IS MY “MOTHER TONGUE” MY NATIVE LANGUAGE?

My best friend Meera is from Odisha and speaks Odia, English, and Hindi fluently. Her husband, Atul is from Maharashtra and I’ve always seen both of them conversing in Hindi. Their daughter Tia who is just 5 yrs old, understands Hindi, Odia, and Marathi though she is more fluent in Hindi. Of course, Meera always specifies that Tia’s native language is both Odia and Marathi and Hindi is her mother tongue.

In countries like India, such instances are very common nowadays and perhaps the reason why mother tongue and native language are not synonymous anymore.

A first language, or mother/father/parent tongue (also known as arterial language or L1), is a language that a person has been exposed to from birth.

The concept of having a mother tongue and the corresponding tendency to equate it to a native or regional language is a very Indian practice. The regional languages of India are the languages that are often spoken at home and are the ‘mother tongue’ or first language of that specific community.

Unfortunately, the schools want to stress that the first language at school is English, which leads to confusion and the handy substitute is ‘Indian Regional Language’ in official documents and ‘Mother Tongue’ in colloquial use.

Outside India, anybody would understand you speak a native/regional language, most will be confused about you having a ‘mother tongue’, as most of the countries use an official language native to the country.

In some countries, the term native language or mother tongue refers to the language of one’s ethnic group rather than one’s first language. Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual or multilingual. By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one’s first language.

The first language or native language of a child is part of the personal, social and cultural identity. It also brings about the reflection and learning of successful social patterns of linguistic competence of acting and speaking.

A person is bilingual by being equally proficient in both languages. A person who grows up speaking English and begins learning Hindi for four years is not necessarily bilingual unless they speak the two languages with equal fluency. Balanced bilinguals perform significantly better in tasks that require flexibility (they constantly shift between the two known languages depending on the situation/requires constant juggling), more aware of arbitrary nature of language and also that balanced bilinguals choose word associations based on logical rather than phonetic preferences.

One can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or indeed multilingual. India, Indonesia, Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa are examples where most people speak more than one language.

The designation “native language,” in its general usage, is thought to be imprecise and subject to various interpretations that are biased linguistically, especially with respect to bilingual children from ethnic minority groups. The definitions of ‘native language’ vary based on common usage, the emotional relation of the speaker towards the language, and even its dominance in relation to the environment. However, all of three criteria lack precision. For many children whose home language differs from the language of the environment (the ‘official’ language), it is debatable which language is one’s ‘native language’.

Now since we have established that native language can always differ from mother tongue, I’d like to shift the focus to the common misconception that mother tongue is essential to preserve cultural heritage. Like in my friend’s case, Meera follows all rituals of Raja and Kumar Purnami festivals and teaches their importance to Tia and also performs Ganesh Chaturthi festival the Maharashtrian way with great enthusiasm. I believe Tia is culturally much stronger than any one of us here. She understands the cultural diversity and yet through her, the compassion of her parent’s heritage is also preserved. I’m sure Tia’s generation would have a much better and global understanding of cultures and how ultimately everything comes together as we being humans. As far as Tia’s native languages are concerned, if she is ever interested she could learn and enhance her skills on those languages.

I myself can read, write and speak Odia, English, Hindi quite well. I can understand Bangla and I’m learning Urdu. But the language I’m more at ease and proficient is in English. My native language/mother tongue is Odia, which I learned from birth. I adapted to English much later in life. Yes, that’s exactly the word I was looking for, Adaptation. I used to and still read lots and lots of literature in English and somewhere down the line, I started conversing with myself in English too. That’s how I adapted.

Over the past few years, there have been significant cultural changes within our society. Education has gained importance and has become a priority. The socioeconomic changes have caused people to move out and seek employment outstation and overseas and people preferring to settle down there just for mere convenience. During my 4 years stay in the USA surprisingly I found the Odia families and their children are more closer to their culture. Of course, learning our native language is very important, but a more progressive attitude of adaptation would definitely help preserve the “mother tongue” and also the native culture.

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MOTHER TONGUE-HAECCEITY THAT FUELS CULTURE

Born in a Sikh family, I managed to grasp the basic vocalizing skills required for my mother tongue Punjabi. My uncle once taught me to read and write Punjabi as well, but at that point of time, I didn’t give it much importance only to regret later.

My grandfather was a learned man. He was a polyglot and was well versed with English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. He used to write articles for various magazines and newspapers in these languages. I used to think that one day when I grow old, I will also learn many languages, but I couldn’t because I never tried.

