off the cuff

How do you say ‘sharpen this knife quickly’?

I don’t think I will use slang words in polite conversation, but they are so much more fun than learning classic Kannada

17:29 November 14, 2017

I got by without knowing Arabic in Riyadh and Dubai even after living there for years, but I was not going to make the same mistake.

Living in Bengaluru, India, for the past five months after relocating from the Arab Gulf region, I realised that learning a second language helps open a whole new world, at least that is what the linguists, locals and people selling language courses, say.

While searching for online Kannada language apps and YouTube self-study lessons, I found this motivational Czech proverb. It said, “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language you live only once.”

Then I came across this quote from Rita Mae Brown, author of Rubyfruit Jungle, a controversial and popular coming-of-age novel: “Language is a road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

When I embarked on the journey to Saudi Arabia, I decided to learn to read and write a new language, Urdu my mother tongue. I could speak Urdu but was an illiterate in reading and writing, having studied in a missionary school where the second language on the syllabus was Telugu, the state language.

Since Urdu was written from right to left and the script was the same as in Arabic, and since many Urdu words were borrowed from Arabic, I thought it would be a good idea to first learn my mother tongue.

When I enrolled in a course, I did not think it was surprising that the tutor was a Hindu as Hyderabadi Urdu was spoken by most everyone on the streets. The tutor helped cultivate in me a love of the language and I remember buying a book titled The Quilt and other stories by Ismat Chughtai, a bold, outspoken and a fine Urdu writer.

Flowery language

I also purchased a book, Learn Urdu in a Month, in English. The section, Conversations about Food, had alarming sentences such as, ‘Sharpen this knife quickly’, or disgusting statements such as, ‘Don’t put your finger in the cup’. I was not sure where I would use sentences such as, ‘Throw away this soup’ or ‘This is very tasteless’ and ‘The monkey nuts are bitter’. I wondered why I thought my mother tongue was a very polite and flowery language.

In the section on Time, there were sentences to learn such as, ‘You never do anything on time’, or, ‘I am very busy. I have no time to spare’, and the very popular explanation for being late, ‘I am coming there in a minute’.

In Riyadh, I enrolled in the Arabic language course that was offered for free by a university. The tutor was a jovial Sudanese. I then bought a book in English, The Correct Translator for All Occasions, Without a Teacher. It was published in Beirut, Lebanon, which was known as the Paris of the Middle East.

In a section, At the Doctor, one conversation went like this: ‘I have a bitter taste in my mouth.’. “A purge will do you well in this case’. At the Pharmacy, ‘I want some castor oil’.

Learning Kannada, the language of Karnataka state should be easy I thought to myself, as the language has a smattering of Telugu words, that I had learned in school.

It is said that to learn a new language, one must first learn the local slang. I have found a site on YouTube where a young guy teaches words like dabba or ‘useless’, such as, ‘the internet connection is dabba’.

I don’t think I will use these slang words in polite conversation, but they are so much more fun than learning classic Kannada: Topi (cheat someone), kirik (don’t mess with me) or mama (Police).

Mahmood Saberi is a storyteller and blogger based in Bengaluru, India. You can follow him on Twitter @mahmood_saberi.