Language: The ability to acquire and use a complex system of communication, particularly the human ability to do so, and a language is any specific example of such a system.

Human beings, unless living in a completely isolated environment use language innately – when a parent coos to their baby, they are laying the foundation for the language they are native speakers of in the baby.

Most people (around 40% of the world’s population) are very fluent in a single language, usually called their mother tongue, many are bi-lingual (around 43% of the world’s population) which means they are fluent in two languages, usually English and their mother tongue, few are tri-lingual (around 13% of the world’s population), very few people are multi-lingual (around 3% of the world’s population) meaning they can speak four languages fluently and miniscule percent of the world population (less than 1%) can be called polygots or someone who can speak several languages fluently.

Most people in Singapore are bi lingual, speaking two languages with ease, English and their mother tongue, depending on what that is. Growing up, I guess most people around me were tri or multi-lingual – knowing English, Hindi, their mother tongues and to some extent the state language of Marathi. Although notionally my mother tongue is Tamil, the languages I think and dream are English and Hindi as these two were the languages we used all the time – in school, outside and even at home. My paternal grandfather, a product of the British education system, insisted I and my sister speak English to him and the English had to be grammatically correct. For a very long time, I could not speak to him in any other language other than English and it was only a few years before his death, we started speaking to him in other languages, specifically Tamil. My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, used to speak to us in Tamil, which to this date is not too fluent for both me and my sister. My parents, used to speak to us in a mixture of languages – both English and Tamil.

When we started school, it was frowned upon to speak any other language other than English in school and so this started a life-long love for the language. Like I mentioned earlier, I think, feel and even dream in English, so can this be called my native language?
Living in culturally diverse city like Bombay meant that you had to speak another language to engage with others – this usually was Hindi and with neighbours belonging to the Northern part of India, it meant my Hindi also achieved that level of fluency. Friends also cemented this level of fluency and thus I can comfortably claim to be bi-lingual, maybe tri-lingual (can I be that if I can’t read or write Tamil?).

Other languages I have a passing level of fluency to are Marathi (my home state language), French (this was my third language in school and college), Malayalam (from neighbours) and Kannada (my grandparents moved to Bangalore when I was in elementary school and yearly holidays to the city ensured I learnt a bit of the language).

Yesterday morning while S was driving me to work, the local Tamil radio channel was on. During the morning show, one of the DJs was, using the wrong way to pronounce a certain alphabet. Now this is going to be difficult to show here – there’s a letter which is a very guttural Y, but many people can’t speak it as it should be spoken and instead pronounce it as an L, which is wrong. This DJ, on national radio was continuously pronouncing words with this letter wrong. I am surprised that for a country which prides itself on it’s national bi-lingual policy allows someone to get away to speaking wrong on air like this. Also surprising is that till date, no one has come forward to correct this person as I am sure many eminent speakers of the language are probably tuning into the station!

OK, here’s a bit of language trivia – Do you know which the most widely spoken languages in the world are? By the number of speakers in descending order you have:

  1. Mandarin Chinese
  2. Spanish
  3. English
  4. Hindi
  5. Arabic
  6. Portuguese
  7. Bengali
  8. Russian
  9. Japanese
  10. Punjabi

No big surprises there to see Chinese at the top and 60% of the top 10 languages are from Asia!


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