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Becoming 'capable'

My first lessons in critical thinking came from my mother, and the lessons were often delivered with a twinkle in the eye.

One day, while we were talking to each other, I 'corrected' Ma's pronunciation of a word. I had just recently started my college studies, and had my own first exposure to having my English pronunciations 'corrected' by some friends. I didn't realize it at that time, but my Punjabi-dyed English was slowly getting replaced by other pronunciation patterns. And so McDonalds, which I would pronounce with the long 'mack' [मैक] got shortened to the short 'mec' [मक], and capable that was pronounced with a soft p-p [कैप्पेबल] became [केपेबल]. I didn't question my pronunciation being changed by others, although it would make me feel vaguely uncomfortable. I simply brought the lessons home with me, until the day I 'corrected' my Ma's pronunciation of the word 'capable'.

There was a pause, and then the twinkle came into Ma's eyes, and she asked me if I had understood what she was saying. When I nodded, Ma said that that was all that was important. It made sense, and I never asked my mother to change the way she spoke again. I would still sometimes tease her, and sometimes Ma would use the word capable around me with a twinkle in her eyes. And we would share a laugh.

I learned that day from my mother to be unapologetic of who I was, to be confident in who I am, in my own identity, even as it evolves with time. I learned to absorb the new, and to adapt without losing the old.

It's in looking back, that I am now able to connect the dots.

I sometimes share the 'capable' story with my students in my courses. Perhaps, not with so much detail, as the story is often embedded in a larger discussion. But I still try to share it when I can. I always hope that by sharing these stories, I'm able to give my students a different perspective on things that often go unquestioned.

I wasn't sure how my students received these anecdotes I would pull from my memory and integrate into my lessons, if they would remember them afterwards.

And then, recently, one of my students sent me this email (and pretty much made my whole year :)

Hey Professor Jain,

I’ve been meaning to send this to you a while back, but I just wanted to let you know how beneficial I think your class has been for me. I’m trying to be more thoughtful with my words when I am communicating and more aware of how I may be putting down someone if I try to “correct” their pronunciation.

I was in your class...and we talked about how “correcting” someone’s pronunciation did not do anything in the way of enhancing the communication, and I specifically remember you telling us the story of how you were talking to your mother and you “corrected” her pronunciation of some word, and she asked if you if you understood and that was all that mattered. That has stuck with me ever since. I reflected back on how many times I had done that to my own mom, carelessly, and not even with any intent to hurt her, but realized how it may have put her down or made her feel less confident or even less competent over her own English.

A few weeks back I went with my mom to her doctor’s appointment. The doctor started off asking her what was wrong and listened patiently as she told her story. My mom, like me, can be kind of long-winded and likes to color in her stories with all the details. Now before, I may have cut in and told her (maybe in [first language]) to get to the point or I would have waited until she was done and re-summarized her story, but I realized that she was explaining everything that was relevant to her and what she thought would help the doctor figure out what was wrong. (She was right, all of it was very relevant.) And I realized that she explained everything perfectly well, and by my own summary, I would accomplish nothing but adding unnecessary details, and maybe making her feel bad. Another thing that also stood out to me about that day was the doctor. He listened to everything she had to say patiently and then, when he was explaining what he thought was wrong or what had happened, he did it all looking at her, and focusing on her. I was not there. Not in a way that was rude, but in a way that meant he respected her as a patient and knew that she was competent and capable enough to understand what he was saying. I’ve noticed, when I go to stores or other places, when my mom asks someone a question, sometimes when people hear her “accent”, they reply to me if I am standing next to her. It’s pretty disrespectful, but I am just now realizing the full extent of it, which is what made me appreciate the simple action of the doctor all the more.

I know this is a long and wordy email, but I really wanted to let you know that I really appreciated your class. It was very insightful and thought-provoking and I still think about the discussions we had in there today.

I hope everything is going well with you, and hope to see you around campus!



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