My language skills rollercoaster

I am trilingual, able to converse well in Hindi, English, and my mother tongue, Haryanvi. I can also speak a little Punjabi to make casual conversation and can read Gujarati. This short writeup is an account of how I acquired these languages, how a single teacher played a crucial role in it, and how I lost my language skills (and my attempt to regain them).

I am a second generation learner. My parents migrated from village to city. They were born and brought up in Haryanvi culture. Haryanvi was the language of all their conversations including inside school, though the teaching, learning, and assessments happened in Hindi.

Till Grade-3, I attended a Hindi Medium School in the small city where we lived. English was a subject, while Hindi was medium of instruction for all other subjects.

My parents spoke to me in Hindi. We conversed with each other in Hindi. I picked the language real fast and became really comfortable, self-initiated reader of the language.

I did not have access to any books beyond textbooks, but I read stories in newspapers, children’s magazines, and Hindi comics whenever I could lay my hands on them. English, on the other hand, was just another subject. If I scored 90+ in Hindi, I scored 70+ in English. Fair, but abilities differed.

When I was in grade-4, my parents got transferred to the biggest city in the state. I joined one of the top English Medium Schools in the city. This is where I got lucky.

My English teacher was amazing. She taught me English as a subject for two years and I grasped the language real quick. The shift to English medium also helped me immerse better in the language, though nothing changed at home. By grade-5, I was self-sufficient in English.

In fact, till 12th, I never depended on teachers to teach Hindi or English and finished all course on my own. One good teacher for two years. That’s what made the whole difference.

I picked Punjabi from my cousins living in Punjab and gained a better understanding when I attended a Public school in Chandigarh where several of my peers used to have conversations in Punjabi. I never made attempt to read or write it but I could engage in casual conversations. Over time, its disuse resulted in significant loss in my capability to hold reasonable conversations in Punjabi.

My mother tongue, Haryanvi, was neglected for long. Till 12th, I could barely speak Haryanvi but I was always immersed in the language. Almost all my family members spoke the language. I started speaking Haryanvi after getting into UG. It is still a work-in-progress as far as my vocabulary and pronunciation go, though I have improved significantly. I fell in love with my mother tongue as I became more comfortable with my own self.

My MBA internship was in Gujarat and I had to go to villages and interact with farmers who mostly spoke Gujarati. I also looked at documents from local agriculture offices, all of which were in Gujarati. I took public transport during internship and that also pushed me to learn the language. Since Gujarati is written in same script as Hindi (Devnagari), it was not tough to read or write. I picked vocabulary slowly by understanding things in context of agriculture and rural life, something that I was interacting with during my internship. Again, after internship, I lost the ability to read since I did not have reason to practice it. Despite staying in Gujarat for 6 yrs of my life for my Masters and Ph.D. (spread over 10 yrs.), I could not learn the language. English or Hindi allowed me to survive there.

Hindi is another interesting story. I had really good command over the language till 10th since I studied it as a subject. My skills in the subject were further enhanced by my study of Sanskrit as a subject.

All my education beyond 10th was in English. My English education led to deterioration of my command over Hindi. Despite its regular conversational use, in absence of its formal usage (especially in writing), the purity was lost. The vocabulary deteriorated significantly.

At some point, I realized that I had lost the capability to have conversations in pure Hindi. I felt ashamed of myself.

This was during my PhD. At this point, I started picking Hindi literature books again to regain the lost ground but it is proving to be an uphill battle. All my work is still in English and I can easily afford to carry conversations in Hinglish. Much of the multimedia or written content that I consume is in English, though I make efforts to watch and read Hindi content.

My Haryanvi skills have improved significantly since I started using the language even at home. My wife, who has excellent command over the language, played a big role. And we wanted to immerse our children in our mother tongue. That was an added incentive to use Haryanvi as much as possible. My Gujarati reading capabilities are almost dead, and my ability to converse in Punjabi is also dead. I have no incentive to improve these.

Interestingly, within my mind, I still count and calculate in Hindi, but I think and have dialogues with myself in English. Looks like basic Mathematics and language have a special bond!

I find it fascinating. Our language skills die with time, unless we use them. And it is tough to retain purity of language unless it gets used in writing or formal conversations.