Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Language, the Magical Scarf

21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 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 to us by Valentina Trivedi. Valentina is a storyteller and has used this talent in numerous ways: as a scriptwriter for tv shows and films, as a director of documentaries, as a senior copy writer in advertising, as an Editor of a quarterly magazine, as a Dastango and as a teacher to educate and motivate both children and adults. She believes teapots and pebbles have feelings too! She enjoys writing in both Hindi and English and is currently working on developing some corny stories.)

My love affair with language started very early in life. I think it is in my DNA. My paternal grandfather, a lawyer by profession, briefly taught English literature at the University of Srinagar. When teaching Wordsworth’s poetry, he would insist on taking the class on a shikaara on Dal lake to create a more immersive learning experience for his students. He also translated Saratchandra’s works from Bengali to Hindi. My father, though a Science student, joined Russian and later German classes at the University just because he was interested in learning new languages. My mother tongue is Hindi. That is what I grew up speaking at home and there was no hierarchy of languages as I see around me today, with English sitting atop like a prima donna. Many a visiting family friend was caught off guard when I would request them to tell me a story. They would often try to get out of it by saying they didn’t know any stories and were stumped when I would tell them that they had to listen to me tell one then!

Born in a home where books were loved and enjoyed, I would gleefully read Hindi and English story books. Being an only child and growing up in a pre computer era added to the time I spent with books. Whenever my parents or visiting aunts or uncles would ask what I would like as a gift, it was always story books. Browsing in a bookshop was done as often as going to a restaurant or a movie and as a child I used to think a bookshop owner is the richest and luckiest person in the world!

My father was teaching at a prominent boarding school in Dehradun and living on a verdant 70 acre campus also had the advantage of having access to the library during the holidays too. The joy of discovering C S Lewis in the musty pages of a yellowing ‘The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ in the high ceilinged interiors of an ivy covered library is just one of the innumerable jewels which lie sparkling in my memory.

These seemingly ordinary listening, speaking and reading experiences led to a life long love for language in all its forms and the choices of work I made later on have always been a variation of these. I know only two languages and hope I will learn at least one more in this lifetime.

I am reminded of the 6 year old daughter of our Gujarati neighbours in Bombay when we were living there in the mid nineties. She spoke Hindi, English and Gujarati but also Tamil, thanks to the Tamilian neighbours whose house was like an extension of her own and a bit of Marathi, thanks to the help in their house. So at that young age she was proficient in five languages, switching from one to the other with ease depending on who she was speaking to! I sincerely believe that instead of being ‘taught’ a language in the primary years, children must be encouraged to ‘play’ with multiple languages as the window for language learning is open widest in those impressionable years. A sound and natural foundation of speaking in one’s mother tongue, cannot be replaced by the artificial imposition of a foreign language. This foundation is what develops a love for languages and motivates children to keep learning and enjoying them. Speaking in one’s mother tongue is an important aspect of who you are, it is an integral part of your identity. I tell young children that if they only speak in English, when they visit other countries and people ask about their language, what will they say? It will be a classic case of being a ‘dhobi ka gadhaa; na ghar ka na ghaat ka’!

I am reminded of an instance some 26 years ago. I was visiting a childhood friend and her 3 year old daughter. The friend’s mother in law was also there. She was a warm, cheerful lady who was actively involved in social work. Like my own mother and most of the mothers of my friends in North India, she spoke only Hindi. Her grandchild, however, was being brought up by the parents on an exclusive diet of English with the result that the conversation between the grand mother and her grandchild was limited to monosyllables like ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘sit’ etc. I was appalled to see that my friend was completely unaware of the richness of experience she was depriving her child of. Communication with a grand parent is such a precious part of childhood and the child was being deprived of the multilayered joy and learning from it. More recently, it was heartening to see an everyday experience of a bygone era in urban life, alive and kicking in a small hill town: a child holding his grandfather’s hand and prancing down the street, conversing- in his mother tongue of course.

I was struck by the kaleidoscopic tranquillity of the scene. The cadence of the child’s high pitched voice, posing short questions, alternating with the grandfather’s gravelly slower tone, stretching longer, was delightful to the ears as was the sight of the two of them strolling down the road, communicating the wisdom of generations, in a language understood by both. The repercussions of not speaking the mother tongue are like the momentary tremors of an earthquake: an indicator of a greater movement at a far deeper level. It reminds me of stories where seemingly inconsequential happenings, like a king’s elephant destroying a colony of ants, leads to much bigger things like the downfall of a kingdom. Not speaking, reading or knowing the mother tongue has broken the link and deprived this generation of partaking of the generational wisdom of our forefathers. It is this severing of the cultural umbilical cord which is so worrisome. Without it, we will be like a sky full of colourful kites which are adrift. They look pretty but we know that the true soaring of their potential can only come about if they are anchored.

When I visit schools to conduct workshops, I often see that the Hindi teachers are a bit sheepish when mentioning the subject they teach. I wonder if it is because they are not given the respect that the science and math teachers are? Yet the language teachers are the ones who facilitate comprehension and learning in other subjects. I imagine a language classroom where the teacher when introducing a new word encourages the students to share the word for it in their mother tongue. We would not only be developing a love for languages and an interest in learning them, but also nurturing something much deeper: inculcating the spirit of celebrating and delighting in differences, developing a sense of aesthetics, and watering the oft neglected areas of our minds that nurture the milk of human kindness.

There was a big bookstore near our house near our house in Bombay and my curiosity led me to a storytelling session there on a Sunday morning. There were some 15 kids there, most of whom had come with their mothers, one with his father and a few with their helps. Contrary to my initial impression, the ones who had come with their helps were the best off as the mothers hovered over their children, specially during the colouring activity they did after the story, needlessly directing them and depriving them of expressing themselves calmly and joyfully.

I have no memory of the story that was told that day but what left a sad indelible impression was the fact that in a country which has a rich tapestry of multiple languages, what was being chiefly spoken there was a sing song high pitched, non-native English! The father in the gathering was the only person who was talking to his child in bangla. He looked surprised when I went and pointed this out to him and praised him for it.

The most preliminary search on the internet reveals the following: The Indian census of 1961 recognised 1,652 different languages in  India (including languages not native to the subcontinent). The 1991  census recognizes 1,576 classified "mother tongues"[22] The People ofIndia (POI) project of Anthropological Survey of India reported 325 languages which are used for in-group communication by the Indian communities. SIL Ethnologue lists 415 living "Languages of India" (out of 6,912 worldwide). According to the most recent census of 2001, 29 'languages' have more than a million native speakers, 60 have more than 100,000 and 122 have  more than 10,000 native speakers.

Our collective ignorance of this wealth pains me. We are like a blind man in Alibaba’s cave of treasures. Immeasurable wealth lies all around him but he can’t see it. What will happen to our rich regional literature if children are discouraged to speak in their mother tongue, let alone read and write in it? There may come a time when most of it will only be available in archives.

Talking about one’s mother tongue is like pulling one silken scarf out of a magician’s hat, and finding a never ending trail of several more colourful ones strung together! As parents, we must introduce our children to that first magical scarf.

Illustration : Nikita Modi

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