My grandma, on the other hand, used to ask me not to speak in mother tongue, just because she feared that I may lag behind in school and may not be able to cope up with other children. So, I hardly spoke to her or anyone else at home in Punjabi. Though, I was well aware of this language, because all the elders in the house used to communicate in mother tongue only.

My father, however, used to emphasize speaking in English, that being the universal language. And I used to tell him that in school, we were already conversing in English, so at least at home, give a break!

It’s only after I cleared my X boards that I started talking to my grandma in Punjabi. I was hesitant initially, but the more I spoke, the more confident I became. That’s how happens with every language.

After my marriage, when we went to Shanghai, we were amazed to see the majority of the people didn’t know how to communicate in English. Being the world’s second-largest economy, people didn’t know English! We had troubles initially, but later on, it was fun. People of our age group and the elderly usually didn’t speak or know English so they would ask their school going children to be translators for us. At that time, I realised that no matter how much expert is a person in his/her native language, he/she must also be open to learning other languages, especially English, which is used globally.

We moved to Karnataka last year from NCR and chose CBSE board school for our elder son so that in future if we change the city, the board remains the same. However, recently, the state government has made the rule of making Kannada as the second language to be taught, replacing Hindi, (the first language being English). Currently, it’s being taught as the third language, where difficulty level is very low. With this news, we were initially perturbed, but later on were relieved when our son’s school agreed to continue Hindi language also, without changing its level. Children pick up languages so well and I am glad he’s getting exposure to a new language here. People often boast of schools teaching international languages, but I guess it’s always better to learn our regional languages first. However, making a particular language mandatory should not be the rule. In fact, the children should be free to choose any language at their will.

Culture should not be imposed. It has to be imbibed. As parents, we should speak to our children in the mother tongue more often. My son tries to speak in Punjabi with my parents and I encourage him to do that because that way he will become more confident as a learner. Who knows he might be a multilinguist one day!

THE BLISS OF MOTHER TONGUE

Language works as the means for the verbal and non-verbal expression of the complex nature of human emotions and ideas. Specifically, the MOTHER TONGUE gives an iconic distinctiveness and dignity to an individual.

Languages spoken in India belong to several language families, 78.05% of Indians speak the Indo-Aryan languages and 19.64% Indians speak Dravidian languages and 2.31% speak Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai, and a few other minor language families and isolates. After Papua New Guinea, globally India is having the highest number of languages, consisting of 780. And each of these languages represents a particular set of ethos, norm, and lifestyle. Among these, I can be bracketed as an “ODIA” and my mother tongue is known as “ODIA (formerly recognized as Oriya)” which belongs to the classical Indo-Aryan language family. Odia is considered the 6th Indian language to be designated a Classical Language in India on the basis of having an original literary history since 10th Century A.D. According to 2011 research on Indian languages, there are 55 million Odia speakers globally and from them, 37.5 million are the natives.

Since October 2010, crisscrossing to different parts of eastern India, it’s been hardly a week for me when I have never spent a full day with a person of the different mother tongue. Though Odia is the mother tongue for all Odias, regionally there is a stark difference of the pronunciation and meaning of same Odia words. Since the last decade, we have been experiencing the effect of rapid Globalization and speedy Migration. The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimates the size of inter-state migration in India to be 139 million. Hence, navigating through the everyday challenge of preserving the mother tongue is well-expected! But HOW?

In the lucrative makeover of Globalization – Urbanization – Modernization, we upgrade our lifestyle, which can be well-applauded BUT alongside we must be grounded to the bliss of our cultural inheritance and linguistic communication. From dawn to dusk, it is only communicating through our mother tongue that gives us the joy of homely feel.

I have an Odia brother from my hometown here in Kolkata, we only meet once in a month at Church but the way we greet each other is epic. Despite the sensitiveness of our setting, we never miss greeting each other in our mother tongue, saying “Banchichu? (Are you alive?)”. Even if we are at a far distance, we convey the same greeting nodding our head in a very peculiar manner, which of course only we can understand. Our greeting might sound silly, and to some culturally disrespectful but a simple word in mother tongue and the love in the smile gives a familial touch.

Another day, I was chatting with one of my friends from my hometown. Initially, he responded in English but after a couple of chats, he said, “Bhai, aame Odia, English re kana paain katha hauchu! (Brother, we both are Odias, why to chat in English!)” Yes, often though we belong to one place and are quite comfortable in our mother tongue yet just because we are grown-up men and are living a sophisticated lifestyle, we tend to use foreign and official language in our personal chats.

