Prostitye, but I really just speak English

What do you call someone who speaks three languages?


What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


What do you call someone who speaks one language?


It's an old joke but a good one. My European and Indian friends, who grew up speaking multiple tongues as a matter of course, possess a certain wealth that I lack. Like so many children of immigrants to the U.S., I'm far more fluent in English than I am in my parents' tongue. In fact, I'm better at speaking French and Russian, which I learned in school as a young adult, than I am at Kannada, which my parents spoke at home my whole life.

Oh, my own lack of skill in Kannada isn't because my parents didn't try.

They spoke it around me often, so I understand spoken Kannada much better than I speak or read it. And my mother tried to take me through children's Kannada primers every day or every week for months and years. She would bribe me, although with what I can't recall.

She promised me that we'd stop after 15 minutes. And she tried her hardest to answer my whine, "When am I ever going to use this? If I'm going to learn another language, I want it to be one I'm going to use in real life when I grow up!" Her reply was that I should learn it to teach it to my children.

Here's the kick: My parents come from a state in southern India called Karnataka. Karnataka's biggest city is Bangalore, India's tech capital.

Bangalore used to have a somewhat sleepy reputation as a city of gardens and a nice place to retire. Now it's like San Jose without the infrastructure.

Sabeer Bhatia, who founded Hotmail, is from Bangalore. Microsoft, Google and HP all have a big presence in Bangalore; I even got to visit a call center there once.

I wish my mother could have told me in 1990: "In 15 years, Kannada will be the most useful language you could know to help companies in America manage the people they employ or contract with in Bangalore. If you have management skills, an aptitude for technology, and those two languages in your head, you'll be able to name your own price. Now get those vowels down cold."

As an aside: If India's Hollywood, Bombay, is called "Bollywood," then shouldn't we call Bangalore "Bilicon Balley" or "Bilicon Bateau"? Then again, Bombay is Mumbai now and no one's calling it "Mollywood."

In high school I learned a little French. When I compare my four years of high school French with just my first year of college Russian, I'm amazed at how slowly the high school classes increased my fluency. I never dreamed in French. But then, French is more useful for cultural literacy and deciphering quotations in old novels than it is in my ordinary grown-up life.

I hear Russian on the street pretty regularly, more often in New York than I did in San Francisco. So I can whip out "Izvinitye" (excuse me) or "Das vidanye" (goodbye) pretty often and surprise people who didn't think it probable that an Indian-American would speak Russian. There were probably those who thought similarly of Condoleezza Rice.

Rice has probably kept up her proficiency; I haven't, sadly, despite a sad stack of flashcards on the bookshelf. The last time I was fluent in Russian was my summer in St. Petersburg, where I made a few hilarious errors. I once meant to say "Prostitye" ("Excuse me") and instead said "Sprositye"

("Ask me a question"). My application essay proclaiming my curiosity about the Russian "lyudei" ("people") ended up wondering about the Russian "dyetei" ("children"). Most memorably, at a farewell dinner, I meant to offer my home as a "gostinitsa" ("hotel") for my friends, but found myself telling them that my house was their "gosudarstvo" ("government" or "nation-state").

Now I don't even have enough fluency to make errors as interesting as that.

What do you call someone who knows one language, can understand but not speak, read, or write another, can sort of read a third, and can kind of bumble along in a fourth?

A lot of people, probably, and I'm one of them.

Sumana Harihareswara writes (in English, fortunately) for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at