Language Lessons

I stopped learning my parents' native tongue at a young age. Now I regret it.
Nativelaguage Jianan 02

Illustration by Jianan Liu

In January I attended a protest in Washington, D.C., against the persecution of Muslim minorities in India. During the rally, Indian-American organizers tried to lead protesters in the chant, “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.”

I smiled as hundreds of Indian uncles and aunties stared back disapprovingly, refusing to repeat a line so grammatically unsound. I could only imagine what my grandfather, an English professor, would have said if he were there.

“Ain’t is not a word!” he would bellow. “And ‘ain’t no’ is a double negative!”

Indians have long been proud of knowing English—proper, British English. Rapid growth in Indian immigration to the U.S. over the last 30 years was largely fueled by Indians having scientific expertise and speaking fluent English, making them excellent candidates for the H-1B visas given to highly skilled workers.

English is often seen as a marker of gentility in India, and fluency is a key to class mobility. Though Indian proficiency in English comes from a violent colonial history, English has long been a golden ticket to acceptance and success, and my immigrant parents wanted to ensure that I would speak it perfectly. But in learning English, I forgot how to speak the language of my parents, Telugu.

My parents were among the first Indian immigrants to settle in the predominantly white town of Corvallis, Oregon, in the early 1990s. When I was a toddler, they spoke to me only in Telugu, but my mother later decided to speak to me only in English—out of fear and the desire to see her child succeed in a country that saw bilingualism as a deficit and a threat. She was afraid that if we spoke Telugu at home, I would be put into an English as a Second Language (ESL) class; that I would be pulled out of regular classes to learn English and would fall behind in school.

English became the language we spoke at home, and the little Telugu I knew quickly fell out of use.
My English, however, was great. I was reading chapter books by the time I was 6, and I had a natural ear for grammar and spelling. Despite my mother’s endeavors, my school still dragged me out of my regular classes to drill me on my English, seeing it impossible that a brown girl with accented parents could possibly speak English well.

“What’s this image of?”

“A door.”

“And what’s this in your language?”

“My language?”

“Don’t you speak another language?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

The school tried its hardest to justify keeping me in ESL, wanting the extra state funding that came with every student enrolled, but I was grudgingly let go.

Not speaking Telugu didn’t somehow become a magical shield against racism. I was still called “Sacagawea” on the bus and had trouble getting cast in school plays. People loved to mock Indian accents and my Hindu faith. And despite my natural grasp of syntax and solid comprehension of the unreal conditional and the nominative and objective case structures, I found my English wasn’t perfect enough to avoid scrutiny.

My accented parents pronounced the word “embarrassed” with the emphasis on the last syllable, “embarrASSED.” When I said the word in class the way I had grown up hearing it, I was met with a contemptuous explosion of giggles.

Categories: People
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