From the time I was three years old, and was cared for much of the time by a Tibetan Sherpa "aya," the wife and eventual mother of mountain climbers in the hills of Darjeeling in West Bengal at the foot of the Himalayas, I've known there were other languages, and that other languages are the windows on other cultures, other lives--and other stories.
When we returned to Madison, Wisconsin, after that time in India, my mother was teaching anthropology at Beloit College while my father was teaching the same subject at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My parents, who'd enjoyed and grown accustomed to having live-in, around the clock day-care for us kids overseas, were faced with a dillema: how to care for me before I was old enough to go to school like my older brother and sister. While in Darjeeling, my brother and sister kept up with their school work by way of something I believe called "the Calvert Learning System," as there was only the one school--St. Joseph's Academy--near where we lived and they seemed afraid to enter a school different from the suburban elementary school where they'd gone before we left Madison for India.
Ang Lhakpa, as our Sherap "aya" was called, taught us some rudimentary words in Hindi and Tibetan, and I picked up some Nepali from the kids in the streets of The Mall where Ang Lhakpa frequently took us on walks to get her daily paan--beetle nut wrapped in grape leaves. My sister, according to my mother, having first gone to the hills by the Himalayas at the age of two and a half, spoke fluent Nepali when they returned to the U.S. with her in the early 1950s. But she refused to speak it ever again in the U.S., preferring to grunt rather than resort to Nepali for anything for which she did not know the English name.
But I was still in the process of learning English at home, too young for even preschool in our suburban neighborhood of Shorewood Hills. So, my mother enrolled me in a Mandarin Chinese class at a church on the near East Side of Madison. To this day, I can count to ten, greet others in a rudimentary way, respond to a greeting, and say thank you and see you later. But I recall practicing writing Chinese characters in my class, but not how to make them or for what they stood.
The Mandarin lessons should have taught me I could absorb other languages, especially at that age, but the day my mother no longer needed me to be watched while she taught, because she stopped teaching as regularly at Beloit, she pulled me out of the school and I was back home under her watchful eye, helping to fold the warm clothes as they came out of the drier and enjoying the game of her putting just-ironed clothes on me in the kitchen.
There were no more language classes for me in elementary school, though I vaguely recall I had a Chinese friend, named Kim Woo, who the other kids often taunted because he did not seem to understand English that well, but whom I vaguely recall conversing with--in Mandarin? In the summer between fifth grade and sixth grade, we moved back to India for my parents to conduct further research, and my father to act as head of a recently formed organization to help other visiting scholars--The American Institute of Indian Studies--to New Delhi. We stayed for about a month in Hong Kong, at the Repulse Bay Hotel, awaiting our visas to India at that time. I remember going up to Victoria Peak in a tram, watching the Tai Chi practitioners, and perhaps understanding or thinking I did some of what I heard in the streets and on the Kowloon Star Ferry. But likely I did not understand it as well as I may have thought I did, as they spoke a Cantonese dialect, as opposed to the Mandarin I'd been taught. That was essentially my first understanding that beyond languages there were dialects, and beyond dialects, slang.
In India, I was heavily exposed to and think I must have taken classes in Hindi and Urdu, though I was at great pains I recall to do well in my other subjects, and especially English, which was taught us at the American International School by a New Zealander and a British woman married to an Indian man. Neither taught me American spellings, further complicating my spelling, as well as some of my comprehension, of "American" English upon my return to the U.S. for eighth grade.
But I was already experienced at delving into other cultures and groups and learning slang and especially swear words, the sorts of language adopted by tweens and teens the world over. In fact, to impress some would-be friends in my eighth grade class back in Madison, I actually took a dare to go up to the one Indian woman teaching math to us and swear at her in Hindi. I felt terrible after doing it. But her reaction, as well as mine, showed me the limits of knowing only such a smattering of vocabulary.
We had stopped by the then-Soviet Union on our long way home from New Delhi the summer before, by way of Afghanistan, then Uzbekistan and Moscow itself. On the way, my father, whose mother was originally from Prague, taught me the cyrillic alphabet so that I could make out at least a few letters and sound out names and street signs, though not well. But well enough that I decided in High School, the first time a foreign language was again offered me in the U.S., to study Russian. I did learn the alphabet relatively quickly, but had difficulties with some of the spellings and meanings. My first high school girlfriend, a senior when I was a freshman, in the same Russian class, helped me marginally. But I have to this day retained the ability to read cyrillic and recall again just a few basic words or phrases, while retaining an extremely intimate understanding of the word "tsyelovat"--"to kiss."
I took Russian just that first year in high school. When most of my friends were taking Spanish or French, I decided those languages appeared too "easy," as they used essentially the same alphabet as English, and went for something more challenging. It was not a good plan for high school grade point average increasing, but it was a noble one. Like many other classes my freshman and sophomore years in High School, I soon bored of going to class and taking tests and reading assignments and writing assignments, and my grades showed it. Too complicate my life more, I'd befriended a boy I wound up working illegally with in a Chinese restaurant, as we were both too young for legal work permits, and he was from a Polish family. So my Russian got "corrupted" with Polish, and school seemed less interesting and fun than working.
By that time, I'd started learning Taekwando, the Korean martial art of kicking and punching that developed as an off-shoot of Japanese karate, and was learning a few Korean words. My Polish friend from High School would often go across the boulevard with me from our Chinese place of employment after work when a friend from the Taekwando school would let us play pool in his bar and drink Heinekins.
After my Russian experience, I was no longer certain I could learn foreign languages either well or fast, forgetting my childhood learning at the Mandarin school. I did not take another foreign languge--it wasn't required--after Freshman year in High School.
