When people ask me why I’m curious about languages and why I speak 6 of them, I tell them that I learnt 4 of those languages growing up. This article is about my experience growing up with multiple languages and how it helped me become a polyglot. If you’re learning a language or if you’re a polyglot, you might find this article interesting.

Two minute version

  • India has many languages and many Indians are at least bilingual.
  • I grew up with 4 languages: English, Gujarati, Bengali and Hindi.
  • I started appreciating foreign languages when I started watching cartoons and movies in other languages.
  • I learnt English in school and I think in English, so I consider it my first language.
  • I learnt Gujarati from my father and in school, so I consider it my second language.
  • I learnt Bengali from my mother and it is my third language.
  • I consider Hindi my fourth language, which I learned from my neighbors, friends, and in school.
  • Spanish is my fifth language and I learnt it at the age of 22.
    • Inspired by the song Cancion del Mariachi from the movie Desperado.
  • French is my sixth language and I learnt it when I moved to Montréal, Canada.
  • My dream is to learn all the official languages of the United Nations.
  • I wish that someday humanity will unite as one and establish a global language that is scientific and easy to learn and use.

Multilingualism in India

Given India’s cultural diversity, it is the home of several languages. Of these, some languages are popular and are official languages of Indian states, however, some are only spoken by small groups and are on the verge of dying. In most parts of the country, it is common for people to speak at least 2 languages.

Official languages

The official languages of British India were English, Urdu and Hindi. After the British returned India her freedom, Urdu became the official language of Pakistan, while India has 2 official languages: Hindi and English.

Hindi

Hindi, being one of the 2 official languages of India, is very popular. In my experience, most Indians can express themselves in this language. Also, Hindi is internationally known because of Indian cinema (Bollywood), Indian music and other cultural elements.

English

It is often said that the British left, but they left behind their language 😅. English, being globally popular, is also an official language of India. It is more popular among people who’ve had the opportunity to go to English-medium schools. As more and more people embrace English with the passage of time, the language continues to gain popularity.

Regional languages

India is a huge nation divided into numerous states – 29 at the time of writing this article. Most of these states have their own official languages, e.g. Bengali in West Bengal and Gujarati in Gujarat. The ability to use a regional or state language along with the 2 official languages mentioned above, allows many people to be trilingual.

Most of these regional languages are somewhat similar to each other, as in knowing one facilitates learning another. At the same time, these languages are substantially different and they have their own different alphabet, i.e. scripts.

Quadrilingual kid?

To make things interesting, I was born to multilingual parents, each bringing their own language to the table. Thus, I grew up with 4 languages: English, Gujarati, Bengali, and Hindi.

Though I love my languages equally, the sad fact is that I’m not equally good at all of them.

Despite these differences, I can still communicate in all of them effortlessly and I often think as well as dream in these languages 😴.

As a teen, I also learnt many a phrase of Nepali while playing Carrom with my Nepalese neighbors. What heightened my interest in languages even further is a manga animated series named Ninku (忍空) which I watched at the age of 10, alongside another series named Flame of Recca (烈火の炎). It will be unjust to not mention the several kung-fu movies that I watched throughout my life.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll share the story of how I learnt the languages that I know.

Opening video of Ninku, which I think inspired series like Naruto.

English: My 1st language

Back in school, I was taught everything in English. I got a chance to study some works of William Shakespeare, which made me like the language even more, inspiring me to write stories and poems of my own. I came across rap music around the age of 18, which inspired me to improve my English even further so that I could write and perform songs for audiences from English-speaking countries like The USA and Canada.

Though English has grown to become my first language, as a kid, I used to dislike English and I even used to make fun of it as a language 😅.

At 8, I couldn’t understand a word of the Give it Away song by the RHCP. These days I can even understand Tech N9ne.

The first time I took English seriously was when one afternoon I suddenly had Cartoon Network on my TV. I loved those cartoons and I started paying attention to what they were saying. Later, I developed an interest for professional wrestling (WWE) and the commentary and dialogues drastically improved my vocabulary! These days, I continue to work on neutralizing my accent and improving my vocabulary.

Gujarati: My 2nd language

My father hails from the state of Gujarat, the state of Gandhi, and his primary language is Gujarati (ગુજરાતી). When he was young, he could speak Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi and Nepali, but his Nepali skills have faded over time to a point where he cannot speak well. I learnt Gujarati from my father and during my first 10 years of schooling.

Though I can speak, understand, read and write Gujarati, I didn’t get good grades in this language back in school. Some teachers chose to blame my grades on my mom because she was from a different state 🤷🏽‍♂️. However, I made it my mission to improve and in the last official Gujarati language test that I took in the 10th grade, I scored 90% to make my mom proud.

Hindi: My 3rd language

Being an official, national language, I was introduced to Hindi (हिंदी) by my neighbor’s kids. We used to play together every evening; good old games like hide and seek, and cops and robbers. I also used to watch TV programs like The Jungle Book in Hindi, where I learnt more vocabulary.

