Watch your tongue

Mother tongue helps a child develop a sense of belonging to his community. This article helps you understand the importance of mother tongue for children.

By Christine Machado  • 10 min read

Watch your tongue

Ramesh Yadav has been living away from his hometown for years, and was often feeling lost in the babble. One day, while walking down the famous Park Street in Kolkata, he suddenly heard that familiar sound of his ‘oh-so-sweet’ mother tongue. He swiftly turned around, his heart filled with happiness, looking for the source. Even before he could exchange a word, a bond of companionship was formed. Let’s admit it. Most of us have been in this situation. That is the power of emotions one’s mother language can evoke!

Back in 1999, UNESCO decided that February 21 would be the International Mother Language Day, with the objective of promoting awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity. Though India is home to numerous languages, today there are worries that unless a conscious effort is made to preserve and promote them, our bounty of language heritage could well fade into oblivion.

The ‘language’ barrier

There are some who have not carried forward the tradition of mother language due to a number of reasons. Savita Kiran, who hails from Patna and is a mother of two says, “My husband’s mother tongue is Bhojpuri while mine is Maithali, and we don’t know each other’s mother language. Those who marry within their tribe usually speak and pass it on to their kids, especially if they live in joint families.” Also, the fact that they have been living in Mumbai for several years contributed to the failure in passing on the language to their children.

In Goa too, while there are plenty who converse in Konkani within the family, there are others who prefer to speak in English. “I come from South Goa whereas my husband is from North Goa. The style of speaking and sometimes, even the words differ. Neither of us liked the other’s style of speaking, so we didn’t teach our children,” admits Shamina Pereira, who has two children. She adds that many children choose to drop the mother language in Standard 8 (when they are allowed to choose their third language between Portuguese, French and Konkani).

“I myself learnt French in school but I opted for it only because it was considered a high-scoring subject.”

English - The ‘global’ language

N Chandrasegaran, Assistant Professor at CIL, School of Languages, New Delhi, believes that people today don’t want to learn their mother language as it doesn’t promise any economic benefits. “Because of globalisation, everyone wants to ace English. This is in spite of the fact that Tamil is one of the ancient and classical languages. Tamil-medium schools are still full of students, but this is largely because those students cannot afford to enrol in English-medium schools. This is the situation even in villages,” laments the educationist, who previously served as a Tamil professor. “Even the media today chooses to be bilingual. None of the films are in pure Tamil. There are a number of English words mixed in. Popular song Kolaveri Di is a classic example,” he adds.

P Sreekumar, Assistant Professor, Department of Dravidian and Computational Linguistics, Dravidian University, insists that parents aren’t doing enough to keep the mother language significant for children. “Parents usually don’t care much if their children make mistakes in Malayalam, but they get very worried if the mistake is in English,” he says.

Survival game

In many ways, the relative difficulty in learning to write/read other languages is tilting the balance in favour of English. A language like Malayalam has about 251 characters as compared to 26 in English.

But, the situation is not all gloom and doom. There are some who are very keen to carry the power of the mother language to generations to follow. Tavishi from Chennai, was ensured a proper balance thanks to her parents, who believed that it is their job to instil love for mother language. Tavishi’s mother, Pratibha Manrai, says, “Ours was an inter-caste marriage. My husband is a Punjabi and I am a Tamilian. We ensured our daughter learnt Hindi and Tamil in equal measure.”

While most youngsters get drawn naturally towards English, there are some who believe that one’s mother language holds greater significance. Yugank Naik, from Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch, Goa points out that, during the time of Liberation, it was the youth’s participation that made it possible for Konkani to triumph. “Despite 450 years of colonisation from the Portuguese, and a whole lot of other challenges, the language still survived only because of the active involvement of youth,”he says.

The need for change

While making it compulsory may amount to stretching the demand too far, there definitely is a need for change in attitude while approaching mother language. “It is only through learning in mother language that one can read and visualise what they are studying. Otherwise, they cannot express what they are learning in schools, they just memorise it. Also speaking in mother tongue sparks creativity and innovation,” says Chandrasegaran.

B N Patel of Matrubhasha Abhiyan, Gujarat, points out that students who are good at their mother language, but can’t speak good English, develop an inferiority complex. It is the responsibility of teachers to help such students. “Concept learning like math is best taught in the student’s mother language. Teachers come from different regions and therefore their dialects tend to be different. Because of this, many students can’t understand them. These teachers later resort to speaking in Hindi along with English, which fuels further confusion,” he exclaims. This view is supported by Yugank Naik. “Learning English and learning in English is very different and it should be done through mother tongue,” he says.

Some state governments have tried to promote the move for mother language by making it a compulsory subject in schools. However, with factors like families living away from their hometown and cases of inter-caste marriage, not everybody agrees with this move.

“Making it compulsory is a little too much as language is something that shouldn’t be imposed. Students today are pressurised into learning it, which might have an adverse effect in the long run,” feels Kavya Kumar, architecture student at SRM University, Chennai.

Parents too express their reservations “Why should it be compulsory in schools?” asks Prathiba.

“Don’t we live in a cosmopolitan culture today?”

It is often said that we do not realise the importance of something until we lose it. Let’s not wait for that to happen here. Hold on tight to your mother language and proudly pass it on to the next generation.

Let the numbers speak

  • India is home to 1,600 unique languages. Only 300 to 400 languages are said to be ‘living languages’. Of these, only 22 have ‘Official Status’ as defined in the Indian Constitution.
  • Hindi is the most-widely spoken language in India, with 422 million speakers out of a total population of 1.2 billion people.
  • Tamil is 8,000 years old, Telugu is 3,300 years old, Kannada is 2,500 years old and Malayalam is 1,000 years old. Modern form of Hindi or Standard Hindi, derived from the Khariboli dialect, is 500 years old and still evolving.
  • English is the second-largest medium of instruction in India, ahead of Bengali and Marathi, according to a report on countrywide school enrolment, published by the National University of Education, Planning and Administration (NUEPA).
  • Data on school enrolment for 2010-11 shows that the number of children enrolled in English-medium schools from Classes I to VIII has crossed the two crore mark - a 274 per cent rise since 2003-04.