Sunday, February 21, 2016

अरे! ये तो English में बिलकुल नहीं बोलता

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

(This post was sent by Tanu Shree Singh. Tanu describes hereself as "a regular mom of two and wife of one. Six dogs, a tank full of fish, three men (one by virtue of marriage and 2 by virtue of womb) pretty much describe me. I have an opinion on just about everything and my blog is the safest way of expression! There is no theme or direction to it just like me. Yes, I am a parent and no I do not have all the answers. How do I handle my boys born two years apart? It mostly involves earmuffs and sticking my head in the mud. So do I have any parenting advice? Hell, no! In fact, I believe there is no such thing as a parenting guide. Each child comes with an exclusive operating manual that God forgot to add to the starter kit. Apart from ranting, I dabble in writing and teaching Psychology." Read more on Tanu's blog.)

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A little girl sauntered in while the other kids had their heads dipped in their textbook. She seemed barely 4 years old.

'Who is that?' I asked. 

'My sister.' The youngest of my mum's students replied. 'She has just come from the village.'

I tried striking a conversation with her using the dumbest question. 'Do you go to school? Which class?'

She ran away and her cousin replied again, 'No, didi. I am the only one going to school.' HE obviously beamed the brightest smile.

That is a fairly common occurrence. There are no timelines for starting school in most villages. And when it comes to girls, the timeline gets bleaker. The kids went back to their homework and I went back to sorting books. 

She came back and stood at a safe distance from me. Her eyes were fixed on a worn down copy of Goldilocks and the Three bears. I offered it to her and she ran away again. After quite a few attempts, I figured it would be better to leave the bait at a safe distance from me. It worked! She picked the book up. I pretended to ignore her. She flipped a few pages, smiled a little but mostly frowned. 

' पढ़ के सुनाऊँ?' I said without looking at her. 

She inched closer and gave me the book with visible, feigned disinterest. The book was in English. I started relating the story in Hindi and after a page her frowns deepened. 

'यो के कह सै ।' She pointed to the picture of baby bear complaining to his mum. And just like that she got me to re-tell the story in Haryanvi. Her face changed and right there I saw the love for stories. 


All of us love the wondrous world of words - the medium doesn't matter, literacy doesn't matter. Love for stories is as instinctive as need for food and sleep. The fondest memories I have of my childhood involve tales coaxed out of helpless adults. My nana would carry me on his shoulders when he'd go for his evening walks and would start with different versions of his lyrical story, ' जानवरों की रेलगाड़ी'. Every afternoon, when my mother would lie down for her siesta, I'd pull her eyelids and torture her till I heard a sleepy story of 'कौआ और कव्वी ' which invariably trailed midway and ended in snores. 

Every Diwali I hounded my father for the 'पापा भालू' story and all my aunts still remember me hounding them for stories when they visited us. None of these stories were in English - the language I prefer to read in now. And none of the books I read now have the same warmth and a fuzzy feeling about them as those stories. They were two worlds but the first one led me to the second. The stories led me to books. 

Years later, when two of my own came in, I sat at night with a picture book hoping against hope that the toddler goes to sleep quickly. That never happened. Incessant questions like, 'ये क्या है ? ये क्या बोल रहा है? ये कहाँ जा रहें हैं?' made sure that it was a long tiring but satisfying evening. 

So I never got ruffled when their class teacher in grade 1 said, 'They do not converse in English. Please talk to them in English at home. All other kids talk fluently.'

When other kids were being fed a language alien to them, my younger one at the age of around three came up with words like, ' प्राचीन योद्धा !' pointing to a statue of Mahrana Pratap. And I was bursting at seams with pride. Today they write in English, the older one has rediscovered his liking for Hindi prose, we talk at home in Hindi and are equally comfortable with English. The fact that I didn't speak with them in anything but my mother tongue when they were babies, has not delayed their development nor did it leave them disadvantaged. If anything, it has given them a thinking voice that is completely personal to them. So it doesn't matter if your mother tongue is Marathi or Tamil, or the fact that the child has a mother tongue and a father tongue! In fact, the more the merrier! Go on and tell stories in the language the child was born with, translate books, and throw away the worry, ' अरे! ये तो English में बिलकुल नहीं बोलता|'

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