People often ask me why I want to study English. I always ignore that question, because everyone around me lives with the notion that English majors will be unemployed and lead a poor life. There was only one time the question has ever bothered me, and it was because of how it was asked. It was posted by my driving instructor, who was literally a stranger at that time, and he asked me this, “If you want to study a language, why are you going all the way to the U.S. to study their language when you can study yours in your own country?”
My relationship with English has been an interesting one. I don’t come from a highly literate family, and my parents didn’t know a word in the universal language. Yet for some reason, when their daughter developed a fascination with English, mostly because she was told that she can’t, they decided that they’ll do whatever they can to help her master it. I was gifted with more storybooks and dictionaries than I was with toys as I was growing up. English was an impressive feat to be achieved in my house. I was also ambitious enough to keep pushing myself through years by watching movies with subtitles and disregarding teasing about my horrible pronunciation.
Fast forward to 2018, and I am almost a 20-year-old, all set to move to college to start studying English as my major. It took a lot of work for me to get to where I am, and I am so excited to explore it further. However I can’t help but be plagued by one thought: In my chase to achieve the foreign language, which was so distant to me, have I disregarded my own mother tongue which was always within my reach?
I am a South Asian whose mother tongue is Tamil. It’s one of the longest surviving languages and is rich in its culture and literature. It has a long history and is honestly one of the most beautiful languages I’ve ever heard in my life. But for all its grandeur, it hasn’t managed to incite the same level of passion as English has in me.
I am proud of my heritage and culture and I will always be. I belong to an ethnic group which considers our language as our mother. Which makes me wonder whether I am turning my back to the mother who has nurtured me as a child. As I get closer to the literature of the western world that has captivated me, am I drifting apart from the stories that have taught me everything I know?
There’s widespread criticism in the South Asian community regarding anyone who moves away from the countries and culture and seeks a life beyond their heritage. “Do something for your own country and culture,” is something I’ve heard countless times. Despite my own dreams and passions, for the first time, there was a sliver of guilt.
But as I thought further, I realized that I was being stupid. Why do I have to compromise my dreams just because it’s something that’s out of the realm that I grew up in? Just because I belong to one community, it doesn’t mean that I have to live my entire life in a comfortable circle that is defined by that community and culture. And I definitely can develop an interest in something that belongs to another country, culture, community or language. Because ultimately it’s a matter of academic interest and passion, and how can one’s origins be the boundary of what they could learn and love?
We often talk about people staying in their own lanes. We get confused or frown upon people who do and love things that are not a part of their culture. I once read an open letter written by a black woman from Haiti who loves Bollywood and gets shunned for it. Expecting a person to only love things belonging to their ethnicity is highly ignorant. And worse, criticizing someone when they love an aspect of another culture is just ridiculous, but unfortunately very common.
Because in the end, who are we to judge what someone else can love? If I want to study German or a Japanese boy wants to study Egyptian mythology, or my mother suddenly wants to try out French cuisine, it’s completely normal. Yes, I am going to study a language that’s not my own, but as long as I have a respect for said language, and love for my own, why should it matter that I am a desi girl studying and writing in English?