In my previous post I wrote about acquiring a language while living among its native speakers. Another opportunity for learning a language is presented by demands of workplace. This is particularly the case with English. You might recall that earlier German was the language of science communication, as also was French. Slowly English took over due to several ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ causes. Perhaps you are involved in scientific research, and your work demands reading, writing, collaborating, exchanging emails, giving seminars and presentations, communicating manuscripts and so on. Consequently, during your PhD you get ample opportunity to practise and hone up your English language skills. However, unlike the previous case, here it is not optional, as your bread and butter, and to a certain extent, your academic survival depends on how comfortable are you with this language. You are not supposed to win a Nobel Prize in literature, nor will you be asked to write a masterpiece like Shakespeare or Milton. Writing a paper or giving a talk which your readers or audience may easily understand and enjoy is all that is expected from you.Continue reading
One of the difficulties with language learning is to keep practising the language(s) you have learnt. In fact, you have been unconsciously doing the same thing with your mother tongue — even though you are not revising the grammar, you are talking to people, listening to them, reading and writing for several hours each day. And that is how you procured and retained the language you speak. With other languages also it is the same. Sometimes it is quite easy, e.g., if you are living in the country or state or city where it is the native language of the locals. For example, while pursuing my PhD and for another two years after that, I lived in Gujarat and got to have a first hand experience of the language and customs of that state. Several of my seniors, juniors, colleagues were Gujarati and of course, the institute staff. Going around the city on weekends I got even more exposure to the language from road signs, billboards and hoardings. People were in general willing to talk, and while starting the conversation they first talked in their mother tongue. Only after they were made to understand that I was not native, did they continue with the common language, Hindi in my case. It is funny and annoying how I wasted more than 6 years — time when I could have effortlessly learnt Gujarati. After all, all my Gujarati friends were all too willing and eager to help me learn their language. Only one year before leaving Ahmedabad, did I took to learning Gujarati. The main reason was the fear of looking stupid in case someone remarks, ”Oh! You had been in Ahmedabad for 8 years! You must be fluent in Gujarati of course!” In fact, had I taken even a superficial interest, I could have made enormous progress there. I didn’t need to read books or understand the grammar. I could have simply picked up from the conversation going on around me. The wound is easier to forget or assuage considering that Gujarati is easier for Hindi-speakers than several other languages. Had it been Tamil, I would have been frustrated at my blunder. When people ask me the languages I have learnt or know, I do not mention Gujarati and Marathi, as I am still not very fluent and comfortable with them. But the scene could have been much different. I may come back to them after settling my issues with French, but that is still far off in future. So my advice to you — whether you are interested in learning languages or not — is puncture your ego, be less arrogant and ignorant, and learn the language of the natives. You will reap greater dividends than you imagine. The point that I am trying to emphasise here is that several times it would not even require much physical or mental investment from your side. For example, for Hindi speakers, Urdu (spoken), Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Bengali may come easier, the last one with some effort. And learning Bengali would in turn open doors to learning Oriya and Assamese.
Every other day I am pulled into conversation and someone or other solicits my comments or opinion on any topic of current affairs or politics. I try my best to avoid it, simply because I do not have any facts with me. I tell them that I do not possess the basic information or knowledge or expertise on this topic, so I am not the appropriate person to be asked this question. But what shocks me is that my requests as a rule fall on deaf ears as they keep on pressing me for an opinion. Most of the time there is no escape route, i.e., I cannot leave the place or the situation. Then I have to surrender. It is so embarrassing and disgusting. It certainly leaves a bad taste in mouth as I am filled with a deep sense of guilt of committing something which I was not supposed to do. But irrespective of my comment — either in favour or opposition to the proposition — they do not seem to mind my lack of expertise. Nobody seems to mind lack of knowledge or expertise to be a serious issue any more.Continue reading