Though I could communicate in Hindi, I had never tried reading it until my neighbor lent me a Hindi comic book named Chacha Chaudhary. I was surprised to see that I could read 70% of it because it looked like Gujarati, but some letters were so different that I had to resort to guesses.

A still from The Jungle Book (1989) opening song
A still from the opening of The Jungle Book (1989).

Finally, in the 5th grade, I took up Hindi as an optional language in school, where I learnt the Hindi alphabet and got formal Hindi training. Though I studied Hindi for 3 years in school, I learnt most of my Hindi vocabulary from movies, songs and by means of talking to friends who were native Hindi-speakers. In 2014, I wrote my first rap verse in Hindi and it was fun. Hindi has inspired me to learn a similar-sounding language, Urdu (اُردُو‎), which is the official language of my brothers and sisters in Pakistan.

Bengali: My 4th language

My mother hails from the state of West Bengal and her primary language is Bengali (বাংলা). I was introduced to this language during weekly visits to my maternal grandparents. At home, my mom would often speak that language, thereby helping me learn more. I never studied Bengali at school, so I cannot write in this language and my reading skills are not good either.

A unique version of the Indian National Anthem used in a Bengali movie.

Having married into a Gujarati family, my mom had to learn the Gujarati language. Surprisingly, she learnt to speak Gujarati by listening to my father and my paternal grandparents. Later, she learnt to read/write from my school books. She can speak Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati and some English. Around 2007, she started learning Odia (ଓଡ଼ିଆ) while speaking with our neighbours but the learning stopped when the neighbors moved out.

In 2012, I started familiarizing myself with the Bengali culture more than ever before. Doing so, I got a chance to explore the works of the polymath Rabindranath Tagore who reshaped Bengali literature and music. I’ve also watched my fair share of Bengali movies and there are many Bengali songs that I often hum at home.

Spanish: My 5th language

My journey of learning Spanish (Español) began when one of my ex-bosses shared the song Canción del Mariachi from the movie Desperado with me in 2008. Having watched that movie, I wanted to sing that song so badly that I started learning Spanish. However, I had to stop my learning in a year or two because I started working as a software developer 👨🏽‍💻.

Desperado: The movie that inspired me to learn Spanish
Antonio Banderas in the movie Desperado.

Later, in 2014, I went to Malaysia, where I met a doctor named Gabriel from Argentina and I decided to converse with him in Spanish. Being a native speaker, he spoke very fast and my ears were not trained for oral comprehension 🤦🏽‍♂️. Though I could successfully make a sentence requesting him to speak a bit slower, the incident led me to resume my Spanish learning.

In a year from then, I was already speaking a good deal of Spanish when I decided to move to Colombia to live with my girlfriend. That was when I did phone calls, job interviews, emails, and immigration paperwork, all in Spanish. Being in Bogotá, my Spanish improved a lot within months and soon enough, I was quite fluent. Though I can effortlessly understand and speak Spanish now, I strive to improve my vocabulary, grammar, and my accent 🇨🇴.

French: My 6th language

In 2017, I moved to the province of Québec in Canada where French (Français) is the official language. Unlike many people who choose not to live in Quebec because they don’t want to learn French, I chose the city of Montréal to have a reason to learn French. Additionally, I decided to learn French as a tribute to a lady that managed to break my heart 🐰. She had once mentioned that she liked French and I’m glad that I know it now.

A song from a 70s Quebec advertisement that I love.

Due to time constraints, I had to learn French and pass a French language test within 6 months, which has been one of the craziest adventures of my life so far. Though I don’t get to practice French very often these days because I mostly use English at work, I feel very happy that I can understand 90% of the dialogue in French movies and 70% of lyrics in French songs. I still strive to improve my French grammar, vocabulary and accent. Maybe some day I’ll speak French with a perfect Quebec accent ⚜️.

Other languages

Though I have explored other languages, I do not count them in my language list because I only have shallow knowledge of them. Here are some other languages that I am familiar with.

Chinese (Mandarin)

Though a thought of learning Chinese might strike fear into many minds, it is in fact a very scientific language. The pronunciation might take time to get used to, but in the 3-4 months I spent learning basic Chinese, I was fascinated by it’s simplicity! One of my favorite inspirational songs is a Chinese song called A Man of Determination, which is the theme song for the movie Once Upon A Time In China.

Bhojpuri

In 2015, I developed an interest for this language while watching a comedy/action movie named Nirahua Rickshawala. Though my comprehension has improved by watching movies, I would like to be better in this language someday. I looked for books, but I couldn’t find any.

Nepali

Since I grew up in a neighborhood where there were many people from Nepal, I learnt some Nepali in my teen years. However, the learning stop when I moved out of the neighborhood. I’ve watched some movies in this language and am trying to improve my knowledge by reading a book.

Portuguese

Being my latest project, I started learning Portuguese (Português) in 2018 to be able to practice it with my Brazilian colleagues. Though I have come a long way, I still need to build my vocabulary and finish learning the common grammar rules. For now, I can say and understand basic things and I’m still learning. Maybe someday I’ll be heptalingual 😉.

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