Recently my mother and I had a conversation about infant children and language.
She was excited to see that her youngest grandson, barely one-year-old, recognized her voice. She recently returned from a trip to visit my brother’s family in Denver, Colorado and was ‘Skyping’ with them.
It was remarkable to her, she said, how much his little brain processed at one year old. Then she told a story about me at one-year-old that is one of her favorites.
A few months after my arrival in the United States in 1980, my parents and I visited an Indian couple. They were from Kerala, the Indian state where I was born, and spoke Malayalam, my birth language.
My mom and I were in another part of the house, within earshot of this couple. They both spoke Malayalam. My mom says, she never saw me turn my head faster in my life. Apparently, my head whipped around immediately at the sound. Though I could not speak the language, I recognized the tone instantly.
Though I could not speak the language, I recognized the tone instantly.
Sadly, a few months later, my parents and I visited this couple again. But this time I made no indication that their language was something familiar.
I relay that story because it’s both sad and amazing.
Incredible because even at that age, little babies pick up the different tones in spoken languages. Sad, because I wasn’t able to recognize my birth language less than a year later.
I’m 36 years old now and gave up speaking my native language. And frankly, I don’t consider it ‘worth’ it to learn. I have no family there, and no Keralite friends close enough either geographically or emotionally to speak with. It also would do little to bolster my job marketability.
At one point I wanted to learn Malayalam because I thought I’d become more Indian. However, I’m not involved with the South Indian community here in Washington, D.C. and barely with the Indian community at large.
Sasmita speaks Hindi and Oriya, not Malayalam so it wouldn’t make sense from that standpoint either.
As fatherhood looms, I’m thinking a lot of about language, and how my child will be greatly advantaged because Sasmita is a polyglot.
She’s already told me that she will teach our child both her native language Oriya and Hindi. Maybe I’ll try to learn either language when our child’s formally learning.
You may wonder what Malayalam sounds like, here’s a clip. I cannot imagine speaking this language at my stage of life.
I’ll impart other knowledge to my child, and leave the foreign languages to Sasmita. Or maybe I’ll be the one who teaches them ‘pig latin.’
One of my co-workers, a fellow Malayali, forwarded me this story from a freelance writer describing a few scenes from a trip with his girlfriend to Kerala, recently published by the Washington Post.
When people ask me where in India I am from and I reply ‘Kerala,’ they are either familiar with it — saying that it is on their ‘list’ of places to visit’ — or they have no idea where it is. If I am near a computer when we are having this conversation, I quickly type Kerala into Google images and let them feast their eyes on its magnificence themselves. If they have never heard of it, by the time they are done scrolling through just a few pictures of the South Western state, they are eager to book a ticket.
Another bonus, it probably receives half the tourist foot traffic of its northern neighbor Goa, or the other major cities, Delhi, Mumbai etc. When I last stayed there, the monsoon was just beginning, but it still had perfect weather and I had nearly the entire hotel where I stayed to myself. There were only a handful of other tourists. However, I also visited in high tourist season and it still lacks the overwhelming suffocation of masses that other Indian tourist spots have.
Being a Kerala tourism worker must be one of the easier jobs in the world. How hard can it be to sell one of the most beautiful places on the planet to perspective visitors?
I enjoyed this article and it made me really miss the land where I began my life. The one thing the article barely touched on was the delicious fare that Kerala offers. Otherwise the writing really makes the place come alive and gives the reader a good sense of the diversity of only just a few cities that he visited.
You should go. Don’t take my word for it. Read the article and then Google ‘Kerala’ to see the myriad of images yourself.
My first podcast here, in three 10 minute segments. I had returned from my India adventures and was awaiting Sasmi’s arrival in the United States. An interview with Kevin Haebeom Vollmers on the Land of Gazillion Adoptees blog.
This piece marked my March 2012 debut as a published writer.
It’s the story of my 2011 return to the hospital where I was born in Kottayam, Kerela, and more of my personal narrative.
Let me know your thoughts and enjoy!
As I discussed here, my Indian heritage was a source of deep embarrassment and shame most of my young life which included my junior high and high school years. Coincidentally India’s stature on the world stage increased, as my love for it grew, from my Senior year of high school in 1998 through the present. read more …