I am not fluent in Marathi, my ostensible mother-tongue, because of the lack of formal training. While my mother spoke to us in Marathi (my dad not so much, because while he himself is also of Maharashtrian descent, he grew up in Gujarat, wasn’t exposed to enough Marathi, and rejected Gujarati for complicated reasons) we lived outside Maharashtra on central governmental campuses where the lingua franca was Hindi or English. The two years I went to school in Maharashtra, Marathi was “compulsory” only for kids of Maharashtrian descent, after-school hours — so I would miss going back on the school bus with my friends and miss playtime with them. My mom only found out about Marathi as a subject when I asked her to buy me a Marathi textbook in a random small village we happened to be in the evenig before the final exam. The only reason I was not held back was because my dad was then transferred to the middle of the Hindi belt and they didn’t give a shit about any other of India’s languages. Oh I failed Hindi that year, and my grades plummeted because the medium of instruction for math, sciences, history etc was no longer English but Hindi, which until then had only been a subject for me. Luckily, I escaped to boarding school.
Then I nearly failed Sanskrit, the only reason I passed was because I promised the “God” or the diety of the temple in the middle of the local water tank a coconut, if I passed and as soon as I got back home. At home, my personally religious mother didn’t understand my insistence on a coconut nor my evasive garbled explanations that I needed it for some “science experiment”, and why then did we have to go to a temple to some other random local diety in Mumbai. When she found out about my “promise to God” she lectured me and still refused to buy me the coconut. I lived in some fear of karmic retribution for a few days, and then stopped believing in god — because I didn’t die?
I almost failed the Hindi board exam, because I took half an anti-sleeping tablet the night before to cram and then fell asleep halfway through the test the next afternoon (pre-monsoon heat deadened silence with only the occasional rustle of paper as other students busily filled their exam-books with essays on the meaning of proverbs like “When the flute sounds, then Radha will dance.”
This goes on, it doesn’t stop. I took French in “senior high” and scraped through without being able to successfully ask for water in Chamonix on a Physics/Climbing trip a decade later. I’ve heard that “not being able to successfully ask for water in Chamonix” happens to white people, even non-Parisienne white French. I failed English in 11th grade because the teacher got upset with my insistence that we couldn’t “interpret” any poetry beyond the written words and that PBS’ “odours, when sweet violets sicken” didn’t make any sense. For this, Karmic vengeance was visited on me when I then had to teach Physics in college to unbelievers who thought that the natural state of motion of a body is at rest.
I am now fluent in Spanish, and Marathi is my 5th language: English, Spanish, rather poor third Python, then Hindi and Marathi.
My daughters grow up in the US. The older one is bilingual (I was a FT parent and spoke to her exclusively in Spanish, because of stuff I read in “Multi-lingual living” magazine) and has chosen Spanish in HS. The younger one is not bilingual (she understands but struggles with speaking Spanish) because since the younger one’s birth, the older one secretly spoke to her in English at home behind my back so “she wouldn’t suffer the same disadvantages I did when I went to English pre-school.”. Until a few years ago the younger one thought she was fluent in Spanish because, as she put it, “When I am in Spain I speak to my Spanish cousins and they understand me perfectly.” You should have seen the look on her older sister’s face.