Learning to speak Kannada

June 20, 2007

When I moved into Bangalore, one of the first things I felt happy about was that I would be learning a new language. I took up my daughter’s textbooks and learnt to read and write Kannada. I can now read and write the language, including Kannada numbers.

Alas, I found that in the Cantonment area, Kannada was NOT the lingua franca. My knowledge of the spoken language remained rudimentary.

I thought that once I moved to South Bangalore, my spoken Kannada would improve. But no. The reasons for this were:

I was living in an apartment building, where many languages were spoken when residents meet, and the link language remains English. And neither shopkeepers, servants, or service providers spoke Kannada. There being no need to speak the language, my knowledge improved only very marginally. Yes, I have still been making efforts to learn, as I believe that learning another language can only enrich me.

With my increased interest in wildlife and the many trips to the jungles of Karnataka, I have WANTED to improve my Kannada, and have been trying to speak it, and keep trying at every opportunity where I interact with someone who may not have a good command over English.

But I was really sad today, when I found that rather than appreciate the fact that I am making an effort, these people actually have been laughing at me behind my back for my fractured Kannada. The person who told me this has also told me,on an earlier occasion, not to speak Kannada (as I murder it)! True, no doubt..but then, how am I going to learn?

Well…NO ONE can speak a language with the fluency of one brought up to speak it as a child. And the fact is… that in the very cosmopolitan Bangalore there is NO NEED to speak Kannada at all;I know several friends who have lived here for over 20 years and do not know more than 3 of 4 words. Those of us who are trying to learn are doing so out of a respect for the language. Instead of being encouraged, if I know that I am being laughed at, my instinct is to stop the effort altogether. And when I say this, I am told that I cannot take criticism! And when I try to speak, every small mistake is objected to, instead of trying to see the broad picture.

There are no good conversational Kannada classes in my area; the language is generally taught as a “subject” and not as a living language at all.

Pouring scorn and laughter over someone’s efforts to learn anything is surely to put the greatest obstacle to the goal. I am sorry..but if this is the attitude of Kannadigas to those who try to learn the language, I am not surprised that so few people do try to learn it.

I must, however, give thanks for my friend Nirmala, who is taking a great effort to encourage me on the path to speaking Kannada….but I must confess to a great reluctance to speak it now!