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Insight: Learning my family's native language helped me find my identity

'My mother carries her culture close to her heart because it is her identity. When it became time to form mine, exploring Bangla by myself was how I made it my own.'

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"We went through reciting the vowels first, as she was taught — as she taught my mother, and as countless other children were taught Bangla." Illustration published on Thursday, March 4, 2021.


My parents met at my grandmother’s house in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. Shortly after, they got married and started a family in America.

Naturally, being a child of immigrants, I grew up speaking their native language, Bangla. This was the language that brought my family together, and the one that never fails to bring me home.

My family has strong roots in India and strong pride in its cultural history. Bengalis, my mother included, are very proud of their state’s cultural achievements. 

So it’s no surprise my mother instilled in me the value of honoring my background. 

She would boast the influence of Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, and she would sing Rabindra Sangeet as lullabies. She would call me by saying “ekhane esho” rather than “come here” and speak to me in a mix of Bangla and English depending on how she was feeling at the time.

My theory is that I learned Bangla through osmosis.

At home in Arizona, my cultural background served as the theme for my life — something that inspired every decision and shaped who I would become. It was always a part of me, but at the same time, I was largely disconnected from it.

Summers spent in Kolkata helped bridge the disconnect. I was exposed to my family's history, hearing anecdotes and observing their interactions. 

I was living in another language, let alone another culture — Bangla surrounded me, it was the key to unlocking the way I saw the world.

All the while I would see signs, books and advertisements in the language’s script that I had recognized but could never crack. Filled with triangles and circles and curls, I was always enamored with the thought of understanding what exactly they meant.

When I was about 13 years old, my grandmother, a former Bangla teacher, came to visit us in the U.S. 

Maa had always insisted that my older sister and I learn how to read and write in Bangla. She made an effort with my sister a few years before, but it hadn’t resulted in much. So, she decided to try again with me.

“Sophie, bosho,” she said, which means “Sophie, sit down.”

She had brought numerous booklets and stories with her. Having me bring a pen and paper to the table, my lessons were about to begin. 

We went through reciting the vowels first, as she was taught — as she taught my mother, and as countless other children were taught Bangla. 

Afterward, she would have me write lines with the symbols. These were characters so ubiquitous in my childhood, but now I was tripping over my tongue attempting to pronounce each one perfectly and precisely. Not too long after, she had me continue with the consonants, reciting them in patterns and rhythms. 

I was hooked — I began to write small words and sentences, showing them off to my family in the process. I had this new skill I was so proud of. 

A few years later, my grandmother came to visit during the winter of 2019. It had been almost five years since I had seen her last, and she had come to see my progress, which admittedly wasn’t much. 

In those years between visits, I was just starting to become my own person, deciding who I was and what I wanted to stand for. I didn’t struggle with my identity as an Indian girl born in America, but in the primarily white neighborhood I grew up in, I wasn’t exactly drawing attention to it. 

With all the effort I took in distancing myself from a stereotype, in a way, I accepted it as truth. As an Indian girl studying engineering, I saw myself as a single story and forgot there is more to me and my background than this.

Maa’s visit was the motivation to pick up Bangla again. My genuine curiosity and drive to learn was the needed motivation to truly absorb and embrace my identity. 

Shortly after she returned home, the pandemic hit. The uncertainty of the future filled me with nervous energy and I needed to do something. Among other things, I decided to try to read in Bangla.

I had been proficient in writing Bangla only after hearing it spoken, but I channeled my energy into understanding how to read Bangla — at the time, my experience with reading Bangla was incredibly limited. This was a new frontier I wanted to explore.

Teaching myself how to read with the knowledge I had gained was an act of independence. 

Bangla was no longer something I reserved for my family — it was something integral to my being. 

My mother carries her culture close to her heart because it is her identity. When it became time to form mine, exploring Bangla by myself was how I made it my own.

Language is home. It is grounding and is sometimes the only form of stability in a world that can’t be controlled. My relationship with my family is rooted in this language, and it will continue to give me composure no matter where I go.


Reach the reporter at sbalas44@asu.edu and follow @sophiabala1101 on Twitter. 

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