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.