“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

True to Goethe’s words, I started to appreciate my mother tongue more, once I started learning foreign languages. German, to be specific.

Like the majority of the language learners that I’ve encountered, I started learning German only because I wanted to study in Germany. I had heard people say that learning their language is pretty much mandatory if you want to have a good life and a successful career there. This turned out to be very true indeed. The languages in European countries are so deep-rooted, that every single piece of information is available in that language. Sometimes it irks foreigners who don’t understand the native language. Once I reached Germany, I had the perfect opportunity to use whatever I had learnt in the classroom sessions. At first, it was quite scary. You would encounter people speaking in different speeds, some unclearly, some incoherently. Definitely not like those people who spoke on the audio CDs that I listened to during the classroom practice sessions. After a few months of exposure to the language on a daily basis, I was fluent enough to communicate without having to translate it from Kannada or English in my head. In the meantime, I discovered how people around me were so appreciative of that fact that I am making an effort to speak their language and offered all the help that they could.

Before I went to Germany, I saw a poster put up by a German on the notice board at the language class, which said he wanted to learn the local language Kannada. In exchange for this, I could practice German. I was overjoyed, got in touch with him and also met for a language exchange session. That is when I realized something. A native speaker is the worst person to explain his/her language unless he/she is a teacher of that language or has analysed it linguistically. Luckily for me, he had some experience in teaching the language. I was quite a bad teacher that day.

Unlike babies, the linguistic geniuses that they are, we adults need a reference language while learning a new one. In most cases, it should be the language you are most fluent in, especially if you’re learning a foreign language for the first time. I think this is what Goethe meant. Strangely enough, many people who learn German try to learn it via English which gives funny results. Even though they belong to the same language family historically, they have drifted apart a long time ago and have had many internal changes which make their syntaxes and grammars distinct. When this was the case, Kannada came to the rescue. I realized how simple it was to learn some aspects of German grammar when I tried to learn them through Kannada. I was overjoyed and tried explaining it to my classmates. Unfortunately only 2 out of 20 knew Kannada, which quite accurately represents the state of Bangalore today.

I have never learnt Kannada formally, except for a few classes of third-language Kannada in high school, which doesn’t account for much. Thanks to the constant supervision of my mother (with a stick in the hand), I learnt reading and writing the language at a very young age. Since then, I have always read Kannada books, magazines, and newspapers. Learning a foreign language helped me understand and appreciate my mother tongue more. Kannada is a rich, old language with a very interesting history – socially, culturally and linguistically. In fact, the converse is true too. Knowledge of Kannada helped me understand and appreciate German better. You should try it too. Who knows what you’ll end up discovering?

– Harsha Bharadwaj