Growing up in the eighties and nineties in India meant that being able to speak comfortably in English was quite an asset. Most parents weren’t very comfortable with the language and it was not spoken at home in most families. In schools it was usually compulsory but most students spoke to each other in Hindi unless in class. A lot of the teachers also had trouble with the language (even in the ‘good’ schools) and ended up teaching the wrong thing. I was very lucky because both my parents (specially my mother) have a really good command over the language. My mother grew up studying in convents with strict nuns and her English is impeccable. She’s been an avid reader all her life, English was one of the subjects for her Bachelor’s and she’s also really good at speaking in public (both rehearsed and impromptu). My father grew up studying in Hindi medium schools so maybe initially he wasn’t as fluent in English as my mother, but over the years the differences have vanished.
We shifted to Germany when I was a month short of three and according to Mummy didn’t know much English at that time. But within months, I was fluent in both English and German which isn’t surprising since kids can pick up anything. After a couple of years we moved to London and stayed there for a year. I think I really picked up the language there and can remember writing long stories in school. We then moved back to India and again within months I had dropped my ‘British’ accent and was back to speaking English like a normal Indian kid. By then I was also an avid reader and along with plenty of grooming from my mother meant that I used to get the highest marks in English in my class (till Class XII). In fact the subject I used to struggle with the most and get the lowest marks in was Hindi, even though it was the language spoken at home (in spite of help from my father whose spoken and written Hindi are excellent). I guess after a time Hindi stopped being the language of my thoughts, the language I dreamed in and that reflected in my aptitude with the language. I also blame the way Hindi was (is?) taught in schools.
Now things have changed so much. Now I really don’t know anyone (above a certain social level) who can’t speak competent English. All the kids in my apartment speak only in English and that too with an American accent! It’s partly due to the fact that everyone’s mother tongue is different but also because for these kids, English is their mother tongue.
When Anna was born, we didn’t put much thought into what language to talk to her in. We continued in our normal way, predominantly Hindi with some English thrown in. By the time she was two she was speaking fluently in Hindi but didn’t speak English at all. We used to read to her a lot and all the books were in English but we would translate into Hindi. Her playschool teachers would tell us that she understands commands in English but always replies in Hindi. We weren’t worried because we knew she’d pick up English eventually but if she didn’t learn Hindi in the first few years chances were that she’d never be fluent in it. Luckily during her school interview (when she was two and a half), the headmistress who was asking the questions allowed me to translate them into Hindi for Anna.
Within a couple of months of starting school she started speaking sentences in broken English. That was also the time Niki was born and both Mummy and I were around all day with her. We decided that this was the right time to get her comfortable with English and started speaking to her mostly in English. While reading also we would first read a sentence in English and then translate it to Hindi. We also encouraged her to keep asking if she didn’t understand a word or sentence. By around this time last year we stopped translating into Hindi and would only do so if she didn’t understand something.
Now she has almost completely stopped talking in Hindi unless it is required (if the person she is talking to doesn’t know English or if we’ve specifically asked her to speak in Hindi). She even seems to be dreaming in English because if she mutters something in her sleep it’s always in English. Even when she talks in Hindi, that slightly foreign inflection is there; she doesn’t have an accent but you can make out that this is not the language she is most comfortable with. When she talks in Hindi, she tries to say all the words in Hindi. Like she’ll say “Main apni gudiya ke saath khelne jaa rahi hun” rather than “Main apni doll ke saath khelne jaa rahi hun” which would flow more smoothly from her tongue.
We’re now making a conscious effort to talk to her in Hindi because mostly she speaks in English and we automatically end up speaking in English as well. She protests sometimes and insists on English and we let her because we don’t want to make her resent speaking in Hindi. In any case the maids don’t know English and she talks to them in Hindi so it’s not as if she’ll forget the language. As for little Niki, he’s currently in the parrot stage and tries to repeat any word spoken to him irrespective of language. He’s not started stringing words together but when he does I’m pretty sure he’ll follow in Anna’s footsteps and start with Hindi.