About Mother Language and languages

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I read with great interest the article by Parmanand Soobarah in last week’s issue of this paper titled ‘Doomsayers Shall Be Proved Wrong.’ I, too, will seek the indulgence of readers by invoking Shri Soobarah’s plea, to wit, ‘…may I be forgiven for thinking a little about what I have been through myself, and hundreds of thousands like me for our education. That’s why I take such an interest in languages and education.’

I count myself among these thousands, and hence my interest too in these themes. I once read about a scholar (Japanese?) who could read, write and speak nearly ninety languages! I must say that my first reaction was one of jealousy – how I wish I could do one tenth at least of that! But I truly felt great admiration for that person. Should one get the opportunity, one must try to be familiar with as many languages as possible. That is why, when I was invited as the Guest of Honour at my alma mater the Royal College Curepipe for this year’s Annual Prize Giving ceremony, I advised the students to ‘Be a global citizen: speak many tongues, so that you will be at ease in several different settings.’

Each language has its own beauty, and we all know that there ‘untranslatable’ expressions from one language to another. When literally translated, they either make one laugh or sound absurd, having no meaning in the language in which they are translated. An example of the former are the juicy snapshots that Balmick Foogooa is delighting us with – see his piece about Ram Chacha last week.

And how does ‘let’s talk talk’ or ‘let’s go walk walk’ sound to the speakers of native English! While Mauritian Creole speakers may belly-roll about ‘breaking the turn and falling dry,’ an Englishman might feel that his language is being ridiculed if not outright insulted, especially when we speak in jest about such translations whenever we get a chance and the conversation gets lighter. And there are some interesting variations on this theme, like the one I have heard a number of times in New Delhi about the couple who are requesting their leave after a dinner. The Hindi-speaking wife is not too familiar with the English language (but remember, this is a story!) and addresses the hosts thus, ‘Thank you for your hostility; we have eaten well and are fully fed up,’ and then tells her husband, ‘let’s make motion darling.’!

Trust Indians to laugh at themselves! And this is but a sample! Wait until you hear about Sardarjis or Tamilians telling Sardarji and Tamilian jokes respectively! I have been regularly exposed to both, and other varieties too, during my many years of staying and visiting India where, as Uraysha Ramrachia said, ‘my soul is,’ and also through my interactions with Indians from all over the country over a lifetime. Not to speak about the exposure to the different types of spoken English during the years at the RCC, with Scottish, midlander, Cockney and Oxbridge accents being a regular fare. Subsequently, in Ireland and England, my eardrums picked up other provincial nuances, all very interesting in themselves. Americanese too, listening in the days of radio only – the box-like Pye or Phillips classics — to Voice of America. We have now progressed to ‘globish’ – global English.

Parmanand Soobarah’s observations about local Indian languages apply as well to Chinese. It is interesting that Roland Tsang Kwai-Yew should write, in La Voix Kreol, about ‘L’Irréversibilité d’une mort certaine du bhojpuri à Maurice.’ I hope that he also writes an article about Chinese in Mauritius, for many of my Chinese friends have told me that not only do the children of this current generation not speak any Chinese at all; they are even shy to do so, and in many cases do not even understand the language. They refer to children and grandchildren in Canada, for example, who have lost the use of the language altogether.

As far as Tamil, Telugu and Marathi are concerned, a similar tale could be told. Except to some extent for Marathi perhaps, the other two are hardly spoken at all. And I have on numerous occasions told my Tamil friends that they must make an effort to make their children learn and speak Tamil. But one would be hard put to come across people conversing in Tamil regularly in any local gathering of Tamils.

At one celebration of the anniversary of the Andhra Maha Sabha held at the MGI a few years ago – and I did write about that, for I was invited and attended – the then President in his speech made an appeal in Creole for the Telugu families to inculcate the elements of Telugu language and culture to their children. I did not hear Telugu being spoken in the audience. However, at the mandiram in L’Escalier, for example, I have heard speeches in shuddh Telugu by Anatma Utchanah and Shri Lachaya, and by now I can at least make out the gist of what is being said when the occasion arises.

As regards Bhojpuri and Hindi, however, the situation is different: courtesy Bollywood – at least for this I must thank Mumbai – they are spoken regularly in many different forums, and even at home in many families. Some years ago, Père Souchon in an interview remarked that, according to his vast experience in the matter, only about 1000 people in Mauritius spoke Hindi. I had no choice but to respond to his ignorance and misinformation in an article I wrote at that time, and to remind him that he was totally wrong. Hundreds of thousands of Mauritians understand Hindi, tens of thousands understand and speak Bhojpuri regularly, as many speak Hindi, and I know of several who regularly converse in Punjabi.

I concur with Parmanand Soobarah that ‘the doomsayers will be proved wrong.’ Thank you Jugdish Goburdhun for the good work that you are doing.

* Published in print edition on 6 August 2010

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