Dealing with the Language Divide

For most people who end up in a relationship with a Punjabi man there will be a language divide, not just in verbal and written wordings but also in the way we communicated and the mannerisms we use. The majority of Punjabi families will have very limited (if any) English skills, and even if they do have a reasonable command of the English language they will almost always prefer their maa boli (mother tongue) as it is the language they are most confident and competent with. Today I thought I would briefly talk about different ways to deal with this language divide and lessen the gap.
Some couples meet and the language divide verbally is so wide that they choose to talk more and more by text or email than on the phone. Some couples meet and they have no common language at all but a raw connection (love is a universal language) and over time together they teach their languages to one another with some patience and sometimes Google translator. Generally couples meet and the common language is English, with one partner often knowing English as their first language and the other as their second, here generally the gap is not so wide but slang and mannerisms are learnt along the way.
More often than not, when you visit India and visit relatives’ homes or your partner’s home you will be somewhat of a wallflower while everyone else is chatting away in a language that you don’t necessarily understand very much of. The way that most people deal with this is to have their partner (or even sister in law or anyone proficient in English) act as a translator and teacher, keeping them in the loop and explaining new terms as they go. Your partner is your greatest tool, you already have a means of communicating with them, and they already have command of both languages to help bridge the gap. Initially, I was much the same, paying close attention to try and break up the mumbo jumbo and begin to discern individual words and phrases so I could slowly begin to learn what they were, how to say them and what they mean in English.
An important key in bridging the gap is to be patient, to listen and to be aware of your surroundings for context. Particularly with something like the head bobble that Indians are known for there are different meanings depending on context, generally ranging from affirmative, to I don’t know and sometimes even a questioning ‘really. Some women choose to learn the basics of their spouse’s language and some have a goal of fluency. Either is achievable with dedication.
When going from monolingual to bilingual there is a huge learning curve. In terms of picking up a language like Punjabi we have a new alphabet to learn, as well as formal and informal language, the particular dialect of our region & further how our partners speak Punjabi depends on whether they are from the city or the village. For me, having spent my time in a large Punjabi city, Hindi and Punjabi were used interchangeably at home and I have no idea where my knowledge of Hindi starts and ends. Unlike English, how things are said change depending on the gender of the subject.
For me, I initially wanted to become fluent but then decided it was sometimes nice to live in an English speaking bubble when living in India. I was lucky that my in laws had knowledge of English, so that when I spoke to them I could make myself understood and generally I could pull together enough Punjabi comprehension to understand my in laws when they spoke to me in Hindi and Punjabi.
Naturally I have picked up lots of words and phrases over the years, but have never really spoken in Punjabi and have very poor command of the language in that regard – especially since it has been three years since I lived with my ex husband and three years since I departed Punjab.
It is always a good idea to learn basic words and phrases, and questions to get by when your spouse isn’t present but not absolutely necessary. Learning the language can vastly improve the relationship you have with your in laws but for me I was very close to my mother in law even with divide, somehow we made it work and had a very loving relationship.
Very few women married to Indians have achieved fluency in their spouse’s language so do not feel pressured to do so, or feel that you are inadequate if you do not. Though it is a wonderful idea for when you do have children so that you can teach them, for a monolingual adult it can be very difficult to feel comfortable enough to start to speak a new language. If your spouse is encouraging it will go a long way on your learning journey.
Luckily it is 2016 and there is a vast array of learning resources, blogs, books and websites aimed at helping people learn various regional languages and of course Hindi.
Good luck on your language journey!

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