “If we spoke in my language, you would have fallen in love with me three hours ago. Can you just love me now and understand me later?”

All this to conclude that we are the language we speak.

Originally published on The Inside Agenda Blog. The Agenda is asking people across Ontario to share their stories, photos and videos of learning and living in languages other than English.

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