Rosetta Stone

Image credit: Hans Hillewaert (

Rosetta Stone. Image credit: Hans Hillewaert

When I was a child I lived in a multilingual house in Brunei. The siblings were overseas and far away at boarding school, and my mother was determined not to make the same linguistic mistakes with me. My parents spoke to me only in Malayalam, and the lady who helped with the housework spoke only in Malay. I was ensconced in a happy world where I was cradled by two loving tongues.

Into this world the siblings would plummet, tumbling and babbling, once a year, shovelling food like they’d been starved and talking all over the top of each other. I would stare, wide-eyed and awestruck, and utterly bewildered. Their very proper British-accented-Indian-boarding-school English was beyond anything decipherable in my coded world.

Then came a move to India. My mother, the siblings, and I nestled ourselves amongst the twigs of another language we didn’t know. Two-year-old-me put on the coat of Kannada and went undercover. I embodied Mavis Batey, running errands between my mother and the neighbours, the only one who seemed to have acquired enough of all the languages to hopscotch between them.

A year of this tongue tango, and my mother and I returned to Brunei. And then I started school.

I donned my white fishnet stockings and my shiny patent-leather black shoes, my hair was neatly combed and tied, a hand was clasped, and I went excitedly to meet new friends and Our laughing Father in the Admission class at St. James School. I was on my first mission; to learn English. The secret language of the sibling-code would be cracked.

My initial training was interrupted as, with my neatly packed valise of Malayalam, Malay, Kannada and an English so heavily accented that it was barely identifiable, I arrived in Australia in the 1970s. This largely mono-cultural, and mono-linguistic nation reeled in surprise, or was it shock, at the confrontation with a feisty Indian girl with many forks in her tongue.

I chameleoned myself into a broad accent, and blended as much as a brown-skinned, black haired girl can in a white-skinned, blonde-brown-haired world. I was the Ferrero Rocher in a box full of Raffaellos. My skin may betray me, but my voice never would, as I clipped words short, stretched vowels into diphthongs, and nasalised anything that moved.

I spent my childhood acquiring languages like other kids acquire marbles. A bumble-bee here, a tombola there, new and increasingly patterned languages were carefully catalogued into my collection. Sometimes whole, sometimes portioned, they gathered in a babbling parade of nations in my head.

In an attempt to understand more of myself, I studied linguistics. I thought the mechanical operations of languages, the nuts and bolts, would give me greater insight. Like all good mechanics, I was careful with my tools, and always keen to practice my trade, acquiring yet more shiny new languages to add to my clutch. New retroflexes and fricatives appeared at my bidding as I lolled my tongue around the delicious new sounds fizzing in my mouth.

If language is the key to culture, my key-ring was overstuffed.

When my children were born, the realities of passing on that language love, that voyeuristic desire to peek into the cracks in cultural walls, came to the fore. They inconveniently formulated their own ideas of identity and passion.

So my evangelistic fervour has waned. Instead I warble my delight that they’re exposed to a multitude of tongues and they’re learning a few along the way.

I feel very honoured to have received an editor’s pick for this post.

28 Comments on “Rosetta Stone”

  1. I’ve always wished I were at least bi-lingual. In Canada we are required to take French through school but it never seemed to stick with me.

    • Sadly, languages work on the principle of “use it or lose it”. The less we use them, the harder it becomes to grasp at those elusive words and sentences. I forgotten so many of the languages I’ve learned over the years — to my great sadness.

  2. love the ‘ferrero rocher’ simile. and girl, don’t you know the ferror rocher tastes so much better than the Raffaellos! ahaha. i am southeast asian so i do love all things coconut, but you just can’t compete with ferrero rocher, even if its from the same company. (white chocolate is not real chocolate anyway…)

    really enjoyed how you described your love for linguistics that started from when you were young. that’s pretty awesome. =) some of my friends also speak Malayalam; they taught me how it’s a palindrome. so cool.

    • Thank you!

      I’ve never been a fan of white chocolate, but the coconut on a Raffaello takes it to a whole other level! But I completely agree with you, give me a Ferrero Rocher any day.

      And yes, yay! for palindromes (and Malayalam being one of them).

  3. I understand your sadness of losing many languages you had known earlier and it was great by your mom knew the importance of teaching you your own language. I remember having debates with my husband on the importance if mother tongue. I wished I had stuck by it like your mom then today I won’t have to feel sad that I am unable to speak in my own language with my children. Stopping from yeah-write-me, ‘A cuppa for my thoughts’

    • I wish I had my mother’s resolve to continue our language use with my children too. It’s complex and can feel exclusive when you have a mix of languages and cultures in a family, to choose one to pass on. It troubles me sometimes that my children don’t speak Malayalam, but I hope I’ve instilled in them an interest to learn it later. Thanks for reading!

  4. This is so wonderfully crafted. I wish I spoke many languages. I was in awe of my Swiss colleagues who could effortlessly switch between German, Italian, French and English. Taking language was never compatible with science because they both had labs in the afternoons.

      • There are so many other languages in both math and science and people never give enough credit for that learning either. French, German and Latin are all over the sciences and math is filled with both Greek and Latin. So quite aside from learning the “languages” of math and science, there’s also a lot of code switching.

    • Thank you. There are still so many languages I want to learn, and though it’s easier for many reasons when you’re young, it’s never too late! You’ve still got the opportunity to learn now, Stacie!

  5. I don’t know anything about the other languages you discuss but you sure as shit mastered English. Great job with this story. I loved the imagery!

  6. Love this: “nasalised anything that moved.” Is that Australian? I always thought extreme nasalisation was uniquely American.
    Really enjoyed your range of vocabulary and the images you conjure up in this piece, it was both amusing and informative.

  7. The Ferrero Rocher line made me laugh! I really enjoyed this. So many people look at learning another language as too hard or too high-falutin’ but really it gives you a new way to look at the world.

  8. I love the language you use to talk about language, how you explore the fit and feel of words. This is a perfect setting for that exploration.

  9. “delicious new sounds fizzing in my mouth”

    I love this phrase. It really captures that feeling of discovery when you first start trying on new sounds from other languages on for size. I remember when we first learned IPA, turning over those sounds in my mouth, looking at the foreign symbols. Fizzing in my mouth, indeed.

    • Megan, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comments. Isn’t it one of the most exciting things about learning new sounds? I do love exploring the shape and breadth of new words… in any language!

  10. Love this line! “I was the Ferrero Rocher in a box full of Raffaellos.” What a unique upbringing you had and lovely story telling to boot! I keep telling myself I want my kids to learn a language with me. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to. But never had anyone to practice with. Kids are sponges too, I’m sure they’d speak circles around me. ha ha Anyway, congrats on the editor’s pick. You deserve it!

    • Thanks so much, Jen! It’s never too late to learn a language (always easier when you’re young, but more motivation as we get older). Conversational classes are a great way to practice the language too… or Skyping with someone who also speaks the language. I hope you pursue it! Thanks again.

  11. Yours is a very interesting non- fiction post I ever read, you have presented it beautifully. I’m so glad I visited this place after a long absence.

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