Unfortunately, I have to confess that since moving here, I have barely learned anything in the local languages. The challenge in India is that, unlike in many other countries where you only hear one, or maybe two languages on a daily basis, in India you hear several: Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, Urdu, Malayalam, Telugu, and more. While the local language of the state of Karnataka is Kannada, Bangalore has people from all over the country, who all speak the languages of their home states. I try to convince myself that these days I can actually tell Kannada apart from the others – but I’m
probably definitely just fooling myself. I also can’t read local scripts, which makes it even harder to try to learn how to read signs, menus and other “easy” materials in local languages.
However, I have learned a few very basic things about local languages, and actually more about local communication. Language barrier is one thing, but there can also be something that I’d call a “communication barrier” or “culture barrier”, which may or may not have anything to do with actual language.
For example, in India, people never say “no”. To anything. Apparently, saying “no” is considered rude and harsh, so Indians try to avoid saying it. Trying to not be rude and harsh is of course a nice thing, but never saying “no” can lead to
some a lot of miscommunication between foreigners and locals. Let’s say you ask your Indian colleague whether they can finish something by the end of the week, and their response is a firm “Yes, I believe it is possible, I will try my best” – while what they are actually thinking is “Absolutely not, there is no way, totally impossible”. You might ask your landlord whether he could kindly send someone over latest by tomorrow to fix the toilet that hasn’t been working for days, and the landlord will say “Of course madam, I will send someone tomorrow! No problem!”, when what he means is “I can’t get you someone by tomorrow even if I stand on my head, but I will get someone to fix it by end of next week”. You can see how this can sometimes cause foreigners to believe that they have been mislead, or that things don’t get done on time or efficiently – but I don’t think that misleading is really the purpose. It’s a cultural communication thing, and it isn’t meant to deceive you, or mislead you, or fool you – Indians just don’t like to say no. Even when they should.
Anyone who has ever been in India also knows that the local and famous head bob as a response to a question or inquiry can also be very vague, has multiple meanings and is open to interpretation. Bobbing your head as a response to a question or request can mean anything from “yes” or “no” to “what you are asking might be possible but I am not quite sure and I really won’t be able to tell until I try but I might not try until next week even though you asked me to work on this today but I am smiling and bobbing my head to make you feel at ease and to be polite, so the response to your question really is – No.”
So, these are more communication barriers than language barriers, and I find myself running into such
problems challenges every day – but I’m slowly learning. Finns are infamous known for being extremely direct and straight forward, to the point of rudeness , so this is a steep learning curve for me!
One of the few phrases and language characteristics I have learned though, is the concept of “going and coming”. Indians will say “OK I come”, when they are heading out the door – or they might say “I go and come”. I recently learned that in Kannada, the local phrase you use when leaving is “Hogi bartini” – which literally means “I go and come”. In Hindi, people say “Baad me milan hain”, which means “we shall meet again”. Leaving permanently or saying farewell permanently is considered inauspicious and bad luck, so Indians never really leave – they always leave with the intention of returning. I find this somehow.. poetic. We never really leave for good – and when we do leave, we always plan to eventually come back. I like that idea – probably because I have left way too many times in my life. It somehow makes leaving easier, when in stead of saying “goodbye”, you say: “I am going now – but I will come back”.
On another note, I am also convinced that “Hello Goodbye” by Beatles was inspired by Indian communication quirks – I mean, come on:
You say “Yes”, I say “No”.
(I say “Yes”, but I may mean “No”).
You say “Stop”, I say “Go, go, go”.
(I can stay still it’s time to go)
You say Goodbye, and I say Hello.
It doesn’t get any more Indian than that!