Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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Exploring languages and cultures

6 Interview with Reeta Chakrabarti

In this section you will listen to an interview with BBC correspondent Reeta Chakrabarti, whose plurilingual background and life experience illustrate key themes of this course. Reeta Chakrabarti was born in England to Bengali parents, who spoke English to their daughter but Bengali to each other. She learned French at school and then at university, where her course also included a year abroad in France. Reeta has worked for the BBC since the 1990s and has been a political correspondent in Westminster since 1999. In an interview recorded for this course, she reflects about aspects of different languages and cultures that have shaped her identity.

Described image
Figure 15 Reeta Chakrabarti

Activity 49

Listen to Reeta Chakrabarti’s account of her time at school in India and her thoughts on how languages affect encounters with other people. Make a note of the key points she mentions under each of the headings below.

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Interviewer:
You went to school in India for a while, was that an English-medium school?
Reeta Chakrabarti:
Yes, it was. I went twice. I went once when I was nine, and that was just for a few months, and it was an English-medium school, and then I went again when I was 15 and that was for 18 months, and I did my O-levels there, (this was in the eighties), and that was also an English-medium school, and it was an international school, so there were children from all over the world there, most of them part of the Indian diaspora, but not all. Er, and I loved it, I really loved it. I loved the fact that there were different nationalities, different languages, we all spoke English but there was a certain amount of Bengali as well, and for me it was a nice buffer really between, you know, leaving the UK and arriving in this exciting, but very strange and different place, which was India.
Interviewer:
What language was spoken in the playground?
Reeta Chakrabarti:
English, yeah.
Interviewer:
Because that was the common language?
Reeta Chakrabarti:
That was the common language, yeah.
Interviewer:
Some people are said to be gifted for languages, for learning languages, did it come easily to you? You said French was a bit difficult at first.
Reeta Chakrabarti:
Yes, French was difficult at first and I think it was more a question of my putting my mind to it and deciding that’s what I wanted to do. I think I’m better at some aspects of language than others. Er, with French, for example, I’m very literary, I love literature, I did English and French at university, and so when I did French, um, the thing I really loved was the studying of French literature, but also the spoken word. I got a great deal out of my year abroad in France, I really loved it, and I became really a good speaker, but I was not very good at, um, writing French, and that’s partly laziness, but I also sometimes wonder, is it because I have oral Bengali? And perhaps I’m quite good at communicating, but not actually particularly good at writing.
Interviewer:
They say language learning opens doors to cultures,have you found that the languages you speak helped you get to know other cultures or people better?
Reeta Chakrabarti:
Yes, very much so, very much so. You can get under the skin of a culture in the way that you can’t if you don’t speak the language, and you can make connections with people, have very immediate connections with them if you speak the language and that’s true, true in India and in France, and we all know when we go on holiday, don’t we, if you can speak a few words of the local language, people appreciate it and you can just get on better with people.
Um, one other occasion, when I was in Calcutta and I was, I was quite young, I was in my early twenties, and I was wandering around a market, and there were two other young women there, Bengali women, and one nudged the other and said, ‘Etake dhak, etake dhak’ which means, ‘Look at this one, look at this one’, and I turned round and glared at them, and they looked very worried and said, ‘Oh Bangla bhoje’, which means, ‘She understands Bengali’, and I burst out laughing actually because they looked so mortified, and I said, ‘Yes, my parents are Bengali’, and we, and then it was a warm exchange, and that was nice, and that sort of brought us together.
Interviewer:
Do you feel sometimes you become almost a different person in a different language?
Reeta Chakrabarti:
Yes, a little bit, a little bit. Um, again, going back to the uncles who would tease me, and still do, they say when I speak Bengali I sound like a child, I’m a ‘chibya chibya bholi’ which means I, I chew the language because it’s, it’s more, I think you use your tongue more in Bengali and so there’s a slight amount of chewing, um, so yes, I think, er, in Bengali I do. I probably become a bit younger because I’m feeling my way round the language more. Er, French it’s harder for me to tell but I’ve seen it in reverse. I’ve seen people, because when I spent time in France, I was teaching in two schools and we came to Britain with some of the children, came to, er, Oxford to travel round, and, um, one of the teachers who I liked very much in France, in French, when she spoke English became terribly artificial and simpering, and I know that friends of mine didn’t like her, French friends of mine didn’t like her and in French I couldn’t understand why, and in English I could.
End transcript: Reeta Chakrabarti
Reeta Chakrabarti
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Multicultural experience in an English-medium school in India:

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Answer

Reeta Chakrabarti loved her experiences at this school. Her classmates came from all over the world, so were from different national, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. They all spoke English as a lingua franca, but some Bengali was also spoken.

Different levels of competency French and Bengali:

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Answer

Reeta Chakrabarti’s French is a result of her decision to study the language at university. She has literary French (from her university study) and her spoken French (acquired during her year abroad) is good, but her written French is less developed.

Bengali is largely a spoken language for her.

Value of any level of language skills:

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Answer

Reeta Chakrabarti says that you need to speak the language to ‘get under the skin of a culture’ which means that you can make very immediate connections with people. Speaking even a few words is usually appreciated by locals and you often get on better with people if you share a language. She recounts an incident in a market in Calcutta, where her language skills allowed her to overhear two local women talking about her. However, these language skills also helped her to defuse the situation, resulting in a ‘warm exchange’ with the women, that ‘brought [them] together’.

The way people express themselves in different languages affects how others see them:

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Answer

Reeta Chakrabarti recounts how her uncles tease her for speaking Bengali like a child. She says she may ‘become a bit younger’ when she speaks Bengali because she is feeling her way round the language.

Reeta Chakrabarti mentions the example of a French teacher friend who sounded ‘artificial and simpering’ when she spoke English, which was not something Reeta had picked up from speaking French with her.

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