To meet our professional discipline and respecting inter-state migrating cultural presence, the use of official language is quite necessary. But whenever we are at home and among the people of our culture and language, we can be specific in using our Mother tongue. Let’s be original and relational.

Once I took a cab for the office and I was busy with my phone. I didn’t know that the driver is an Odia until he spoke to his wife over the phone. While he was talking to his wife, I was able to figure-out his home-town from his accent. As he ended the call, I asked him in Odia, do you belong to Odisha? Surprisingly he replied, Yes Sir, following a counter question – you are also Odia, Sir? Till he dropped me at my destination we had a good time and finally, when I reached my destination and paid him the fare, he simply refused. With a hearty smile, he said, “Sir, we are from the same place, we are brothers, how can I take money from you! The time we spent is more precious than money, thank you very much, Sir.

Refusing a few bucks is not the concern but the sense of belongingness and connecting heartily using our mother tongue was delightful. We never met since then but the time we spent and the love we shared become apparent in our heart and that’s what the bliss of mother tongue is all about!

Let’s resolve not to quit using our mother tongues in the modern era.

LANGUAGE OF HEART

Mother tongue holds great importance in a country like India wherein every few kilometers the language changes. The Mother Tongue is usually the first language a child hears. This is the language in which our parents talk to us.

I stay in Maharashtra state in India. The mother tongue of the people here is Marathi. I have picked up a little of Marathi in the few years that I have stayed here. And it has been my personal experience that if I speak to a Maharashtrian in his native tongue that person’s smile is a bit wider, I get a little bit more warmth from them or if I use it selfishly the file moves quite a bit faster in the Government Offices.

If you are staying in a metro city or any other cosmopolitan city, one thing you must have noticed. Here we usually have a mixed crowd, people belonging to different states and hence having different mother tongues. In a party or get together if two or three Bengalis meet they automatically switch to the Bengali language oblivious of the fact that they have effectively cut everyone else out of the conversation as others can’t understand or speak Bengali. This is true for any other mother tongue be it Tamil, Gujarati or Punjabi etc. We have to usually point it out to them and bring the conversation back to Hindi or English which everyone can understand.

Why does it happen?

It is because the mother tongue is the language of the heart. If we meet someone having the same mother tongue as ours we feel a natural kinship with that person. There are a certain closeness and our mind without realising switches to talking in our mother tongue.

There is another side to the coin though. With inter-state, inter-religion or inter-caste marriages being very common in our country now, the kids of such marriages are now having dual mother tongues. I have seen children who are fluent in both the languages and I have also seen children who speak neither of the two and only speak in common languages like English and Hindi.

Another thing is that our children now mostly study in English medium schools. The young parents these days in a bid to make their kids excel in school and talk to their children solely in English. The child becomes very fluent in English but looses out on developing a close relationship with their mother tongue.

I am not judging any of the parenting styles, I just hope that the bond of the heart and the mother tongue remains strong and doesn’t die out.

JOURNEYS THROUGH TWO STATES

The title I gave for this article might make you wonder about the content of this article under the topic – ‘Mother Tongue’. You might think I gave this title to attract the readers. But actually, I will be describing a few events during my journeys from one state to the other in this article.

A journey always becomes smooth when we have best of passengers traveling with us. I usually don’t find it very difficult to start a conversation with anyone even if I don’t understand my co-passengers’ languages or vice versa but knowing the language does give an extra advantage to us to mingle with others and relate with strangers.

As you all know, I am basically from Cuttack, but for work, I live in Kolkata. So, whenever I travel from Kolkata to Cuttack or vice versa, the languages that I know have always come to my benefit. Let me explain how…

Once I was coming back from Cuttack without a confirmed ticket. That train had compartments with sitting class, not sleeper class. All I had to do was to stand and travel for 7 hours till Kolkata. But I was asked to sit down by my fellow Odia passengers as I was speaking my mother tongue. And when the train crossed Bengal border after Balasore and Bengali passengers boarded the train, I had to leave their seats after being scolded by few Bengalis. I would have anyway left their seats without being taunted but because I was a stranger with a different mother tongue, I was unable to relate with them. That time I was very new to Bengal and didn’t know Bengali at all. These issues are very common but I am not going to project the issue here… What I want to highlight is – a language gives us a face, an identity to be accepted or rejected by people around us.

Afterwards, once I picked up Bangla and started speaking it fluently I never had such problems. I become a Bengali when the train travels through the state of West Bengal and I become an Odia when the train travels through Odisha. I was able to speak with Bengalis and laugh with them. I could do the same with my fellow Odias as well.

