One of my earliest memories is of panic. At four years old I returned from a summer with my family in India and struggled to take hold of English. It was in many ways an unbalancing, a question posed with no clear answer – if I could hold onto only one language, Tamil or English, one half of myself, which one was best?
I remember it murkily now. I don’t remember it as a conscious decision; I suppose in many ways it wasn’t. What remains with me is the panic and the resolve – the fear and the childlike mulishness with which I discarded one language in pursuit of another. I had not thought I had a choice.
From that moment on I pointedly refused to speak in Tamil. The refusal was, to be fair, brief in its intensity; by the time I was six, seven, I had tired of relatives needling me to respond in Tamil – I considered refamiliarizing myself with the language.
But it was not as I remembered it; there was a dissonance, a kind of jarring inconsistency between intention and execution, memory and pronunciation that twisted grammar grotesquely and left me struggling to answer even the simplest questions.
It was not a lack of fluency, a distance from the language; I understood my parents perfectly, I frequently, instinctively, reverted to Tamil when fatigued or upset, drawing on a handful of basic phrases, imperatives and requests.
One could consider it a child’s knowledge of the language. The grasp of a child preserved entirely in time, a perpetually and pathetically nascent knowledge. I left part of myself behind but I had not cut her out. I could not cut her out.
Regardless, those basic phrases could not rescue my faltering control over grammar and I ended up defaulting to English. Over time this grew into a new normal, a mundanity – I could not speak Tamil, but I could understand enough of it, I could parrot things when necessary, and my accent was invariably awful. Even after years spent learning how to read and write Tamil, my grasp of the spoken language only improved marginally; Tamil is extremely different in its colloquial form compared to its written form, a gap that is constituted by differences in pronunciation, phrasing, and oftentimes vocabulary itself.
Although my particular experience is perhaps unique, the phenomenon itself is anything but. I grew up considering myself odd, lazy and prideful for not being able to simply speak as I should’ve been able to speak, rearrange all of the knowledge that surely existed in my head – knowledge I used to interpret anything my family told me – into the correct responses. It didn’t seem possible. It didn’t seem logical.
But receptive bilingualism is far more common than one might think. Also known as passive bilingualism, it refers to a speaker’s ability to comprehend a language fluently without active command of it.
Command, here, is a tricky term, just as variegated as the different causes and stories behind cases of it; some have a limited grasp of the language, some have no grasp of the language, and some, like me, struggle with the language even having studied it.
Exposure in childhood plays a role, but a factor that cannot be ignored, especially as it relates to the presence of this phenomenon among diaspora, is the effect of assimilation.
Reminiscent of my child-self’s desperation, it is a choice, or more aptly the absence of one. A choice where one option seems correct, seems proper, because survival and success, so easily intertwined, appear so far away from the cultures that raised us and the people that gave their all to pass on what they could.
As common as it is, as frustrating as it is – receptive bilingualism is a phenomenon, a state of being. It naturally complicates the process of language learning, which is often already so fraught from past attempts and past failures.
But there are still paths forward, in spite of the frustration. I listen to music – I trace phrases and hold them in my own mouth, inspecting the weft of them, the familiar and the foreign of vocabulary and construction. I find lyrics, subtitles; I look to context as a crutch and then as an immersion, and it is a kind of glorious drowning, almost, to sink beneath the surface of something you have been afraid of for so long and to do it of your own volition.
I have always found Tamil an inexpressibly beautiful language, even when I could not speak it, even when I hated myself for how little I grasped, in truth. But I consider all of that shame, hot and strange and panicked as it lingers and it threatens to drag me backward to a time I’ve long left behind and a child I no longer am.
I consider that shame, and I consider the beauty of a language I love. And I refuse to believe in a decision a hostile world made for me years ago.