This I Believe

Recently, my English teacher assigned a personal essay based off an essay prompt from the 1960s, called, “This I Believe,” that encouraged people to send in 500 word essays detailing a personal belief. My teacher encouraged us to make it highly personal in nature, written in your speaking voice, and delve into the inner nature of the belief being written about. It must detail how you came to your philosophy. The original invitation requested these essays to enrich the lives of others,  give them some form of wisdom or food for thought, and to stimulate the formation of personal beliefs. Perhaps a bit typically, I wrote mine on language, so I’m posting my essay here for you to read:

Yake aunge Kannada baralla? Aun kivda, pedda?” (Why doesn’t he speak Kannada? Is he deaf, stupid?) elderly relatives asked my parents in the family house in Madras. I heard and understood every word, but could not form them in a reply.

Sumne English-li helamma, Shashank. Aurge Kannada-li heltini nin-gosra.” (Just say it in English, Shashank. I’ll tell them in Kannada for you.) my parents would assure me. And I felt miserable because of it. My world was fragmented to me in those days.

I believe that language shapes people, because I myself was shaped by it. I could not speak until I was around three years old, and when I was older, I couldn’t speak Kannada very well, cutting me off from my family and background. It was then that I realized the effect of language on people, especially myself. A lot of people take speaking your mother tongue for granted, but it has always meant much more to me than just a skill.

Years later, I speak Kannada a little better, but not as well as I’d like. I developed a passion for language, and right now, I’m learning three at the same time. It’s not just because I want to look smart, or make myself look more impressive. I believe in connecting with other people on that basic level. I understand someone more deeply in his or her own language. I think in terms of the languages I know. I work to learn languages to learn from the world. I cannot reject language, for I must aspire to know others as I know myself.

The fact there are multiple languages broadens the range of self-expression. I believe in the power that language holds over human beings, to capture the exact way one feels in one or two words. Language retells history, experience, and feeling. I am humbled by the solemnity of sajda, and the absoluteness of sifr. Through language, can I feel duende within myself. You can’t explain these words, because their meanings are fundamentally attached to the way people use them and say them. I believe that to speak a language is to vocalize experience and convey feelings in ways that other arts cannot. Sankocha and aumana are unique to my experience as a Kannadiga, and they hold special meaning for me. Kob-jasti is not just a word my parents use to describe me when I’m being condescending or cocky. Shani, Saturn, is not just a planet to me, and mundede is so much more than just a widow. 

Through language, I can understand the full range of the human experience. I can carry myself with sprezzatura, perhaps one day know koi no yokan, and feel saudade thereafter. To use language, for me, is to live life and understand others in their own tongue, how they really are. I believe in the power of language to change people as it has done me, and create mutual, complete understanding between people of each and every background.

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8 thoughts on “This I Believe

  1. “You can’t explain these words, because their meanings are fundamentally attached to the way people use them and say them.” — I think this gets at something really important: being fluent isn’t so much a matter of knowing the “meaning” of a word in terms of its definition or translation into another language; it’s more a matter of knowing how a word is actually used.

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    1. It’s also a matter of the “history” of the word, so to speak. Not necessarily etymology or knowing the roots, but also how certain words have come to mean certain things over time.

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      1. I mean the evolution of usage; how words acquire meanings over time. An example is the word “mistress”, which originally meant a female equivalent to, “master.” Now, it’s equivalent to, “concubine.”

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  2. That kind of perspective is interesting, but I’m not sure you really need it to be truly fluent in a language. I’d bet most native speakers (of most languages) don’t have much if any historical perspective on the words they use. Case in point, I learned to use the word “goodbye” as a little kid, and used it for years before finding out that it’s a contraction of “god be with you”. Similarly, I was for a long time unaware of which English words originated from French, which from Latin, and which from Greek. But I think it is true that at least some of those changes in the forms and uses of words parallel other, non-linguistic historical changes, and that someone with a historical perspective on their culture/society might also have a grasp on the ways the language has changed, and vice-a-versa.

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