Last time, what happened, I had my seat in the middle of a three-seater with two males sitting on both sides. On my left there was a Bengali gentleman and on my right, there was an Odia boy. All three of us became very friendly towards each other. The Bengali gentleman was a medicine stockist and the Odia boy was a Medical Representative. And I knew a few of the medicines which I usually have, so we had a discussion on medicines. During our discussion, I said jokingly, “See, one of you is Bengali, the other one is an Odia and I am a mixture of both Bengali and Odia…we all are somewhat related to the subject medicine…” And all three of us laughed heartily.

And my journey through the two states was never boring…

Now, you must be thinking that I have deviated from the topic. I started speaking about learning languages instead of my mother tongue. I haven’t.

If we closely observe ourselves then we will realise that when we keep conversing in different languages, we don’t forget them but if we literally stop conversing a particular language then we slowly forget it.

When something becomes our day to day affair, we get accustomed to it forgetting all other things surrounding it. It happens with languages too. When we stop the journeys of speaking different Indian languages and become stagnant around our so-called official language, ‘English’ or ‘Hindi’ then we tend to forget our regional as well as the mother tongue.

I will end this article with an example…

These days, I find it difficult to write Odia. Can you believe it? I got highest marks in Odia in class 10th. But I am unable now because I write and type only – English… English… and in English.

We should not stop the journey of travelling from this state to the other in speaking languages or else we will fail to relate with our fellow Indians, our neighbours.

Stay Blessed!

THE TONGUE THAT SPEAKS THE HEART

Language is the vehicle of expression and the heart is best expressed in one’s mother tongue. When we are talking of mother tongue, we need to carefully understand what it connotes. According to UNESCO, India is the ninth most linguistically diverse country of the world, Papua New Guinea being the first with 840 spoken and 12 extinct languages. The Indian Constitution recognizes 22 major languages, written in 13 different scripts, with over 720 dialects! Quite understandably, India doesn’t have a national language. However, Hindi (which is spoken by a majority of Indians – especially in the North, North West, and Central zones) and English (which is considered to be a common medium) are the official languages of India.

The vast diversity of languages read, written and spoken in 29 States and 7 Union Territories, make India a multi-lingual diversity along its length and breadth. The country has seen zealots strive to preserve the linguistic identity of their respective regions with their sweat and blood. With increasing cultural exchange and migration, people have developed a tendency to learn new languages. While this is welcome, it is also essential to preserve one’s parent language.

In 2010, with the death of the last Bo person, the Bo language spoken in parts of Andaman Islands became extinct. A language erased from the face of the earth! The scripts of the Indus Valley Civilization have not been able to be deciphered till date because it has not been possible to decode the codes that the people of that time used. The detailed history of an entire civilization remains a mystery, apart from what has trickled out of the painstaking research of some historians!

If we wish to see the diversity of languages along with the rich foliage of culture and ethnicity survive the tempests of the centuries, we need to ensure that they percolate down the generations. ‘Mother tongue’ has been so labelled because the developing foetus in the mother’s womb starts learning to recognize the sounds and speech patterns of the mother’s voice and is able to differentiate the mother’s sounds and other sounds after birth. That’s why you must have observed babies stop crying as soon as they hear their mother’s voice, no matter how desperately others would be trying to pacify it.  

In a multi-lingual country like India, passing the mother-tongue down the generations is a big challenge in the present day, especially with too many interstate and cross-national marriages seeing the light of the day. And so, either the couples decide to use a common medium of communication or get into frequent conflicts. I have heard of many such couples arrive at the verge of a divorce just because each of them want their children to learn to communicate in his/her mother-tongue. These are critical cases – with the issue in question being seemingly trivial but having serious ramifications.

The human brain is wired to receive, process and learn multiple languages during the stage of language development. The more the number of languages acquired by a child, the more cognitively flexible s/he turns out to be. The ideal time for training in multiple languages, wherever desirable, are the very early years of life. 

While it is a drawback to stick only to one’s vernacular, its a handicap of similar nature to learn unifying/common languages without knowing one’s mother tongue well.

In the present world scenario, in a diverse country like India, in my opinion, children need to be taught three languages – regional language according to the State they belong, Hindi – which is a unifying language within the country and a language for international communication. No matter how globalized the world becomes, the tongue that speaks the heart expresses the best!

PROFANITY IN EVERYDAY CONVERSATIONS

“She’s my bitch!” 

“Yo wassup dawg?!”

