Iona Sharma’s “A’ghailleann”: On Language-Learning and the Decolonisation of the Mind is an essay about her attempt to learn Scottish Gaelic after failure to relearn what should in theory be her mother tongue, Hindi; it’s the kind of story I always find moving and inspiring:

Here are the things you need to know first. I am thirty years old. I am Indian. My parents arrived in Scotland as newly minted immigrants in the eighties, thinking they’d go home after I was born. Decades later, we’re still here.

My parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, their friends and their community, speak Hindi as a first or joint first language. I do not. I stopped being a fluent Hindi speaker at the age of six, perhaps earlier. The school didn’t like it. Too confusing to educate a bilingual child. If you don’t speak to her in English at home, she’ll never learn. […]

Just try! It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect.

But when it’s your own language, it does matter. It matters when it’s your own people who are laughing behind their hands at you. It matters when you’re seventeen, painstakingly reading a road sign, and passing strangers sympathise with your parents. And it matters in adult language classes, when you can’t relax and laugh at your own mistakes like the other learners, because of the constant, drumbeat internal litany: you should know this. You should be better than this.

And, as ever, it matters because the personal is political. It matters because Hindi, like Gaelic, is a colonised space. It is a language complete in itself, with its own history, literature, poetry and tradition. But more than sixty-five years after Indian independence, it has been surrounded and absorbed by English, so among the Indian middle classes it is no longer a prestige language. It is the vernacular, the language one speaks at home; one does not use it to write to the tax office, nor take one’s degree.

So if it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect – if it doesn’t matter if a noun is masculine or feminine; if a verb falls to be transitive in the past perfect; if you just use the English word, because who can remember the Hindi for mathematics or apartment or transubstantiation – then for all I wage my small battle, we’re losing the war. To speak our language perfectly – to choose to do so, despite decades of colonial influence – is another political act. […]

After a few days of listening and learning, I find I can order elevenses at the campus café, and understand that the sign in the bathroom is telling me not to flush tampons down the toilet. Looking out over the harbour, I suddenly grasp the meaning of the Gaelic word glas, not grey or green but in-between, the colour of the sea beneath a turbulent sky. Gaelic holds the Highland landscape in the weft of it, the sound of running water in its flow and fall. It demands time and hard work, but that denotation of beauty will become a part of me.

I’ve never been in her situation, but I’ve studied many languages under many different conditions, and what she says rings true to me.


  1. “if you just use the English word, because who can remember the Hindi for mathematics or apartment or transubstantiation” — Arrrgh trigger warning. The teacher of a Beginners French evening class in Dublin told me that the student who resorted to this most often was the then minister for education. Circumlocute that you may be free.

  2. Wow. What an emotional subject language is. At first I thought this article didn’t have to do with me, but then someone in the comments mentioned Yiddish and I felt a stab of pain that the last Yiddish speaker in my family, my grandfather, died two years ago. It was his native language as a child but when I knew him he entirely refused to speak it. I think I would feel weird about trying to learn Yiddish, because I’d feel like a pretender to an ethnic heritage that I’m not really part of — like Sharma says, I’d keep thinking, this is my family, ought to be my heritage, my fault that I don’t know anything.

  3. David Marjanović says

    Circumlocute that you may be free.

    I do this a lot in everything I know less well than English, probably to the point that I overcompensate.

  4. My wife speaks several languages, but she says that the two that interfere with each other the most for her are Hindi and Gaelic. (She’s been to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.)

  5. Parts of that are lovely, but I can’t help finding the attempt to equate Gaelic and Hindi in terms of their sociopolitical situation more than a little dubious (and even slightly ironic).

  6. True. As Stalin supposedly said, quantity has a quality all its own.

    The two languages do make a cute pair by virtue of being near the extremities of the pre-colonial IE realm, though Icelandic and Assamese would be even better.

  7. Trond Engen says

    I first thought of Icelandic and Singalese, but the outposts of northwestern Iceland and the southern Maldives are even farther apart — some 10400 km. The halfway point is Baku.

  8. marie-lucie says

    maidhc: My wife speaks several languages, but she says that the two that interfere with each other the most for her are Hindi and Gaelic.

    What is your wife’s native language? Under what conditions and at what ages did she learn the other languages?

  9. Trond Engen says

    Icelandic and Maldivian make a nice symmetry. Both have some 350 000 speakers. Both have a written history of some 900 years. Both are late insular offshoots of a larger continental branch, Icelandic is Insular North Germanic, Maldivian is Insular South Indic.


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