Has the Mother Tongue Taken a Backseat? Here's Why Our Kids May Suffer in the Long Run

posted by Ekta Bhatnagar, May 14, 2018

Meera is a mother to a very happy 2.5 year old son, Rohan. Her son is just like any other child his age. He loves to play, throw tantrums, is sometimes a finicky eater but he shares toys, is happy to go out and mingle with everyone around the safe zone.

Once Meera was on a holiday in a rural part of India. This is where her in-laws stay. Her husband had a huge family and many relatives had come over. There were also some cousins from Mumbai and America who were visiting and had children almost the same age as Rohan. While Meera decided to take a stroll with Rohan and show him the village setting, Rohan's grandfather also accompanied with a few of Rohan's cousins. They only spoke in English. Rohan saw a few cows and ran to tell his mother. 'Mumma.... dekho dekho... cow!' he said excitedly in Hindi. The cousins also came rushing to see the cows. 'Yes Rohan, these are cows. And what do cows give?' asked Meera. 'Doodh' replied Rohan immediately without even taking few seconds to think.

'Not Doodh! It's called MILK... cows give us milk. Talk properly Rohan!' a stern voice came from behind and Meera turned around to look that it was her father-in-law.

'You should be teaching English to your child, instead of speaking so much in Hindi at home,' he continued. 'What is this doodh, yahan jaana hai, ye chahiye, nahi, haan? He will have problems learning English later. Look at his cousins. All the same age and they speak and understand English.'

Meera thought it was pointless to argue at that time. But she was shocked by his behavior.

Like Meera, there are many parents who converse with their toddlers in their mother tongue.

My Personal Story

My parents were from Uttar Pradesh and I knew Hindi well. I was brought up in Bengal so I am fluent in Bengali. I lived in Mumbai for a long time so I can understand Marathi but cannot converse in it. English is something I learnt in school and now I am fluent in that as well.

When my baby girl was born, I started conversing with her in Hindi and English. I mostly used to speak to her in Hindi and my 2.5-year-old could converse fluently. She picked up her mother tongue first. I read her books that were both in Hindi and English. If I conversed with her in English, she understood what I said but preferred to reply to me in Hindi.

She went to a playschool at the age of 2.5 and her teachers preferred to speak to her in the language she was most comfortable with. By the time she graduated from playgroup, my girl knew Hindi rhymes, English rhymes, few Hindi songs and few English songs. Today she is 3.4 years old and she is getting a hold of the English language and trying to speak full sentences. She sometimes surprises me with words and sentences that I have not taught her but she has learnt from school or heard from friends, the television or had her nanu or papa read to her from a book.

Mother Tongue Versus English

India is a land of diverse cultures and many languages. Most children in India speak two or three languages, in which one of them is English. That is mainly because English is taught in all schools, along with Hindi and one vernacular language.

There is absolutely no denying the fact that English is an aspiration of sorts and also holds a commercial value. It is the tool we use to communicate around the world. But is this coming at the cost of proudly not being able to read, write or communicate in our mother tongue?

Why is it important to know your mother tongue?

Research around the world shows that when children know their mother tongue, it not only helps in their cognitive but also intellectual development. Children with a solid foundation of their mother tongue have a better educational success.

Learning the mother tongue sets the standard to learn a second language. Learning a second language, like English depends on how well the child has caught up with learning the mother tongue.

Also, learning the mother tongue helps children connect better with people of different age groups. Knowing about their own culture, being proud of it, knowing about folk tales and stories are well received when taught in their mother tongue.

Bonding with extended family members happens with the knowledge of mother tongue. Not all extended family members are comfortable in speaking in English. They would rather speak in their mother tongues and a child would be more driven towards them if they understand and socialize with them.

If you have great command over your mother tongue, you will definitely have great command over English or any other language that you choose. Public figures like Amitabh Bachchan or Sushmita have impeccable multilingual language skills.

Today, many of us focus on making children fluent only in the English language. We somehow look down upon children who speak in their native languages. Even toddlers don't get language choices. We force English words on them when all they want to do is throw that cup on you!

Like we saw in the case of Meera, Rohan was right when he said the cow gives 'doodh' instead of the word milk. He knows that milk is 'doodh' in Hindi. Why scold him for saying the word in his mother tongue, rather than in English? It is what he is most comfortable with and we should encourage it.

What does the research say?

UNESCO has encouraged speaking and giving instructions in the mother tongue during the primary education since 1953. UNESCO highlights the education of mother tongue right from the beginning.

Research proves time and again that children learn faster in a language that they listen to everyday and the language that they speak at home. Using familiar language in school as well is a success as children respond and bond more.

The problem our children face

We are taking English as a first language and our mother tongue as a second. The need for learning English is significant as this language is globally known. But you need to lay the foundation and not forget your mother tongue. There should be no shame or shamming of the toddler or kid who speaks in the mother tongue. This not only discourages the little ones but also they feel they are wrong and they might not try and learn.

I will end with this quote from Nelson Mandela-'If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.'

'When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts,' Dalai Lama.

it is good that toddlers speak in English but somewhere down the line, we are forgetting our mother tongues. We are hiding the roots of our existence from this new generation. In the long run, maybe the child will communicate excellently in English, but will not be comfortable in speaking in his/her mother tongue or be comfortable with mingling with children who speak the other language. It is our responsibility to make them proud of our mother tongue and our culture as well.

So this Mother's Day, do respect and love your mother, but start conversing in your mother tongue as well.

Featured image credit: Pixaby

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