When your native language feels like a foreign language

Although my working languages are French and English, my native language is actually Gujarati. Gujarati was my first language and it was all I spoke as a child. Once I started school, Gujarati was replaced by English, making brief appearances every time I visited my grandparents or went to community events.

Gujarati is native to the Indian state of Gujarat and it is spoken by over 50 million people worldwide.

I fell in love with French at school and it became an important part of my professional and personal life. But when I finished my studies, I realised that adding Gujarati to my working languages would make me stand out. Considering that it is my native language, you’d be forgiven for thinking that working with Gujarati is straightforward for me.

However, until earlier this year, I didn’t know how to read and write Gujarati. Initially, it seemed like a momentous task but once I got stuck in, with the help of a friend’s mum, I got through the letters fairly quickly. The difficult part is learning to read at a normal pace. Luckily, Gujarati is a phonetic language so everything is written as it is pronounced. My knowledge of French phonetics was indispensable as I knew how to use IPA symbols to distinguish between similar sounds.

Once you have mastered one language, learning subsequent languages becomes easier. This is true even when two languages are as different as French and Gujarati. Since I have studied French intensively for a long time, I have learnt about different aspects of language which I can now apply to Gujarati. In particular, I find it easier to grasp grammatical concepts like the difference between tenses.

An area that I struggle with is learning vocabulary. The language I use with my family is specific to our region of Gujarat so standard Gujarati, meaning Gujarati used in school or in the media, sounds very different to me. Even within my own community, I have found variation in everyday words like ‘kitchen’. This means that new vocabulary is often unfamiliar, whereas in my Spanish classes, I regularly spot similarities between French and Spanish words.

As I have always spoken Gujarati informally, it makes sense that I feel more confident in French. I know that I can speak French correctly and adapt to different contexts, both formal and informal. As I don’t yet feel this level of competence in Gujarati, I would rather work on my skills before adding Gujarati to my working languages. I hope I will then be able to offer the same high quality of translation and interpreting as I currently offer in French.

Other than the clear professional benefits of mastering Gujarati, it brings me personal satisfaction to reawaken a connection with my country of origin, le pays natal. I can now decipher my grandmother’s writing, mostly on labels in her kitchen. Instead of using Gujarati words, she often labels her jars in English but using Gujarati script. I was amused to discover that she had spelled ‘sugar’ as she pronounces it: soogar.

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My family’s home town: Tadkeshwar, Gujarat
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