Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American cosmopolitan currently finishing up his first novel, We, of the Forsaken World…. Born and raised in Jonesboro, Georgia, he has spent formative time in Mysore, India, and he studied abroad for a year in Madrid, which inspired him to think globally. While he taught online, he travelled to 118 countries, and lived for short periods of time, usually between a few months to a year, in Portugal (Lisboa), Peru (Cuzco), Japan (Tokyo), Kenya (Malindi), Turkey (Istanbul), and Indonesia (Yogyakarta). He currently divides his time between Shanghai, Jonesboro, and Mysore. He speaks seven languages including Kannada, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Indonesian and Japanese at various levels of proficiency. In this interview, Harsha Bharadwaj talks to Kiran on behalf of Kannada Gottilla, to know more about his Kannada learning experience.
Harsha: Which was the first foreign language you learnt? Tell us about the experience.
Kiran: The first foreign language I learnt was Spanish. I studied it in high school for three years and then travelled to Spain to do my student exchange in 2010. People in Spain speak next to no English, but have so much personality and warmth. I wanted to understand their jokes, the particular phrases they were saying and why they wanted to get to know me. In other words, living in Spain was the time I realised the importance of learning another language. It is the best way to bridge yourself to the mindset of people from other worlds.
H: When and why did you decide to learn Kannada?
K: Kannada is actually my mother tongue, but because I was born and raised in the States, I suffered from something that linguists call language attrition. I was able to speak in Kannada fluently until I was four or five years old, but once schooling started, I did not want to speak a language that wasn’t English, as I wanted to belong to the society I was raised in. And so, I ignored my mother every time she spoke to me in Kannada, stopped talking entirely to my Ajji (grandmother), who only speaks Kannada, and tried my hardest to distance myself from my culture. However, after I began travelling, and learnt the importance of language, I realised how immature my actions were. Being an American does not mean I am not an Indian, and if I wanted to connect to Indian-ness, I would have to learn the language of my origin.
H: Tell us how you started off with Kannada learning and the methods you used to practice.
K: I chose to move to my Ajji’s house in Mysore and live with her for some time. I was already fluent in listening to Kannada, but I was bad at speaking. It was simply a matter of learning the sounds of the words, making my pronunciation better and speaking grammatically correctly. My grandmother speaks no English and so it was simple enough to get my practice. Speaking as much as I can and getting my mistakes corrected is the best way to do it. I also try to read in the language to pick up new words. I learnt Kannada script on my own and read a few lines everyday from books of well-known authors such as Triveni.
H: Are there any challenges that you faced while learning the language?
K: Kannada is a language with a dense grammatical system and hard pronunciation. Out of the seven languages I know, I think Kannada would be the hardest after Japanese (and even Japanese has very simple pronunciation) for someone like me who does not speak any other Indian language. A mispronunciation of a D or a DH or stress on the wrong part of a word can ruin an entire sentence. There are also a lot of very specific words used in Kannada for very specific purposes or reasons. However, the difficulty in learning a language is always relative and it largely depends on what languages you already speak.
H: Have you watched Kannada movies? Which one is your favourite?
K: Yes, I really like Upendra’s work. I think he does a good job in manipulating cinematography and grounding his story in multiple levels. I think generally Kannada films are darker and more layered than Bollywood films (which tend to be campy and unrealistically dramatic), so I am very proud of the level of art and passion that goes into the film-making in my mother tongue.
H: Did knowledge of some other languages help you in learning Kannada?
K: Turkish, Japanese, and Kannada have a very similar grammatical structure (Topic of the Sentence – Sentence – Verb), and so all of these languages can go hand-in-hand in getting to think in the right way. I would say that Kannada is still different from these two other languages in more nuanced ways. And I think my biggest advantage was having Kannada as my mother tongue, which allowed me to accelerate my learning of the language more than if I was starting it afresh.
– Harsha Bharadwaj