Learning to embrace the diversity of language

By Rahul Radja

I was a weird child. I was struggling with a lot of different aspects of my identity, and trying so hard to fit into expectations that I was never meant to fit into. I was a brown kid in an area with mostly white people, a disabled and neurodivergent child who was undiagnosed, a queer trans person who had not discovered my identity yet. So many aspects of my identity were things that I was trying to suppress, making me shy and self-conscious, and language was something that played a large role in that.


I grew up as an only child in a household with two Indian parents, who had different mother tongues. This meant they only ever spoke English to each other, and to me and never encouraged me to learn either of their languages (Hindi and Tamil). Their English was very good, but inevitably as someone who doesn’t have first-language English, there were differences in pronunciation of certain words. The English I learnt was mostly from my parents which had many differences to the white middle-class British English that was spoken by my peers. 


I was already seen as weird in so many other aspects, but pronouncing things wrong was something I had a lot of anxiety over. Whenever I would say a word wrong, I’d hear sniggers from the kids in my class, causing me to retreat into my shell even further. I tried as hard as I could to tailor my language to match my peers, as a way to try to be more “normal”.


When I was speaking to my family, I was the one person who didn’t speak the language (as my parents had a basic knowledge of each others’ languages). My dad shamed me for not learning Tamil, while making no effort to teach me. Whenever I would try to use certain words in Tamil, I was laughed at for having such a British pronunciation. I started feeling embarrassed to even try. I rejected all things Indian in favour of becoming as British as I possibly could, in the hope that I could fit in.


The problem was, I could not deny the colour of my skin. However British I tried to be, I was still noticeably different to my white peers. I still got the awkward question “but where are you really from?” when I tried to tell people I was British. 


It has been a long journey since then. I am no longer the shy and weird kid, I am openly and loudly a weird adult. I embrace the fact that I am different from what people expect and I am surprised at how much of a community I have found. I work with a charity called Chronically Brown, a charity trying to tackle the stigma of disability within the South Asian community. Through this and other ways, I have met so many amazing people who can relate to my experiences.


Meeting other people outside the circle of people I grew up around, I realised how diverse the English language is even within this tiny country. I could not learn “standard English” as there is no such thing. Nobody should feel made to feel like an outsider because of the way they speak any language, because language is fluid, and incredibly diverse. We need to celebrate the diversity of language, both from recognising other languages, and from recognising the diversity within a language.


I regret rejecting my parents’ languages and culture so much as a child, but I understand why I felt I needed to. I wish I had learnt Hindi and Tamil as a child, as it is much harder to learn languages as an adult, but I am trying. I still feel an immense amount of embarrassment for even trying to pronounce Hindi or Tamil words, but I hope in time that will subside. For now, I am just learning Hindi via the very popular app Duolingo, learning the very basics. It is slow progress, and I probably won’t ever be good, but the most significant progress is that I am trying. And in doing so, I embrace the Indian in me.