Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why I Teach My Foreign-born Indian Children Malayalam?

On the occassion of International Mother Language Day, Shweta Ganesh Kumar sent us a lovely post on teaching her kids Malayalam. International Mother Language Day (IMLD) is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and promote multilingualism.

“Namaste And Shukriya!”
The Hungarian delivery man shouted out to me with a smile, as he ambled downstairs after handing over my dinner of lachccha parathas and Madras Chicken curry.

As I shut the door against the freezing negative temperatures of Budapest winters, the food from my favorite Indian restaurant in the city seemed to warm me up through its thin packaging.

My six year old who was watching asked me, “Amma, what did that man say?”

“Oh, he was saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You ‘in Hindi and Urdu,” I said.

“Ah, I thought he was saying, Namsakaaram wrong,’ she said, as she ambled off to find her brother.

My children were born in the Philippines and even though they possess Indian passports and therefore citizenships, they are third culture kids, in every sense of the term. We have lived in San Salvador, Manila and now, Budapest and they have spent only a few months of their lives back home in Kerala, where I’m from. Like most of the expatriate children they are surrounded by, their lingua Franca, is English. This was in no way by design.

I’ve always had a soft corner for Malayalam, my mother tongue. A fondness that later developed into full fledged love and I wrote about it here on the occasion on International Mother Language Day, last year. So, making sure that my children spoke in my mother tongue, the language of their mother and their father, was truly important to me. When my daughter was born in 2011, the only language I used to talk to her in was Malayalam. Having moved to El Salvador when she was just 5 months old meant the only other language she heard around her was Spanish, which we were not very fluent in. And so by the time she turned two, she was equipped with a rather solid vocabulary of Malayalam words and rhymes and she could even sing the first few verses of the Malayalam songs of my childhood.

Whenever we went home for the holidays and overbearing relatives pounded me with their usual patronizing “Kuttiku Malayalam ariyummo? Does the child know Malayalam?” I would hold my head high and respond with a bright smile.

“Yes, yes she does.”

By 2014, we were back in Manila and it was time for her to start school, we had somehow slipped into speaking English around 80% of the time. It was what was most convenient and my husband’s family with an army background too spoke to each other in English as did he, most of the time. We had no Malayali friends and we figured English would help her in school and there was no harm. As time passed, I realized that English had become the only language she used, with her Malayalam conversations limited to me or at the times I reminded my parents to talk to her in Malayalam when they called.

By the time my son was born in 2015, my daughter had all but forgotten the Malayalam rhymes and lullabies that I had sung to her in her toddlerhood. She watched with mild amusement and curiosity as I dusted those age-old songs out from the crevices of my memory where I had shoved them in, as she grew too old for them. She tried to sing along with me and smiled as I told her that these songs belonged to her too. My son, however in typical second child fashion threw a deaf ear to my croonings and decided that whatever his elder sibling did must be his gospel. His first words were indeed Amma and Dada and his favourite animal for the longest time was “Aana” or the elephant, but the rest of his speech was in English. And though both my children understand Malayalam completely, even to the point of picking up song lyrics, their preferred language of speech is English.

As an expat mom, I’ve received a lot of compliments on this. When we moved to Budapest, last year most people were amazed at how well they could communicate with my children thanks to their fluency in English.

“Good choice, to teach them English”, they said.

While they do have a point, I always felt uncomfortable at the compliment. For one, I never consciously taught them English, they picked it up on the go, by merely listening, the way I picked up Malayalam. And I felt guilty that I had not been able to pass on my mother tongue to them, in the same way.

But why is it so important that they learn Malayalam, you might ask? It is not a global language. It is not even the national language of India. As Indian languages go, won’t it make more sense for them to learn Hindi?

Yes, all valid points. But there is this irrational part of my heart that wants them to fall in love with Malayalam the way I did. I want them to have more than functional literacy. I want them to be able to read it and write it and get the ins and outs and the nuances of my gracefully curvy mother tongue.

How else will they appreciate Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Paathumayude Aadu in all its natural glory?

How will they explode in uproarious laughter at Dasan and Vijayan’s quips? 

How will they get the natural sarcasm and wit that most Malayalis are known for? The kind that can never ever be translated? 

And that is why, I keep trying to make sure that they pick up Malayalam, as well. I ply badly made Malayalam cartoons at them. I read them the wonderful “Unni Kuttande Lokam” and other Malayalam children’s books. I tell them that Malayalam is our secret code language and that everyone knows English, but only us Malayalis know Malayalam, making it special. And I keep at it.  

Illustration : Tanvi Choudhury
For irrational, emotional reasons.  For that’s what most mothers are as far as their children are concerned, irrational and emotional, yet wanting to them to get the best of what the world has to offer. And to me, our mother tongue Malayalam will be their key to a world filled with literary riches and wit beyond compare and one of the greatest legacies that I can bequeath them with. And maybe someday, when I’m far gone and they are grown up, it will be the lilt of this very mother language that will evoke in them the memories of my irrational, emotional love for them, a love that will always live on.


(Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a Writer and Parenting columnist. She is the bestselling author of ‘Coming Up On The Show’ and ‘Between The Headlines’, two novels on the Indian Broadcast News Industry. Her last worldwide release ‘A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land,’ a modern take on Alice In Wonderland got rave reviews from critics and readers alike and has been consistently ranked high in Amazon India’s 100 bestsellers in Indian writing list. Her travel columns have been featured in Travel and Flavours, Venture, The New Indian Express, One Philippines and Geo. Her non-fiction pieces have appeared in multiple Indian editions of the Chicken Soup series. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in more than twenty anthologies and online literary magazines in more than four continents.  

She is also the Founder-Editor of The Times Of Amma, an online community dedicated to inspiring mothers one day at a time, featuring real life stories on honest parenting and interviews with inspirational mothers and grandmothers. Shweta currently lives in Hungary with her two children and husband. You can read more about her life and work at

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