Hang

Learning mania

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on November 22, 2019 Published on November 22, 2019

“What’s the matter?” Bins leans into my room with a worried frown on his face. “What’s that weird sound?” I glance up from my iPad. “No idea what you’re talking about.” Then I return to my screen, where I can see four squiggles in black and white. Tapping on one of them produces a sound that only I can hear, on my headphones. I try to repeat the sound. “Whooo-ah,” I say, “woooooo-AH!”

“There! You did it again!” exclaims Bins excitedly. “You sound like a cat sneezing under water!” No such luck, I assure him. “It’s just my Chinese lesson,” I say. “On Duolingo.” “Since when have you been learning Chinese?” Bins wants to know. “About two weeks ago. After I gave up on Greek,” I tell him. “Uh-oh!” he says, tapping his forehead. “If you think Chinese will be easier than Greek, you’re madder than I thought!”

“The point is,” I say, “we all need to face the fact that The Future Is Chinese.” I honestly believe this. Everyone who speaks English today, enjoying easy access to the world’s cultures and commerce, must recognise that Tomorrow Will Be Tonal. Four tones, to be precise. “It’s a bit like singing,” I say to Bins. “I have to train my ear to think of every word as a kind of tiny little tune.” It’s not difficult so much as completely unfamiliar. “Plus, instead of letters of the alphabet there are collections of strokes and lines. And each collection of lines produces its own special tiny tune...”

Bins exits, clutching his head and moaning softly. For once, I agree with him: It IS rather crazy for me to try yet again to learn a language. I am one of those stubbornly monolingual people who really and truly can speak only one language. Because I am “Indian” — the quotation marks are because I believe a person’s cultural identity wears out with distance — people assume that I speak “Indian”. It was an assumption I encountered routinely as a child, as we travelled around the world. I never learnt to speak either my ethnic language (Malayalam) or Hindi, for that matter. In every real sense my “mother tongue” is English. Yet the suspicion lingers in people who meet me for the first time that, lurking deep inside, is a hidden Native Tongue.

Perhaps to compensate for what isn’t there, I keep trying to learn other languages. I fail miserably every time. And yet, there’s something thrilling about making the effort. Chinese, for instance, is frankly magical. Each tiny ideogram yields up a complex sound using an entirely different visual logic to what I’m used to, with the alphabet. Even the most basic level of literacy means memorising hundreds of squiggles!

I’m just at the “My name is...” level and already struggling madly. Last week I learnt the numbers one-to-ten. This week, they’ve all turned to mush. Tomorrow’s lesson is all about being happy, however. Who needs numbers, I say, if happiness awaits around the next corner!

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on November 22, 2019
  1. Comments will be moderated by The Hindu Business Line editorial team.
  2. Comments that are abusive, personal, incendiary or irrelevant cannot be published.
  3. Please write complete sentences. Do not type comments in all capital letters, or in all lower case letters, or using abbreviated text. (example: u cannot substitute for you, d is not 'the', n is not 'and').
  4. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.
  5. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name, to avoid rejection.