Saturday, August 4, 2007

Persian in my Genes

This article on the innate nature of language appeared in the Education Times Pune section of Times of India on Sept 23, 2003 (no link available). It is a good example of how the "genes for something" concept is carried to extreme lengths. It 's written by Mr. Sumit Paul, a linguist who occasionally writes columns on language in the Pune Section of the Times of India. In this article Mr. Paul tells a story of a child of Persian descent but adopted by English parents who suddenly acquired an urge to study Persian. This to Mr. Paul was proof that language is in the genes and that adopted children brought up far from their ancestral land may not only grow up with a desire to speak their ancestral tongue but may actually inherit the accent of their biological parents language even if they have had no contact with their biological parents.

Wow! I am sure Mr. Sumit Paul must have listened real hard to hear that "faint" Bengali accent in a child who grew up far away from its Bengali parents ‘cause I sure have not heard a trace of any Maharashtrian accent from my cousins and nephews growing up in California. Language is innate in the sense that a baby has a genetically determined innate ability to learn to speak a language. The ability to speak in any particular language or accent is not innate that is there is no genetically wired circuitry in your brain for speaking in a particular language or accent which is passed down from parent to child, but instead depends entirely on which language and accent a child hears when he or she is growing up. That means that Marathi speaking parents from Pune do not pass on genes for speaking Marathi in a Puneri accent, but just genes for abilities to learn language. Stories like the one about the English child opting to learn Persian and Urdu without ever knowing about his Muslim mother prove nothing. The child in England did not grow up miraculously speaking Urdu or English with an Urdu accent, he had just chosen to study Urdu. He could not have inherited his mother’s language but there is a good chance he inherited her looks. A child with dark hair and dark skin may be treated differently by his white peers while growing up, thus inducing a desire in the child to learn about his roots. Or, it could have been something as trivial as enjoying mutton biryani in a restaurant and then deciding that he wanted to understand this particular culture. Why does a white Australian with no Indian parentage choose to learn Sanskrit? There are hundreds of random unplanned influences from the environment that can determine such choices.

A language prevalent in particular communities may, according to the article, "percolate down to the next generation with remnants of their pristine character” which presumably means an accent. The reason for this is that people have a tendency to marry within their community and therefore their children grow up listening to their parents and neighbor’s accents and not because genes for speaking in a particular accent are being passed down. Stories of a faint accent of the biological parent’s mother-tongue in adopted children brought up in a different environment are usually myths perpetuated by hope and a feel-good factor of the continuity of one’s linguistic heritage. That language is a serious matter for people is evident in sentences like "a language is not only an individual's part of existence, it’s his whole consciousness embedded in his physiological and psychological roots". What exactly this means and how it explains accents being passed down generations is anybody's guess! When the circumstances of these cases are closely examined they reveal some environmental influence which was not taken into account. Ruskin Bond and Tom Alter speak English with an Indian accent with no trace of any British accent but BBC anchors Nisha Pillai and Geeta Gurumurthy speak with a British accent without any Indian accent however faint! Language may be in one's genes but an accent is surely not.

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