It was one of those crispy spring Saturday mornings when I had gone to style my hair at a nearby salon. A coy to-be-bride sat in the chair next to me to be made up for her great day. She looked ravishingly beautiful after being decked in all the bridal finery, and I kindly complimented her. Not being able to elicit any response, I interpreted it as an act of arrogance, only to change my mind a moment later when the friend who accompanied her explained the situation. The lovely young prospective bride was from Iran and did not speak English. But when my words were translated to her, she greeted me with a “Thank you” and a smile beaming from ear to ear. It all explains one thing: not being able to speak in the same language has the potential for so many misunderstandings!
Words constitute the very essence of human communication. It will not be an exaggeration to say that language is the lifeline of humanity. The Ethnologue catalogue of world languages, which is deemed as one of the best linguistic resources, says that there are over seven thousand languages in the world. That indeed is overwhelming. So if you are drowned in a sea of communication where every word sounds alien to you, there isn’t an iota of doubt that you will desperately look for someone who speaks the same tongue as you. Your level of excitement will be at its zenith when you get to instantly recognize and understand what the individual is speaking.
I am not saying anything new by stating that the ability to converse in multiple languages is an added advantage over knowing just one. It is encouraged that children as early as three be exposed to learning languages besides their mother tongue. Besides the cognitive benefits, language learning contributes to cultural enrichment. It makes it easier to appreciate a culture beyond one’s own. Dr. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, analyzes that what goes on in a baby’s brain is nothing short of rocket science. A child’s brain is believed to be twice as active as an adult’s by the time he or she reaches three, and that makes one a genius at learning a second language. In her words: “Babies can discriminate all the sounds of all languages…and that’s remarkable because you and I can’t do that. We’re culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages”.
Language makes us forget our differences and traverse all barriers. Just recently I read a piece by a student who highlighted how language has the capacity to bond people abroad whose cultures otherwise might clash at home. The student from India narrated how when the melodious tunes of an Urdu song were played at a gathering in the United States, he found himself joining hands and singing along with two others from Pakistan and Bangladesh that he had just met. What united them at that moment was that all three were familiar with the lyrics and tune of a beautiful song rendered in the golden voice of Pakistani musician Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.
In today’s world where heterogeneous elements melt into a harmonious whole, English has essentially become the global lingua franca. It’s interesting to note that due to it being used across continents among multiple cultures and communities, the native speakers of English have been outnumbered by the non-native speakers of the language. It has also undergone linguistic changes where hybrid forms have developed and resulted in the creation of new words.
What about technology learning a new English? As absurd it may sound, that is exactly what is happening. While shipping Echo speakers to India, Amazon.com, in conjunction with linguists, speech scientists, and techies, has revamped and given a distinct local makeover to Alexa, the virtual assistant that is the voice behind the speakers.
Alexa resonates with an Indian accent, blending Hindi and English and speaks in a language loosely called Hinglish! The head of product management for Amazon Devices in India humorously remarked, “We wanted our devices to talk, walk, and feel Indian. Alexa is not a visiting American; she has a very Indian personality.” As Alexa hits the markets in India, she will be in tune with the milieu, greeting them on festivals and celebrations and using local terminology. It is believed that Alexa has been programmed to accurately cite historical events too: for instance, she will state Independence Day as August 15 and not July 4.
Why was it necessary for Alexa to be trained to speak in Hinglish in a nation which claims to be the world’s second largest English-speaking country? It all boils down to familiarity. Despite the fact that many people would understand Alexa in the distinctly American accent, they would feel more at home hearing her speak in a dialect within their comfort zone.
I wind up by recounting an incident from many, many, years ago. My boy as a four-year-old had once totally floored a cashier at a store. We were looking for his shoes and a 50% off deal was offered for any second pair that was priced lower than the first purchase. We decided to buy just one pair, but things changed as we paid for it and walked out. My sweet tyke, having picked new words from foreign languages after watching the show Dora the Explorer, ended up saying “Hasta Luego” to the girl behind the counter. It meant “See you later” in Spanish, which coincidentally happened to be the cashier’s mother tongue. She fell so much in love with my little one that she called us back and said that we could have any pair of shoes at half the price, even if it was marked higher than the pair we bought. A funny episode, but it only highlights the magic of language: the sweet thread that bonds and unites!