Oh, Kannada: Even Gandhi was left speaking in tongues

I DON'T speak Indian.

No one does, because India has lots of languages (more in a moment), but I have even less claim to "speaking Indian" than does the rest of my family. My parents can at least get along in five or six languages, and

my sister has way better Hindi and Kannada than I do.

Technically, I do speak one of India's official languages: English. Born in the USA, y'all. At least the United Kingdom gave us Indians the railroads, the joke used to go, but don't forget they gave us English too.

So how many Indian languages don't I speak?

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Indians speak

14 languages, and a nitpicky friend reminded me the Indian government has upped the number of official Indian languages to 22, and recognizes 844 dialects spoken throughout the country.

What do linguists think? The SIL Ethnologue reports that India has 415 living languages. I'll leave it for linguists to wrestle over what's a dialect, what's a language and which of these tongues will still be around in a hundred years. My point is, there are lots of Indian languages I don't know. On that much, we can all agree.

By the way, literacy in India is about 20 points lower for women than for men. Just thought you should know.

Mohandas "The Mahatma" Gandhi wrote in his autobiography about trying to learn other Indian languages (Tamil, Telugu and Urdu) to connect better with other Indians in South Africa. Many Indian Muslims, especially in north India, speak Urdu; in South India, the Dravidian language family includes Malayalam (a palindrome!), Kannada (my parents' language), Tamil and Telugu.

Gandhi had a tough time of it, what with being grown up already and having other tasks on his plate. Fighting for freedom. You know how it is.

Recently, like a good Indian, my sister was brushing up on her Hindi and asked Mom to speak Hindi with her. It turns out it was pretty tough for Mom, because she doesn't have much occasion to speak Hindi anymore. She spends most of her time in south India speaking in Kannada. When she lived in the States, dealing with the proprietors of "India Bazaar" and "Delhi Grocery" stores in Stockton, of course she had to pull up her Hindi and Punjabi. The owners were north Indians.

Gandhi also had trouble keeping up his languages: "I had hoped to continue my studies even after reaching India, but it was impossible. Most of my reading since 1893 has been done in jail. I did make some progress in Tamil and Urdu, in jails — Tamil in South African jails, and Urdu in Yeravda jail (in Pune, about 100 miles east of Bombay)."

In related thoughts, both Andy Rooney and I have expressed hope that we'll get put in minimum-security jails so we can actually get some work done.

"I fear now I can never learn those languages (Tamil and Telugu), and am therefore hoping that the Dravidians will learn (Hindi)...," Gandhi continued. "It is only the English-speaking ones who will not learn it, as though a knowledge of English were an obstacle to learning our own languages." Guilty! And you think the "English for official language" proposals are absurd here?

My sister's doing what Gandhi hoped — she's learning Hindi. Right now she can get along OK, understand Bollywood movies and hold decent conversations. But now she's polishing it up, doing the fit-and-finish work. She's already got an ear for how a Hindi phrase or sentence should fit together, and now she has to apply that attention to her own speech. How do you get the knack of the tongue? How do you sink into the rhythm, the idiom of it?

I've been trying to remember how Kannada sounds. The other day I raced up to some Indians in a subway station, eavesdropping on their conversation and introducing myself. Then I found out they were speaking Telugu, not Kannada. Pretty embarrassing. So I'm listening to Kannada-language Internet radio: "Kannada Kasthuri" at http://www.kannadaaudio.net [http://www.kannadaaudio.net].

The funny thing is, I understand the boring amateur DJ stuff about volunteering, requests and birthdays pretty well. It all sounds like my dad. He organized lots of events in the Bay Area by shouting over the phone in Kannada.

It's not just that they speak my language — it's that the DJs seem to be speaking Harihareswara. To me, "We need volunteers! Don't forget! Here, I'll give you my e-mail address" is — in English, Kannada, or Wolof — speaking Indian.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.