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Illustration Courtesy of Taman Temirgaliyeva

Growing closer to my mother tongues, far from home

Taking action and using the language that I have been passively exposed to for a long time has been enough to improve my life a bit and teach me a few lessons.

Dec 12, 2021

Growing up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I had almost no reason to not speak in English with my parents. The other one and a half languages I spoke fluently could be understood by everyone around us and speaking English guaranteed a lower chance of our conversations being overheard in public. This meant that I only used my native languages, Sinhala and Tamil, when I was abroad with my family to avoid being understood — such as when we complained about the price in ultimate tourist fashion.
I also defaulted to English with most of my friends who were most comfortable using English. We had an interesting linguistic dichotomy in our lives: our parents were fluent in one or two of the native languages of Sri Lanka and yet they made sure that we were able to wield English confidently in case we ever needed to migrate abroad due to countrywide conflicts going on in Sri Lanka at the time.
This always had me scratching my head when filling forms about the language I speak as they always come with two built-in answers to pick from: Tamil and Sinhala. If English was an option, I would choose it guilt-free. While I speak Sinhala better than Tamil, it is probably below par to that of many other native speakers, making me feel guilty to check that box. Calling myself a proficient Sinhala speaker almost feels like I am scamming someone.
Either way, my parents might have been more thorough drilling the English practice into my life than others — consequently, I understood what my parents said in any of the three languages but I’d only reply in English. For some reason, they thought I would somehow pick up the other two languages by talking to my school friends or my relatives, like my siblings did, but it did not happen. Eventually, they put their foot down and insisted on me picking up Sinhala. To make sure I went through with it, they asked me to take it at my Ordinary Level exams, a standardized test everyone in Sri Lanka takes around tenth grade. However, the choice of language probably boiled down to the fact that living independently in my city was impossible without knowing at least a bit of Sinhala.
My whole life, I’ve barely used my third language, Tamil. My mother’s first language is Sinhala, while my dad’s first language is Tamil, but they are both trilingual. My older sister is also trilingual, so I grew up surrounded by three languages. Looking back, it is a surprise how I was not trilingual myself. I understood Sri Lankan Tamil but was never incentivized to actively use it.
This changed when I joined NYU Abu Dhabi. As ironic as it sounds, I started using my native languages more after stepping into a foreign country alone. This started with an anxious phone call to my family the moment I landed. I outlined how many right or left turns the car was taking on my way to campus, fully in Sinhala. While this was mostly done not to be overheard by the driver, it was a semblance of normalcy I was desperately holding onto while adjusting to the fact that I was now completely on my own.
After some time, I began using more Tamil than Sinhala. This started off with speaking in sloppy Tamil to a friend. I would tell her random things like how much I missed eating dosa for breakfast or using the phrases our parents used when they were upset. Her help with gently pointing out the right Tamil word when I was lost is the reason why my vocabulary improved. I was subconsciously used to replacing the Tamil words I wasn’t sure of with their Sinhala equivalent because my family understood anyway. Being in a situation where I would not be understood if I strayed away from Tamil helped me expand my vocabulary faster than I ever knew was possible.
My random outbursts of Tamil turned into full sentences of excitement when I narrated to my dad how my roommate surprised me with biriyani after a long day off campus. It had become more fitting to reply to my dad in Tamil and I couldn’t place why. Although some of the language was still slightly unfamiliar, speaking Tamil has become more and more a reminder of home.
I told this to my brother once and pointed out the hilarity of living to see a time where I am using more Tamil than Sinhala. He laughed. When I asked why, he said that my dad had looked very proud as he was within hearing distance across the living room. I realized it was only then, at 17 years of age, that I had begun to speak with my dad fully in his first language. He definitely understood me before.
I’d never considered what he might have felt when I only picked up English and Sinhala and I don’t know if it mattered before because he always understood anything I said. On a call recently, he commented on how good my vocabulary has become. Hearing that from the person who I know speaks the best Tamil has made my whole year. Simply incorporating more Tamil into my life has allowed me to connect with my father better — something I didn’t even know was possible.
Recently, my stuttered Tamil sentences have now turned into slower but surer sentences when I speak to my relatives back home. My newly honed Tamil skills have even allowed me to interact a bit better with some of the community here at NYUAD, like the Tamil-speaking staff at D2, or the Public Safety Officer in my building.
I’ve always thought that improving myself means I need to take action and do something I’ve never done before, something completely out of the box. But taking action and using this language that I have been passively exposed to for a long time has been enough to teach me a few lessons.
I’ve learned that it is okay to make mistakes while I stumble onto new words in Tamil. I’ve learned that it is okay to admit I was wrong in my reluctance to learn Tamil before. It has made my life better, despite my eight-year-old self adamantly telling my parents that learning a new language will only add more stress to my life. I’ve learned that I need to be confident in speaking Tamil despite my accent. Most importantly, I’ve learned that life is not set in stone — I will continue to be thrown into new situations and that is okay. I can and will adapt to it like I am adapting to life here at NYUAD.
Ruqayyah Irshadeen is a Staff Writer. Email her at
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