By Anchel Krishna @anchelk
Anchel talks about the challenges and joys that come from being in a tri-language household (sort of).
Dilip and I are both first-generation Canadians, from Hindu families that immigrated to Canada in the 70’s. Culturally, that is pretty much where the similarities end. My family hails from Punjab and Dilip’s family is from Chennai in Tamil Nadu and they are part of the Brahmin community there so there cultural traditions are different from other members of the South Indian community (it was only after meeting Dilip that I was introduced to the “Tam-Bram” community). My family speaks Hindi and some Punjabi, while Dilip’s family speaks Tamil.
We love our cultural differences. I’ve always loved dosas and Dilip’s favourite dish is chaana. Food is a solid foundation for any marriage, don’t you think?
Neither Dilip or I are even close to fluent in our family’s languages. We can speak basic functional Hindi and Tamil, respectively. And by basic – I mean super basic. Anytime we go back to visit India my family laughs hysterically as I try to piece together Hindi words to express my point. I am notorious for getting my tenses and genders wrong. Dilip has a different style when he speaks in Tamil – using the same dozen words over and over, nodding his head etc. Our understanding of these languages is significantly better and we can often follow along conversations in our respective languages.
When we got married there was no conversation or attempt to expand our language repertoire to include the other family language (though I think there is an unopened Rosetta Stone for Hindi buried somewhere in our basement).
Our families all share the common language of English, which is what we all use most often. Family gathering are a bit of a mashup, where you can most often hear English, and some side conversations in Hindu and Punjabi with mutterings of Tamil on the side as well.
So when Syona was born there was no question that the main language she heard was going to be English. She calls my parents her nanni and nana, and Dilip’s parents are patti and tata. She refers to milk as “milk” not dudu, which is what I called it growing up. Yogurt has multiple names for her – dhai (Hindi) and tayyar (Tamil). Her favourite Indian sweet is pinni and she is quite good at saying that.
Syona has a number of communication challenges that come from her cerebral palsy. We spend a lot of time focusing on speech and communication and are always balancing modelling simple speech, while making it work for our family. In our world this often means that Syona learns the English word first and then eventually picks up Tamil or Hindi words as she gets more familiar with the English word.
And I have to say, our families have been amazingly accommodating and flexible when it comes to Syona’s speech and language development. They all agree and implement our approach to mastering English first and then the other languages. And I think this approach has actually helped Syona’s overall comprehension. She often listens to entire conversations in a language other than English and looks for other non-verbal cues that indicate what the conversation is focused on (laughter, pauses, etc.). She then finds a way to make it about her – with a cute laugh, giggle or ear-piercing scream– like any other toddler. It’s a pretty awesome thing to watch.
And even in English the language differences are pretty humourous. I came home from work one day and greeted Syona in her playroom. She kept pointing at my necklace and saying “chain, chain, chain”. I realized that she was using the word “chain” because that is what her patti and nanni call the long gold necklaces they wear every day. I laughed so hard and then smiled at how the all of the languages and cultural traditions that are part of our everyday life make our world a little richer.
What languages do you speak at home? How did you differentiate between languages when your little ones were learning to talk?
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