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Minding my language

By Nickunj Malik - Mar 05,2014 - Last updated at Mar 05,2014

Some people have a natural gift. They can be bilingual or even multilingual, and it is fascinating to watch them switch from one language to another without pausing for breath. 

Almost like being ambidextrous, you know. This term is used for individuals who are adept at using both hands equally well.  Very few persons are born ambidextrous and research shows that only one in a hundred people could be instinctively so. But here I digress. 

Being linguistically proficient in at least two languages is not so tough. Most countries of the world have an official language that is used for conducting business and imparting education. English, Spanish and French would fall in this category. Then there is the mother tongue, which the child learns, literally in the lap of its mother. 

Picking up several vernaculars and speaking them to perfection, is an art that is gifted to a chosen few. For that one has to have a keen ear, sharp powers of observation and an ability to talk incessantly. The last one is important, according to me, because academic knowledge is okay but proficiency in a language is only obtained by speaking it. The grammatical irregularities also smoothen out with constant vocalisation. But one has to have conversations with a native speaker; otherwise the finer nuances of enunciation cannot be perfected. 

Where pronunciation is concerned, the most learned of theoretical scholars also have a tough time. English, say the non-English speakers, is a funny language. Here, even the two and three lettered words with almost the exact same spelling, have a different diction when spoken aloud. For instance, “put” is made to sound like “foot”, and “gut” is rhymed with “shut”. “Go” is like “show” but “do” is like “flu”. This is even before we come to the difference between the words starting with “w” or “v”. 

When I was little, the Catholic nuns in my school could not stop emphasising over this. For the words “vase” or “violin”, I had to bring my upper teeth over my lower lip, and for say, “window” or “water” I had to sort of stretch my mouth into a round circular shape while articulating it. Nothing escaped their eagle eye and in an elocution competition, our diction mattered as much as the content of what we were delivering. 

Despite being trained in this manner, some problem words would send me into a quandary. “Schedule” for example. Phonetically, should it be “shed-yule” or “sked-yule”? Ditto for “issue”. Should it end in a “shoe” or “sue” sound? 

But when it came to “epitome” my confusion was complete. This charming word depicted a person or thing that was a perfect example of a particular quality or type. From the moment I came across this interpretation, I wanted to generously use it in my vocabulary.

But I was unsure whether to rhyme “happy-comb” with “epi-tome” or go with the “epiphany” sounding “epi-tummy”.  The other day I got a lesson for free. 

“It’s amazing how Petra has survived for two thousand years,” I said to the anglophile guide who was escorting me. 

“Yes, the fabled city is half as old as time,” he agreed. 

“How perfect was the ‘red-stone’, also sounds like ‘epitome’,” I exclaimed.

“‘Epic-symphony’ is what rhymes with ‘epitome’,” he corrected me. 

“Minding my language?” I teased.

“Only dotting the ‘i’s’ and crossing the ‘t’s’, my fair lady,” he emphasised.

“I picked the wrong issue?” I asked

“Shh, it’s alright,” he smiled.

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