Back to Bangla: Rediscovering translanguaging (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

Bengali, properly called Bangla, is the language of Bangladesh and of the Indian state of West Bengal. It’s one of the languages I would have grown up speaking if my parents had settled in India in the late 1950s. They planned to. After I was born in Kolkata (Calcutta until 2001), my father looked hard for a faculty post in an Indian university, one that would have made it possible to raise a family of half-and-half children in India with his Ukrainian-Canadian wife (my Manitoba Ukrainian family appeared in this blog a while back).

My father, in the end, did not succeed in finding the right kind of academic job in India. He and my mother, both plant geneticists, wound up at the University of Toronto. In the 1960s, couples who brought different languages of immigration to their union were not encouraged to bring their children up bi- or trilingually. So my sisters and I grew up monolingual in English, the colonial language in which my parents had met, married and settled. There was Core French at school, of course. No French immersion in Toronto then, not yet. I heard Ukrainian quite often from my mother when she spoke to her family on the phone and every summer when we visited; I heard a bit of Bengali, more rarely, from my father, when he chatted with other expatriates, usually also academics who had made the big move to Canada. No phone calls to India in the 1960s, except in cases of dire emergency. It would have been prohibitively expensive.

I neither spoke nor understood any Bengali until my early twenties, when I was able to spend a couple of extended visits with the family in Calcutta in 1980 and 1983. I also lucked into a couple of university courses in Bengali around that time, in Paris of all places, which helped a lot with the grammar. Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language, descended like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and a host of others from Sanskrit. Related therefore, albeit distantly, to Latin, Greek, and all the other Indo-European languages. Occasionally a word leaps out that, across the millennia of linguistic separation, is identical to one I know. “Tooth” is dent, as in French. Luggage is malle. But the odd chance similarities don’t help at all with the rapid to-and-fro of everyday family communication. There are more verb endings than you can shake a stick at, not to mention a huge, rich vocabulary. There is a colloquial level of language and a literary level. In our family, there is even a dialect divide. Our branch of Sarkars are Hindu from the eastern part of Bengal, now Bangladesh. The Bangla spoken there is very different from standard Kolkata Bengali, and some of my older relatives still slip into usages that crossed over with them after Partition in 1947. It isn’t obvious without special knowledge that “Ki koitasay?” means the same thing as “Ki bolchay?” (“What is she saying?”, something my elderly aunts asked constantly about their rather puzzling Canadian niece when we met as adults in the 1980s).

There is also something I hadn’t thought about much until a recent visit back to Kolkata. I have a word for it now; I didn’t in the eighties. Translanguaging! Speakers of Bangla, like speakers of all Indian languages as far as I can make out, translanguage constantly between Bangla and English, quite often with bits of Hindi or some other Indian language sprinkled in as well. After spending six weeks being surrounded by family members of all ages who spoke English to me (mostly) and Bengali to each other (mostly), I am more convinced than ever that, as Ofélia Garcia and Li Wei maintain in their 2014 book, translanguaging goes beyond code-switching and is different. It works at all levels and registers; different admixtures of languages (or “languages”) are differently appropriate depending on context. But being a comfortable translanguager in Kolkata, or for that matter in Montreal, is part of what makes a person “local” (BILD member Emmanouela Tisizi has spoken eloquently to this idea of locality and belonging).

So in Kolkata, in Bengali and English, as in Montreal, in English and French, figuring out a translanguaging style that fits in with the local practice (as Alastair Pennycook might say) is the best way to start feeling that one really belongs. If one is prepared to be linguistically adventurous, I don’t see why there would be any limit to the number of places where one can feel local. In answer to the rhetorical question posed by Emmanouela in her last BILD post, no, there isn’t such a thing as too much linguistic pluralism!


García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pennycook, A. (2010). Language as a local practice. London: Routledge.






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