A foreign language was required even for the small University of Wisconsin branch school where I first went before transferring--after improving my grades--back to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I decided to take the "easy" way out, considering my challenge to myself in High School foolish, and took French. For a year and a half. I hated my French teacher, as she seemed to have neither patience nor compassion for my beginning to be confused with conjugations of verbs and similar things. In fact and in all honesty, I did not get that verbs could have different endings depending on a variety of factors. The entire concept seemed to me, ludicrous. But I will never forget listening to the language tapes at the UW-Stevens Point, and reading along in our text book, especially the section on World War II, from which I've never forgotten how to say 6th June 1944--the date of the D-Day invasion.
Once I transferred to Madison, I had my plan. I immediately began taking Hindi/Urdu, seriously, as I began to consider going back to India as a college year abroad student. I managed to get on the program, and spent a year further studying Hindi with a UW-provided tutor as well as in a "diploma" course at Benares Hindu University in Varanasi, my most favorite of India cities. For my first few years back at Madison, before the year in India, I roomed with my best friend from High School. As he was taking Latin, either of us especially in the mornings could be heard trying to practice our pronounciation at different sides of our two-bedroom apartment off campus, him conjugating amor or some such verb, and me just practicing dipthongs, and labial versus dental letter pronounciations.
But at the UW in Madison, I ran into extremely confident Hindi/Urdu professors, one of whom boldly told us in the first day of class that he intended to teach us the entire Devanagari alphabet (the Hindi script) in two weeks, and the Urdu arabic script as well. And he did. Learning the alphabets of another language, at my advanced age of maybe 20, in two weeks gave me confidence to learn Hindi and Urdu better. By the time I went to Varanasi, I was translating Hindi newspaper articles as part of a project. And I wound up covering a sensational murder trial for The Associated Press there. The Judge, Dinesh Narain Sharma, decided at one point to switch the language of the testimony--since many of the witnesses were local--from English to Hindi. As English and Hindi were the two "official" languages of India, it was within the judge's power to insist that, while questions could be posed by the defense counsel in English, answers could be in Hindi. As the defendant wound up representing himself, and was not, despite being of Indian heritage, fluent in Hindi, I wound up interpreting for the defendent as well as covering the case for the AP. When I mentioned my concern about potential conflict of interest to the Bureau Chief in New Delhi, I learned it was OK for me to do, as the rival UPI correspondent had been receiving reports on the day's events from the defendent himself, by telephone. The defendent noticed in court one day when he told a joke to his co-defendent that I also heard it and laughed. "You speak French also?" he asked me, smiling as he entered the courtroom shackled and flanked by guards with heavy wooden carbines dressed in olive-drab wool sweaters. "En peu," I said. A little.
While in Varanasi, I also discovered that by listening carefully to dialects and matching some similar sounding words with actions, I could pick up some of the street dialect, Bojpuri, spoken by the pedal rickshaw wallahs and some of the other frequent street people.
My becoming fluent in writing, reading and speaking Hindi/Urdu in my 20s reinvigorated my confidence that language learning was not age-prohibitive, but that it required careful study and frequent practice--immersion, like living in Varanasi for a year--to the point where, upon returning to Varanasi and even to the lodge where I had lived, a friend from my college days there eight years later remarked he was suprised to see me back--and still fluent. My Hindi/Urdu tutor, however, was not surprised. He was a great teacher. And he knew, by the time I'd left the first time, he'd taught me well.
I became so confident, in fact, that while a police and crime reporter in Texas, I picked up a few Tejano words, some Mexican slang, and joked with a Chilean intern who became a lifelong friend at my second newspaper. And I used my Hindi/Urdu to interview a murder suspect in his home, learning much about his life to lend credence to his story but also glean information which the police hadn't. In the same town in Texas, I befriended a pair of Chinese restaurant owners, who helped me remember some of my Mandarin and taught me the difference and equivalents in Cantonese.
The experience led me to return, on my own, in 1988 to India, and helped me as I had returned as a reporter and was trying to cover and generate as many stories as I could in about a month before having to return to Texas.
I had been bitten by the travel and overseas living bug, and by 1992, when I was told my then-new employer did not have nor have any plans yet for a bureau in India, and asked where else I might like to go, I suggested the one European country I'd been told was most like India: Spain.
"You'd have to learn Spanish," my employer said at the time.
"I can do that," I said.
I studied Spanish for about nine months before being posted to Madrid as Chief Correspondent for a financial wireservice. Recognizing immediately I needed more fluency, unlike the U.S. Ambassador at the time (who was frequently criticized by the Spanish press for not appearing to even attempt to learn the language of the country to which he'd been assigned), my employer granted me two weeks to attend an intensive course intended for diplomats and other travelers. When asked what my goals were for my two weeks in Grenada, I honestly told the instructors: "I want to come out left-handed," relating language learning with such intensity to an episode I'd seen as a teen of The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, who I'd seen before as the Secret Agent Man. In the episode, in an effort to convince McGoohan's character he is someone other than he thinks he is, he undergoes "retraining," the end result of which was demonstrated when someone tossed a box of matches to him and he caught them with his left hand--not his customary and previous right hand.
Of course, I had to explain the reference to the Spanish instructors. And then point out that McGoohan's character was capable of faking it--as was I--both of us being, as it was, ambidextrous...
Causes Terin Miller Supports
Civil and Human Rights.
Amnesty International; March of Dimes; Operation Smile; Medicines Sin Fronteras; UNICEF