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What Language Does Not Mean To Me

By Diya Mahesh, UG '25.

“সারাদিন পড়ে ঘুমাস, একটাও ক্লাস করিসনা!”

“You're asleep all day, you don't even attend a single class!”

“তুই বলিসনা, নিজেও খুব একটা জাগ্রত মানব নোস।”

“You don't say, you're not much of a wakeful person yourself.”

Every day I wake up to my roommate and her boyfriend casually slipping in and out of their native tongue, Bengali, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. I wonder how it would be if I could perform this feat too, to move between languages like it was second nature: to understand the whispers of Tamil I hear in the common rooms, or the sharp resonance of the Malayalam I stumble across near the Dhaba.

Language is a funny thing, no? It’s the building block to being human. Philosophers across time have credited the human ability to communicate through language as being integral to our individuality. The articulation of our selves evolves from our capacity to converse with each other with ease — something not every species on the planet can do. Over time, however, the expectations that come with language have only increased. It seems vital that we all learn a universal language to make us feel like we’re a part of the global community, to give us a sense of belonging. Language is what binds us to a culture or a community, contributing to the development of our social identity. What seems to be that language for me?

I haven’t been on campus for very long but there has been quite a lot that I’ve noticed about the nuances of its language(s). Apart from being incredibly crass, and full of complex abbreviations that I still do not have a strong grasp on (what is ASIA and why is a continent sending me so many emails), there is a lack of linguistic diversity. Students often converse in English and/or Hindi, and almost all the staff have a strong hold on Hindi, thus limiting the languages most spoken on campus to English and Hindi. Although I can (arguably) speak English fluently, I have a pretty hard time understanding and conversing in Hindi. Hindi slang, popular sayings, and the numbers that Kuldeep Bhaiya throws at me when I order food still leave me in a lurch, and I need time to process the words that were spoken at me. If someone who can speak even a little bit of Hindi finds it hard here, what about people who can’t at all?

Franz Kafka wrote a powerful short story in 1917 called A Report to the Academy. The story is narrated by Red Peter, an ape who has transformed himself into a human. The result encompasses everything he believes makes one human— he starts drinking alcohol, wearing trousers and even spending his evening relaxing in a rocking chair. Even though he is positive that someone seeing him from afar would perceive only a human, he strongly believes that his transformation is incomplete. He comes to the conclusion of language — particularly, its lack in his life. Kafka continually criticises human language and says that it’s the one barrier between us and the larger world. Much like Kafka, I keep coming back to the same question. Why am I limiting myself to language? Why does it embarrass me to admit that I can’t speak my mother tongue? Why do I whisper “what does this mean?” when I can’t understand something? Why do I feel incomplete not knowing more than 1.5 languages?

My friend Raghav often gets bullied about being unilingual. He only knows English, and I’ve often wondered what campus life is like for him. He’s pretty nonchalant about it, though; he finds this to be the most amazing opportunity to learn something new. He asks everyone around him to translate words and phrases that sound foreign to him. He once remarked sarcastically that he tends to avoid the group of Delhiites, since their fluency scares him a little. At Fuel Zone, he relies on sign language to indicate that he’d like TWO Oreo Shakes. According to him, he’s not once felt out of place here.

During a particular conversation I had with Raghav, he mentioned that he prefers communicating with people around him rather than just talking to them. Employing the use of different media thus characterises communication, as opposed to talking, which relies solely on the prowess of language. Communication is what Professor Harris would call the implicit meaning behind certain nuances in the Shakespeare we are reading. It is not just our perceived linguistic capabilities. Communication between people is something much more innate — intricate and sublime in its movement between various modalities. It can be a touch, or a look. It can be a dance performance showcased by Abhinaya or a cake baked by someone who cares. Communication is the wordless, the quiet, and the soft music radiating from speakers at a party, all at once. What communication is not is ‘just language’. Language constitutes only a small part of an intricate and complex whole, and embracing the frenzy that is communication may be a good first step towards learning to be better communicative beings.

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