Beauty and Need of non-English Languages

There was an article a few weeks back in the Times of India on foreigners taking intensive Gujarati language classes in order to be able to read Gandhi for themselves and better understand his philosophy. This came as no surprise.

As a Hindi, Gujarati and English speaker and a student of French and Spanish, I have gotten a chance to explore language. I recall cringing at the English subtitles during songs in Hindi movies as they destroyed the beauty and nuances of the original words. Compared to these other languages, English just does not have the depth, an observation that many multi-lingual friends agree with.

Learning philosophy from Guruji, I am often confronted with this topic. While Guruji is fluent in English, his native tongue is Gujarati (along with Hindi and Urdu). To make it easier for me, he often teaches in English. Being taught in English basically means that Guruji does a mental translation from Gujarati to English before speaking. Many times, as the topics and ideas are complex, I ask Guruji to speak in Gujarati as he can explain the subject with greater ease. When he does this, I am mentally translating the Gujarati into English before comprehending. My first language was Gujarati and to this day, I still speak in Gujarati with my parents, but my vocabulary has been limited to common Gujarati, not inclusive of many philosophical words. With my philosophy classes, my vocabulary has grown, but without a doubt, my learning, particularly in the initial period, was slowed by language.

There was an article on BBC a while back on native vs non-native English speakers. It spoke of how native English speakers could not easily understand the English of non-native English speakers, while non-native speakers easily understood the English of non-native speakers, regardless of their nationality or native language. The way native English speakers understand the English is very difficult from non-native speakers and I see this divide very clearly in India and during my philosophy classes.

Guruji is not a native English speaker. In fact, he never formally learnt English. In every day situations, English communication is never problematic. However, there are times during philosophy lectures when I have to ask him to repeat a sentence, as I get thrown off by the grammar or the use of a particular word. The mental process to understand the meaning of the sentence is brought to a small stop because of something that a non-native speaker would probably not even notice.

Just a few days ago, he was speaking to me about the basis of yoga. The topic made its way to the difference between science and spirituality. The difference can be understood through correct understanding of the words vishmay and akarshan. In a Gujarati-English dictionary they are given similar meanings – wonder or surprise. However, the words have very connotations. One has a spiritual dimension, one a physical. English, as far as I know, does not have two separate word that have the same surface meaning, but different nuances – driving home the idea yet again that the English language is limited, particularly in its spiritual/ metaphysical vocabulary.

Even ghazals and poetry in Indic language cannot be justly translated into English. Nor can they be readily understood by a non-native speaker without study. When you think of how the world is rapidly losing its languages and immigrant children around the world, particularly in English speaking countries, are failing to learn their native tongues, there is an important question to be raised about how much of the world’s cultural heritage we are losing.

I have been blessed in this aspect. I was raised in a home where Gujarati was and still is spoken today; I was taught Gujarati by my grandmother and continued to study it and earn academic credit for it through high school and have the opportunity to visit and live in Gujarat where I can practice my Gujarati to this day. I still remember the praise my siblings and I would garner after trips to India on the quality of our Gujarati.

But this is still not enough. My reading skills are on par with a small child and my spelling errors know no bounds. I know that at some point in my journey to learn and explore philosophy, particularly Indian philosophy, I too will need to go the way of the foreigners learning Indic languages. If I want to be able to make my own interpretations and develop my own understanding without an intermediary, who to some degree always inserts their own bias or understanding, I will have to vigorously learn the language. Until then, there shall be some handicap, which I continue to try to overcome by expanding my vocabulary and fluency.

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1 Comment

Filed under Reflections, Spirituality

One response to “Beauty and Need of non-English Languages

  1. smileysejalee

    Heena, tanay Gujarati anay Hindi vanchta laktha avdigayu? My guju is so going down the drain, yet I feel that it's still better than some of the others out there. And I'm still determined to learn a few more foreign languages. Watch out, might become a walking UN 😉

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