“A’ghailleann”: On Language-Learning and the Decolonisation of the Mind

I recently came across this article by a young Scottish woman of Indian heritage who is learning both Gàidhlig and Hindi. I thought it captured a certain learner experience very well and had points many of us would find sympathy with.

"Just try! It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect."

But when it’s your own language, it does matter. It matters when it’s your own people who are laughing behind their hands at you. It matters when you’re seventeen, painstakingly reading a road sign, and passing strangers sympathise with your parents. And it matters in adult language classes, when you can’t relax and laugh at your own mistakes like the other learners, because of the constant, drumbeat internal litany: you should know this. You should be better than this.

And, as ever, it matters because the personal is political. It matters because Hindi, like Gaelic, is a colonised space. It is a language complete in itself, with its own history, literature, poetry and tradition. But more than sixty-five years after Indian independence, it has been surrounded and absorbed by English, so among the Indian middle classes it is no longer a prestige language. It is the vernacular, the language one speaks at home; one does not use it to write to the tax office, nor take one’s degree.

So if it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect – if it doesn’t matter if a noun is masculine or feminine; if a verb falls to be transitive in the past perfect; if you just use the English word, because who can remember the Hindi for mathematics or apartment or transubstantiation – then for all I wage my small battle, we’re losing the war. To speak our language perfectly – to choose to do so, despite decades of colonial influence – is another political act.

2 years ago

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It demands time and hard work, but that denotation of beauty will become a part of me.

This, in a nutshell, is why people study “useless” languages.

2 years ago

Yes, scilling. A thousand times that. Thanks so much for this Fingolfin1346.

I am an American English speaker who has never properly learned a language despite being surrounded by Spanish speakers, taking Spanish, French, Italian (and Linguistics!) in school for several years each. I am one of those so-called language challenged people, but probably I've just been lazy.

The reason why I am back here working at it again, and not making a better go at Spanish (yet), which would have employment implications where I am, is that I have been doing my genealogy, getting family talking, and reading about the non-recent immigrant, but older American roots -- Irish and other Celtic roots -- basically trying to figure out what kind of Irish I am, how Irish am I, reconcile conflicting information, and resurrect lost info -- that sort of thing.

As I unearthed information on my family and put it into historical context, I started getting really sad about the personal and wider tragedies of a people undergoing ... well I don't want to get too political, but undergoing cultural and actual imperialism, and losing so much in an attempt to survive it. Flash forward to present day where changing times and the silence surrounding unspoken family loss have almost erased my Celtic identity, except for what I imagine it is to be Irish, or "part Irish."

That said, I think it can never really be overwritten. When I was in school, struggling to find syntax in scientific writing that didn't rub my professors the wrong way even though it wasn't wrong per se, I realized that very few of my ancestors spoke a language closely related to English. Most spoke Romance languages or going back a bit farther, Celtic languages, p and q both. Even the puritans or early New England dissenters in the woodpile were from Wales, Scotland, West Devon and the extreme North of England where and when people still counted differently and on sticks and stones in pockets (Italians also have something called the brachi system and my other grandfather used to measure everything by joints on his arm :).

But even my anthropology professors who study this kind of cultural bias and how language shapes the brain, couldn't set aside the convention for the economy of language. Whenever I had 'word choice' marked, I'd notice a preference for a word of Anglo origins (ultimately Germanic, I guess), rather than Latin (body v corpus). I was told more than once that Latin words and Spanish/Italian cognates sound pompous. Whenever I put the predicate of a sentence first, as a I am doing now, I was told to be more direct. That sentence should read: I was told to be direct, when I used the predicate first. Oh, and I should lose the comma. All commas must go, even the Oxford comma. It kind of puts me at ease to know my ancestors conjugated their prepositions and didn't have a word for 'have.' It means that they thought differently about how to deconstruct their world. And maybe I should wrap my brain around their world before condemning myself for thinking differently.

Language is identity and maybe even chemical pathways in your brain.... And apparently my identity is long-winded. Sorry.


2 years ago

I have to ask: where on earth did you go to school? I'm an avid comma user - I like my clauses separated and the Oxford comma won't die in my hands - and have never had a teacher fault me for it, even as a kid and using English as an unfamiliar and secondary language. I use words that fit my needs, pompous or otherwise, and while I've had peers question me, barring one memorable exception, I've never had teachers/professors called my word choice into question. I'm fascinated, as I am also a product of the American school system, that there would be any such teacher that would discourage extensive vocabulary usage in lieu of being less "pompous" (whatever that may mean in this regard).

2 years ago
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Andalula's experience is quite common in the US educational system. I was a writing tutor throughout my grad school days, and oh yes, I am quite familiar with what she is talking about. While sometimes it's excessive, there are good reasons to encourage English speakers to trust English's quite straight-forward syntax and grammar and not overcomplicate things. We overuse clauses and compound verb tenses, we use the passive voice when it's utterly unnecessary, we abuse the heck out of "that", we use "big" words when in fact more common ones are just as good for our purposes and I've yet to meet anyone who really knows how to use conjunctive adverbs properly who isn't a writing tutor/teacher or grammarian by profession. Some English speakers may like being flowerly and verbose, but the truth is, language is for communicating. And some people's communication styles are more effective than others'. Once you start viewing language that way--as a form of communication--instead of some testament of your level of education (and thus of your presumed intelligence, status and privilege), keeping English simple and straight-forward makes more sense. Effective teachers will get this, as they're more interested in their students communicating ideas effectively, as oppose to turning in pages of elaborate but obfuscated verbiage.

2 years ago
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