A deep dive into bilingualism

Nivedita Ghosh is a junior Biology major

GRAPHIC BY SABRINA LABADLABAD/SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

Mother Ma Father “Baba.” Home “Bari.” Throughout my life, these words have existed for me in dual forms. Born in the US to Bengali immigrant parents, English was the first language I learned in nursery rhymes, billboards, and in every encounter that my parents had outside in shops, offices, and meetings with friends from different ethnicities. 

And then my mother introduced me to Bengali, my mother tongue, a language spoken by people living in West Bengal and neighboring country Bangladesh. Sitting on the wooden floor of our dining room, my mother taught me the alphabets of Bengali, holding my hand, and giving instructions as the pencil tip glided over the page and formed letters with beautiful and curious shapes, opening a new world of expression for me. 

Short poems, known as “chchara,” rolled over my tongue like music, bringing joy and unconsciously instilling in me a life-long love for language. I soon realized the diverse ways that the world can be conveyed through different languages. Discovering a new way to express myself brought a different kind of joy, something that perhaps even words cannot fully articulate. A new language gave wings to my creativity.

When I was six, my father’s work took us to Kolkata, a city in West Bengal, and I enrolled in a high school in the city. School gave me the best opportunity to fully explore Bengali through reading books, watching plays and movies, participating in debates, and becoming a member of the Bengali cultural club. I also formed a small group with a few like-minded classmates and together we composed short poetry, read and wrote plays, and pondered over synonyms which were very different from one another in terms of one or two syllables but carried the same meaning. 

The exploration of a different language gave enormous wings to my imagination. It helped me to fly to unknown wonderlands where I could form new words by just changing a syllable within a word or combining two words.

Gradually, I ventured out and studied other languages such as Hindi and Urdu, incorporating them into my forms of communication. Pouring over dictionaries, dog-eared books with yellowed pages, and small black prints gave me immense satisfaction. It gave me something very elastic, peaceful, and mentally stimulating to pursue besides my love for biological and mathematical sciences. After reading a chapter on the central nervous system or successfully mastering a mathematical theorem, my hands went towards a Bengali novel or collection of poems and letters, whose magical spell took me to a wonderland of lyrical dance and a well-coordinated orchestra of grammatical twists and turns. 

Come 2019 and I entered USF as a biology major. Initially, I was excited by the new environment and cultural setting, and the joy of new surroundings swept me off my feet. However, this new environment made me temporarily forget the joy of looking at the syllables of my mother tongue or reading its lyrical beauty. It was almost as if I had forgotten my mother. 

Speaking in English everywhere, I was unaware where those beautiful syllables had gone. It was only during video calls with my parents that  I used “Ma,” “ Baba,” and “Kemon acho” (“How are you” in Bengali). The language that had been one of my vehicles of creative expression was on the verge of drying up. But then came the pandemic. 

During the period of uncertainty, hopelessness, grief, and anguish, a popular Bengali poem by Rabindranath Tagore came to me- “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high….”. Soon, I dug up my old chest of forgotten treasures of Bengali literature. The poems and short stories I revisited boosted my morale and reminded me of a very simple fact—no matter how dark the night is, there will always be a morning.

Languages bring us close to our roots and also help us branch out. They help us to understand different cultures and become tolerant towards new ideas from diverse cultures. It opens new perspectives and helps us to make sense of uncertainties. Being multilingual also gives us the opportunity to read literature from different countries and be introduced to new ideas. Nowadays, I try to read Bengali dailies to keep up with my vocabulary and  am also making plans to learn Farsi, Chinese and Latin. Learning these new languages will broaden my intellectual horizon and help me overcome limitations in terms of cultural knowledge. That is an ambitious list, but learning languages has given me the determination and courage to be ambitious.

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