Did you know, that tucked in our brilliant brains are areas called Broca’s and Wernicke’s which take care of all language outputs and inputs? I didn’t know too. Until now. When I am compelled to look at these unassuming faculties in a whole new light. While I had taken these for granted before, I now revere them. And pray every night that they lead me to one such day when I will open my mouth and fluent Vietnamese will flow out of it without me having to do so much as think.
There was a time when I could reply to people talking to me. When I could read anything that was in front of me and understand what it meant. When hand gestures were more of an accessory than a necessity. When I could decipher the finer nuances of sarcasm and rhetorical, misnomers and juxtapositions in seemingly lame conversations. When signboards were more informative than confusing. There was a time when I simply knew and never cared to ask myself how.
Ah, those were days!
What would I not do now to be able to simply read a signboard and understand what it says? To know what the person talking to me is actually saying? Everything that I had taken for granted now feels like the hardest thing to do. The strongly expressive person that I am, I could never hold back compliments when I felt they needed to be paid, regardless of whether I ought to or not. And now I find myself fumbling for words even to extend basic courtesy. Even if I did know the words and said what I had to, I can never understand the reply! I start pretty confident and smug, specially when the husband is around, and on rare lucky days I get by without any incidents. But then there are days when after a few minutes of fumbling I am back to “Tôi không biết tiếng Việt!” (I don’t know Vietnamese!). I learn new words every day, and retain some of them. And yet I am nowhere near understanding how the language works.
The thing to be noted is that out here everything is in Vietnamese! Newspapers, magazines, books, signboards, menus, product labels, everything. I can never imagine Assam like that. And indeed, Assam isn’t like that. There might be rundown shops with “Bekari” instead of “Bakery” written on the signboards, “Welcome” might end up more of a “Wellcome”, but boy do we like to flaunt our English. I have been thinking a lot about how it would be if everything in Assam were in Assamese. On the upside, a lot more youngsters would have known how to read and write Assamese better. And on the downside, somebody might have been writing this post about Assam now.
It is amazing how we have indeed embraced so many words from English into our language. For example, in Vietnam, the word for “number” is “so”. When I get into the taxi my driver will ask me the street name and then say, “So bao nhieu?” (What number?). Even though the Assamese for “number” is “xonkhya” we never really say, “Tumar mobile xonkhya tu diba neki?” (Please give your mobile number) or “Eikhon baru kei xonkhya bus hoi?” (What number bus is this?). Despite having exclusive words for everything we still choose to use English words. Even when saying “Sorry” we never say “Khoma koribo” unless it is very formal. And the best part is people don’t really have to learn English to know what sorry, or for that matter thank you, is.
I am pretty sure the next time I go to Assam I will be far more appreciative of our language than I was ever. I am also sure it will be reassurance each time I read and understand something as lame as “ইয়াত ভাত মাছ পোৱা যায়”. And most of all, to be able to talk to everybody. It took me two thousand miles and two months away from home to appreciate what I had never done before: the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area of my brain.
To language! To understanding! And to understanding language!