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Truly being multilingual is when you can think, feel, and converse switching between languages, and being equally comfortable in them – as I realized only after I had become a parent.
I recently read an article about the positive and cognitive effects of raising a child in a multilingual home. This made me think – what is the true essence of being multilingual? Is it just the ability to be able to speak multiple languages or is it much more than that?
Growing up I received the advantage of learning multiple languages. My communication skills started with learning Marathi at home from my parents. As I grew up and started interacting with folks outside home I understood the concept of the language commonly used in society around me – which in my case was Hindi. As I grew up and started attending school I began learning to converse in English and it gave me the concept of Professional language.
The key point in all these school years being that the three languages had very clear cut defined boundaries for me. I knew that my personal language with my near and dear ones was Marathi, my preferred language with my friends and society in general was Hindi, and my language to impress teachers in school and get good grades was English. These clear cut boundaries made my task of context switching in these languages very easy for me.
As I moved on in my life to attend college and started living in a hostel, suddenly the time I spent conversing with friends and society took precedence as I was spending more time with them. This was the phase of life when I realized and mastered the true aspects of Hindi since now I had even started speaking about what I was actually feeling vs. it being a medium of just normal chit chat with friends.
During this phase of life my home language Marathi took a back seat for me as I was only using it while conversing with my parents and immediate family members while on phone with them or while visiting home in summer break.
As I moved on in life and married a non-Marathi speaker from North India I realized that now Hindi had suddenly become the language in which I could not only converse, but I could even feel in it. This was the time when I had started using Hindi to express my feelings of love, anger – emotions in Hindi. Looking back I think this is one of the important aspects of actually mastering a language skill. This was the phase when the boundaries of the Marathi and Hindi languages started blurring out for me and the context switching between these two much more easier even in the environment of my own home.
All this while, English was still just a medium of professional language. By this time I was married and working in the IT industry in India. I would use English for all my office work, meetings etc. but it was still just a professional language and not more than that. Back in India the ‘social’ language was still predominantly Hindi.
The next phase of my life began in the US. As I started living here I suddenly realized how the social language for me shifted gears from Hindi to English. I was now more distant from my parents and hence during this phase the home language for me became Hindi and professional and social language English.
As I stayed longer in the US the boundaries of English as my social and professional language started blurring, and it started becoming much easier for me to use this as my main means of communication throughout outside my home. While in this phase of life if anyone asked me a simple question – what language did I prefer to speak in? – I had a complex answer for them. After pondering more on this question I realized that all this while I would still think or converse with my own self in my mind in Marathi. So Marathi was my real preferred language.
About two years ago I had a baby girl and this is when the responsibility of teaching communication to her came upon my shoulders. By this time even though the boundaries of all the languages had become very blurred for me I was surprised to see that I started speaking with my daughter in all three languages seamlessly.
I am determined to teach all the three languages to her and even add Mandarin to it given the importance of Mandarin in next few years. While speaking with my daughter I realized the real meaning of being multilingual. I think it really means the ability to not just speak multiple languages but rather the ability to think in them, feel in them, talk to yourself in them and effortlessly being able to context switch between them not just in one environment but in all environments.
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