Linguistic reflections, or a practical application of Bengali

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata

Our recent trip to India was the first time in six years, and first time since starting this blog, that we’d been back.

Consequently I’d like to think my Bengali was better than the last time I visited Kolkata.

Our two week holiday began and ended in Mumbai but we had a full week in the middle when we flew to Kolkata.

Obviously there were more opportunities to speak and read Bengali on the eastern side of the country, but we also have relatives in Mumbai, so that part of the trip wasn’t without its chances for Bangla conversations.

So, from a language point of view, how did the trip go?

Overall I found I could get by fairly confidently on a tourist level, I say fairly confidently because there were still a few times when my pronunciation tripped me up, though mainly with hotel staff who also spoke English.

My language highlights from the trip were translating for my wife when we visited her 95 year old aunt in Mumbai and chatting with the driver who works for one of my wife’s cousins in Kolkata.

Two pretty different situations but significantly they shared the fact that neither the elderly aunt nor the driver spoke any English.

The main problem, though I see it more as a sign of progress, was that, beyond conversing as a tourist, I found that although I could start ‘proper’ conversations, such as one on Christmas Day with a different aunt who knew a little English, I’d often then struggle to keep up with what I’d started.

There was a lot of kind praise about my speaking Bengali, much of which came, as you’d expect, from family members.

Less expected was encountering it when popping out to the cigarette stand round the corner from our Sudder Street hotel to get some more water and Frooti juice cartons. Late at night, just as it was about to close (i.e. about 9.30pm), one of the customers, short, round, paan-stained teeth jutting from his mouth at extreme angles, heard me speaking Bengali and started talking to me and the man running the stand in Bengali, apparently delighted that I was trying to speak his language.

Overall I found the trip raised my expectations about communicating in India so that when we were in Mumbai I found it terribly frustrating not being able to speak Hindi or Marathi. Conversely it felt such a relief to reach Kolkata and hear Bengali spoken and read it on advertising hoardings.

Returning home I have a renewed drive to make more progress with learning Bengali, which I hope to maintain, instead of falling into a familiar ‘peaks and troughs’ pattern of study.

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2 responses to “Linguistic reflections, or a practical application of Bengali

  1. I’m curious to know how your wife did with the listening. I would say B is better than me at getting the gist of a conversation though worse at understanding a stand alone sentence. But speaking wise he can say little and it is not correct. So speaking wise I am much better. And he cannot read and write. Did your parents in law take the same approach to their children as mine? Deliberately not teaching them Bengali but they still heard a lot of Bengali conversations?

  2. My wife can sometimes get the gist of what is being said, but she doesn’t speak or read the language at all. Parents in law occasionally tried to teach her Bengali but were more concerned then about integration and the need to focus on English (though I think they regret that now). So she heard bits and pieces of Bengali growing up and has in the past corrected my pronunciation.

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