Talk of Felicity of Tongue-Mumbai Is Jack of All




By Nina Martyris

Mumbai: Indians, they say, have a natural affinity for language. For a nation of talkers, this gift of’ tongues is a bare necessity, although the rest of the world has been known to say that we Indians talk less with our tongues and more with our heads and hands. A natural consequence perhaps, of living hi a subcontinent that makes theTowerofBabelsound like a unilingual utopia.

Multilingual Mumbai, mi­crocosm of India, has twisted many tongues well and truly out of shape to forge its own ro­bust streetspeak. Salman Rushdie in The Ground Be­neath Her Feet captured the essence of this word jigsaw when he described it as “Bombay’s garbage argot, Mumbai ki kachrapati baat-cheet, in which a sentence could begin in one language, swoop through a sec­ond and even a third and then swing back round to the first. Our acronymic name for it was Hug-me. Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English. Bombayites like me were people who spoke five languages badly and no language well.”

This Jack-of-all-tongues fe­licity is perhaps best demon­strated by the tenacious battal­ions of beggar children who operate at the Gateway of In­dia. The Gateway seafront drips tourists of every accent and hue spilling out from the magnificence of the Taj and the less opulent hotels that line the Colaba Causeway. The beg­gar squads have learnt to beg with an ‘aw shucks’ American twang, sing snatches of French songs, grovel in Arabic and beat their breasts in Italian. A beggar’s opera of sorts if you will, but it does ensure  a decent daily revenue.

It would be a linguistic injus­tice, however, to discount this city as some paradise of pigdin, when in fact it is a cen­tre where the study of language, and foreign languages in particular, has a dedicated following. Given that Mumbai exports droves of students, doc­tors, IT professionals, nurses and newly weds to foreign shores every year, there is a growing demand for foreign-language courses.

Learning French at the Al­liance Francaise and German at the Max Mueller Bhavan are now par for the course for every other callow student who wants to add international val­ue to an otherwise tepid re­sume. What comes as some­thing of a surprise is that Span­ish, that language of passion and rhythm has emerged as a front-runner, and no, it has nothing to do with Ricky Mar­tin’s obvious charms.

Spanish teacher Dinesh Govindani, who grew up in the Canary Islands, doesn’t find this surprising in the least. “Spanish is the second lan­guage of the world,” he says, “The advantage of learning Spanish is that with it you learn 60 per cent Italian, 60 per cent French and some Por­tuguese too.”

 Spanish owes its popularity to the batches of US-bound stu­dents, eager to master the lan­guage that is used most com­monly after English. “Since In­dians look like Latin Ameri­cans, everyone addresses us in Spanish,” says Mr Govindani. “And students who want to work in chains like Burger King and McDonald’s heed to have a working knowledge of Spanish.”

At the British Institute at Fountain and the Study Centre of “Foreign Languages at Mithibai College at Vile Parle, batches of learners swot away at Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, French and German. Chinese is in demand too, but no one has been able to source a teacher yet.

“Japanese is said to be the number one toughest language in the world,” says teacher Manisha Shanghvi, “but with the software boom, the demand has gone up. In Mumbai, it’s mostly diamond merchants and software engineers who want to learn Japanese.”

It is interesting to see how world events and global trade in particular have an impact on the demand for foreign lan­gauges… Geetanjali Gopalan, who runs the Study Centre of Foreign Languages and Leilla Lall, director of British Insti­tutes have watched the ebb and flow.

Before September 11, when IT companies were even ready to recruit on the phone, the English language classes were full of techies firming up their faltering English. When the Gulf boom was on; Arabic held sway with newly wetis learning the language before joining their husbands overseas; now it’s mostly young girls who want to read the Koran in the original, Dutch packages are still very popular with the Sindhis who have diamond houses in Amsterdam; The Korean car boom caused a run on English-Korean language packages with company officials trying to decipher cutting-edge automobile technology in Kore­an; when we buying our defense equipment from Sweden, army personnel were trained in Swedish.

There are some learners who are there for the love of language — Rajdeep Singh has done three years of Spanish, four years of French and is now in his second year of Ger­man. Ten-year-old Saurabh Kulkarn meanwhile, is prob­ably the youngest Japanese student in the City.  Others, like the IT executives on their way toJapan, are there for survival.

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