Taking Charge

Author: Yugal SehgalOriginally published on November 13, 2021

Rookie. I thought I invented that word. I was twelve at the time, trying to rhyme something with "cookie". It was nothing less than betrayal when I later discovered its existence in a dictionary. My sense of pride at having made up a new word was very short lived, and I can attest my relationship with the English language hasn't been as arrogant ever since.

What a fascinating human concoction it is, the English language. I discovered its true wonders when I discovered Hollywood, again at twelve. As an Indian, the English I was exposed to was generally limited to what I heard or read at school, which was mostly British, or to be precise, an Indian version of it. These movies used it differently and I was drawn to that. I found their diction very proper. They pronounced "can't" differently, their A's sounded very different from ours (tomayto, tomahto), and their speech just felt … impressive. I liked that a lot and began to adopt it.

For the most part of my schooling, I was nearly always at odds with my English teachers, if not openly, then secretly. Try as I did, I never managed to score any good in the subject, even though they commended my writing ability and vocabulary on many occasions. I felt almost rebellious at times when I knew I had done good in a test and still not scored past 70. Was it a deliberate thing? Did they want to push me to do better by grading me low? I came to presume so because it made me try harder for the next test. But it was a brass ring I could never grab, not until the very end of my schooling when I pulled off a surprise 99 in my Board exam — my only academic success in the subject. That was a sensational shocker, most of all to myself. To this day I'm in disbelief about that, but at the time I was very happy to have finally proven myself. School can make you very competitive, after all. That one success gave me the validation I needed to embrace English in the unique way I would go on to embrace it.

Illustration of the author in school. © Yugal Sehgal

My relationship with this language, however, has been more intimate and multi-dimensional than just academic. As I began to adopt the American version of it, I realised how communicational it is. I began to view English as more than the educational badge it was in my country, or at least where I lived. It felt very personal to me, almost like my element. I wanted to use it in its intended ways — in its full glory — with proper pronunciation, Grammar, and, of course, articulation. I wanted to do justice to my adoption of it, and that’s where the accent began to change.

I was aware that I risked coming across as phoney and insincere by doing that; an Indian who has never lived in America, or even been there, using the American accent when everyone around him doesn’t, I knew it wouldn’t go well with many, but I did it anyway. Initially it felt foreign to me, I struggled with getting the words to sound right. I sometimes embarrassed myself with improper pronunciation. My friends at school, or outside it, often found themselves at the receiving end of my Grammar Policing, which might’ve annoyed some of them. It was a phase that I can’t say has entirely worn off, but it surely was a phase.

Over time, however, I have managed to find balance, fashioned hybrid mannerisms, and developed what can be called a “multi-accented” personality. Depending on who I’m conversing with, my accent varies almost intuitively now. It’s more pronounced when I talk to myself, non-Indians, or read aloud. And it’s more toned down and Indianised when I talk to my friends and fellow Indians. I think being bilingual does that to you, when you mix your mother tongue with any foreign language, some things have to be adjusted accordingly. Some of it, admittedly, is a psychological thing. I don’t want to seem pretentious when I talk to my friends and Indians, but I don’t want to lose my linguistic senses either. I am just as authentic in my Hinglish as I can be with my English. Both have grown on me and both come naturally to me.

Many factors led me to admire English like I do, predominantly reading. I read a lot, and used to read even more when I was beginning to explore the language. I would read and I would read out loud. I would often read on Text-to-Speech in the pre-audiobook world, which would help my understanding of tone and delivery. If it wasn't for reading, I would not have been who I’ve become, I would surely not have been writing, and importantly, I would not have cared deeply about language, English or otherwise.

And then came my job, which required me to talk to Americans everyday, 16 of them in a day on average, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. To be able to communicate like I wanted to, to be finally able to talk how I wanted to talk, without being judged for it, was nothing less than liberating. I was in my element, and dare I say I thrived while I was at it. I felt finally free, like the self I wanted to be. And I may have left the job, but that sense of liberty has stayed with me. That freedom and confidence has stayed with me, which now translates to my video and audio projects.

English is to me what art is to an artist, what religion is to a preacher, what superheroes are to a Marvel/DC fan, or to use a more modern reference, what BTS is to a K-Pop fan. It's sacred to me. It transcends national boundaries, and it transcends ethnicity. So I want to pay my respects to it right by not butchering it. And so I speak like I speak and write like I write. What started as a deliberate effort nearly a decade ago has morphed into my identity now, or at least a substantial part of it. I'm not afraid to display that and I'm okay with it seeming odd.

You're right to wonder what's up with my accent, and you're right to question me about it. I was not born in an environment where it was spoken like I speak it, and I do not live in an environment where it is spoken like I speak it. I did not inherit this language. But I did adopt it, I did make it my own, and I did choose to embrace it in its American splendour. As a global citizen with exposure to multiple cultures thanks to accessible internet and technology, that’s not much of an oddity, is it?

I continue to be as enamored by this language as I was when I first discovered it, and I keep finding myself learning something new about it every day. Its proficiency is a moving target and I am glad that it is because it keeps me going. Its artistic use is a magical tool and I’m grateful that it is because it keeps me marvelling. It was naive of me to think that I invented the word "rookie", but now that I look back on it, I think I did embody it, because when it comes to this language, I am a rookie everyday.

Yugal Sehgal writes about life, mindfulness, and people. He lives in India. Follow him and @drawcuments on Instagram.