Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India

This post continues new category of posts, called “Language Dignity,” wherein I seek to interact with and learn from those who are bilingual (or trilingual) in the US. I hope their stories will grant dignity to their languages and cultures, and teach Americans more about the people around them.  For the previous post in this series please go to From Spanish to Latino: New identities formed in the USA.

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Language can connect the current US generation to earlier generations in India
Language can connect the current US generation to earlier generations in India

Sid and Abhi don’t think consciously about the Telugu, Hindi, and English swirling in their heads, but a single sentence might contain words from all three languages.  They came to the US from Hyderabad, India, their multilingual home.  It is located in a Telugu (a Southern Dravidian language) area, but 30-40% of residents are not Telugu-speakers.  Hindi (a Central Indo-Aryan language) is the lingua franca among the residents who come from all over India.  Many additionally speak Urdu, thanks to a sizeable Muslim minority.  Each person there speaks his or her “mother tongue,” but when those from Hyderabad speak, Indians recognize their mixed dialect of “Hyderabadi.”

When they came to the US, they possessed very advanced English; the main challenge came from adapting to the US dialect.  Back in India, Sid and Abhi both spoke Telugu, and they took Hindi and English in school.  Yet it took Abhi six months to get used to American speech.  She had trouble understanding people on the phone, and was intimidated at her first job interviews.  “People couldn’t get a single word!” she laughed.  She said that Sid, who had lived in the US for 10 years longer than Abhi, explained to her at the time, “You need to slow down,” in order to make up for differences in pronunciation.  Sid had faced his own problems as a teaching assistant in grad school: he had to slow down his speech for his lectures, and he “butchered” the names of his Midwestern students.

Hyderabad is in the West of Andhra Pradesh, India
Hyderabad is in the West of Andhra Pradesh, India

As they think in multiple languages, Sid and Abhi navigate multiple associations and emotional landscapes.  Their mother tongue connects them emotionally to India, their family, and their past.  Abhi works here in Minnesota with some of her classmates from India, and occasionally will find herself speaking Telugu with them without thinking.  The association with the past brings out Telugu.  English still occupies much of her mental lexicon, however.  When she is India, for example, she has to remember not to say “fan” in English, but “pankha” (actually Hindi, but used in Telugu, as well).

Sid brings out nuance and history depending on the words he chooses.  When he speaks he tries to “take the full of advantage of all languages,” so his sentences come out a “combination of all langauges” in his native context.  Every word carries not only a meaning, but a nuance and an association.  For him, Telugu is the language of his family, but Hindi relates to school, where many of his classmates came from the North of India and did not speak Telugu, and English now relates to the US.

They are pleased with the diversity of people in their social circles in the US, though at times being Indian can be isolating.  Ironically, the Indian friends of Sid and Abhi in Minnesota reflect greater diversity of Indian culture than what they experienced day-to-day even in India.  At the same time, it is difficult for them to socialize with non-Indians.  After working all day and then attending cultural and religious events and activities for the kids, “no time” is left for socializing with non-Indians.

They worry that their children will grow up without a close emotional connection to their family in India.  Both Sid and Abhi grew up interacting daily with many uncles, aunts, and grandparents in addition to their immediate family.  They don’t worry so much about their children lacking the language (they say that so many kids in Hyderabad speak English and Hindi now that Telugu is less important), but about the family connections that their kids are missing out on.  Sid said, “I don’t want the kids to lose touch with their identity,” which goes along with family connections and language.

Abhi recognizes that the nature of family relations is changing.  When she and her husband travel all over the world, they still connect most closely with the relatives they grew up with.  It will be different with her children.  She is afraid she will miss her children terribly when they will go away to college.  Yet she knows that this fragmentation of family is happening all over, even in India.  Her own relatives are dispersed to the US and the Middle East.  Her kids’ relationships will likely look different from hers.  She wants to remain close to her children–geographically and emotionally–but she doesn’t want her emotions to get in the way of her kids’ development.  Even if they go, she hopes they will come back and stay connected.

How will your children stay connected to your family? your ancestors?

Photo credits: United Nations Photo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND; Wikimedia Commons

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7 thoughts on “Trilingual in the USA: Staying connected to roots in India

  1. What a nice peek into Sid and Abhi’s lives! I think to really maintain a sense of identity and membership with you ancestral country, you should speak the language. At least minimally, in my opinion. This is one of the driving forces behind me learning Mandarin right now with BRIC Language Systems, to maintain the language and cultural identity within the family.

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