Languages, made to order

A glimpse beyond language labels

Many of us may have noticed that we reflexively choose our language to suit the person in front. This includes not just choosing language out of the set of languages we know, but also choosing the tone, vocabulary, complexity, accent, and so on. It may happen that we can speak a language with one person fluently, but have to put an effort on that language when talking to another person, even if the language happens to be our native one. Personally, for example, I find it difficult to speak in Marathi, my native language, in a group when even one of the people does not understand it well. Not that there is a lot of thought behind; my reflexes simply work in the other direction. We also simplify our language when talking to small children. Or when talking to people who have only one language common with us, and that too they don’t know well. I also happen to vary my accent and dialect of Marathi depending upon the person in front.

Today I discovered another fascinating aspect of this phenomenon. I was listening to a Marathi song by Rafi. I have almost never heard his Marathi songs, although I know there are a few. And in spite of being aware that this is a Marathi song, I simply couldn’t understand the words in the first shot. The voice of Rafi had this biasing effect on me (apart from the magic it has!), that I kept on falling back to expecting Hindi. I had to put efforts to ignore the voice or get beyond it in order to actually find out what the words are!

Our speaking and listening faculties seem to go out of the way to get tuned to the person in front of us… Languages are made to order.


  1. Hmm,
    Never thought of it this way. But you seem to be correct.

  2. Fascinating. We call it ‘accommodation’ in English language studies. We converge and diverge in our conversations. Thanks for following my posts, by the way!

    1. Thanks! Good to know the keyword; I will be very interesting to find out what more linguists have to say about this.

      Fascinating photos by the way!

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