Saturday, May 04, 2013

Losing my tongue

In Hindi films from the ‘70s till the late ‘80s, the new-bahu-of-the-house made it her job to dismiss traditions. She refused to breastfeed her children for ‘the sake of her figure’ (SHUDDER!); went to parties; taught her kids the twist and the rumba; threw out her weeping in-laws, and, significantly, foretold a switch from the matrubhasha to English.

My cousins and I watched these films enthralled. They wept; being younger, I just gaped. Somewhere these films mirrored our lives, because in the ‘70s, as second-generation immigrants of a certain class in Mumbai, we were already losing crucial links with our mother tongue, Malayalam. We went to English medium schools, spoke Malayalam only with older people, and parodied the ‘Mallu’ accent. We weren’t taught to read and write Malayalam because we already had English, Hindi, Marathi, and later, French, to deal with.

This shedding of the mother tongue would return to fascinate me years later when I studied Linguistics and learnt about language loss and language ‘death’. When individuals and communities slowly let go of their mother tongues, a point may be reached when no one speaks the language any more. Many Indian and world languages have ‘died’ for socio-political or economic reasons.

In 2010, Boa Senior — the only surviving speaker of one of the Great Andamanese group of languages called Bo — passed away. With her death, her ancient language, full of stories, songs and myths, is now extinct. With every language that dies, we lose a part of our shared history.

Today, fewer people in cities teach kids their mother tongues - their reasons range from the socio-economic, to the psychological and the political. I’m often asked why parents should teach a child Marathi, Punjabi, Kannada or Oriya when they have to go to school and study English or Hindi. It’s a perfectly valid question. I am a Malayalee who reads, writes and thinks in English. My husband is a Gujarati, who is literate in his language. My mom and I speak good Marathi, and both of us read it too. Hindi is all around us — in films, songs and casual conversations.

But we still screwed up. We just couldn’t keep up with the simple rule of teaching babies multiple languages: one person talks to the baby in one language exclusively. This way there is no confusion; the child knows that this specific ‘code’ or structure will work in this ‘domain’. And, miraculously, most children can learn multiple codes and structures. Since ours was a mixed marriage where we also worked together from home, English became our lingua franca, and unfortunately, by default, our child’s mother tongue.

Teaching kids multiple languages does not impair their intellectual growth. In most cases, the more ‘codes’ and structures you impart to kids — without confusing them — the sharper they tend to be. Being multilingual can delay age-related mental decline, gives you a better ‘ear’ for languages and better communication skills. Most importantly, it fosters linguistic diversity and gives children a deeper understanding of different worldviews.

But as a parent, I firmly believe in going with your child’s specific developmental needs. If your environment has many languages and your child is coping well, that’s great. But if there is a problem and the doctor suggests you to stick to one language only, please follow that advice. To get our kid past a speech hurdle when she was two-and-a-half, we were asked to use just one common language: in our case, English. Today I’m sad she doesn’t speak Gujarati or Malayalam, but I’m relieved we got past that logjam.

To preserve the world’s fragile linguistic diversity, UNESCO celebrates February 21 as International Mother Languages Day. Do your bit for linguistic diversity — talk to your kid in your mother tongue a little. You’re not just teaching her words — you’re sharing a whole history and a unique worldview!

This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, May 6, 2012.

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