If you’ve been around in the world (of course you have) you’ve heard the above statements that have become a sort of fashion statement these days. ‘Hip’ girls and boys referring to their friends or their boyfriends/girlfriends thus and without any qualms too. Note that the intent in the above two statements is not to ridicule or slander, but to express affection for a friend instead. I don’t know when and how this started but weren’t those two words supposed to mean an insult? At least I would be very offended if someone called me a bitch. I don’t suppose this shift in how we perceive these cuss words came about because our generation was suddenly swayed by a sense of brotherhood for our canine friends. Nope! But used affectionately or in a derogatory way, the context doesn’t make their usage any less offensive. They’re both representatives of how profanity has permeated into our everyday parlance.

Profanity today has seeped into our everyday vocabulary to the extent that some things are best described only by the use of derogatory terms. For example –

Shit happens.

Life’s a bitch.

What an ass!

What the fuck is that?

Profanity has shifted, or should I say has been promoted, from being something used only to cause offence to something that sometimes conveys an idea best. But perhaps this shift in how we perceive the use of profanity now is the reason why we hear so much of it in everyday conversation.

Remember the time when you would get a stern look from elders for using terms as mild as ‘stupid’ and ‘shut up’, while today ‘shut up’ has become an equivalent for ‘seriously’ or ‘really’? When language starts to accommodate ‘foul’ in the ‘fair’ category it naturally leads to a downfall in the quality of language and the smudging of lines on what is acceptable and what is not. There is a reason why language from old books and period films sounds classy and sweet. Its because such allowances in language were not allowed then; a bitch meant only either a female dog or an insult to a woman; no other meaning to that expletive was allowed and entertained and the usage of the latter was frowned upon. What’s more, people considered it a part of good manners to keep their tempers and tongues in check.

When language is courteous, foul language automatically is kept under control because its use is considered taboo. But when language starts to get discourteous, starts passing off cuss words as normal usage, ‘wassup bitches’ is what you get and since today we are being trained to see these cuss words not as an insult, therefore even a derogatory ‘son of a gun’  sounds like a phrase used for appreciation.

But why do we use profanity? What makes its use so compelling? We’re all humans, we’re prone to getting angry and letting our mouths run loose along with our imaginations and getting creative with expletives. In some cases, it is even considered cool to use foul words, but what I don’t understand is why we use them at all? Forget about all the morally right reasons for not using bad language and just for a minute concentrate on the practical uses of foul language. What do you get?

Beyond the perverse joy of watching someone’s face fall and getting a kick out of it, or letting off steam, foul language really doesn’t serve any purpose because – 

A.  It doesn’t get the point across. The one being abused closes his mind to any attempt at conciliation or a fair argument thereafter.

B.  It makes the user sound uncouth and vile.

C.  It’s a waste of time and energy because it resolves nothing.

Oh, but it feels so gooooooood, did you say?!

I know that! I’ve been there, done that too. But apart from being branded a ‘bitch’, I didn’t accomplish anything else out of using profanity. I lost plenty though – friends, goodwill and face. I was the proverbial smart mouth who everyone liked to steer clear of and it was the reason why I drove myself into a lonely place. Coming out of that place was tough, and I’m still trying to mend the bridges I tore down.

As someone who’s been both at the giving and receiving ends of profanity, what I’ve come to learn is that using foul language is like using sarcasm – it’s perceived as something cool and witty, but is actually an infantile preoccupation of an egotist who does not have control over his emotions. Sure in some circumstances, both foul language and sarcasm are deserved, but I would say in most cases, a greater revenge would be to laugh in the face of your abuser and never give them the satisfaction of letting them get under your skin.

Coming back to the original theme of this article, the allowance of profanity in everyday conversations has led to a degeneration of language because we have taught ourselves that it is okay to use foul words even for expressing our appreciation or love. It sets a wrong precedent for not only our generation but even the ones coming after us who would only learn that there is no ceiling to how foul-mouthed you can be because by then the lines between courteous and uncouth words would have blurred to the extent that terms like ‘bitch’ would be regarded as both an appreciation and an insult. When we ourselves make such allowances in language we do not have the right to point to the younger generations and cry foul. Can you really blame a teenager who calls her friends ‘bitches’ or ‘dawgs’ when he/she has seen others do the same? Its unfair to them.

We should either clean up our own act or shut our eyes and ears to the degeneration of language and consequently the degeneration of our morality. Restraint on language also translates to restraint over temper because the use of foul language is a kind of vent for a frustrated soul, so that if you keep it in check, chances are your temper too will subside quickly, but if you over-indulge it, soon your hurt ego will not be sated by the mere use of foul language. It will deviate to worse alternatives. Not to generalize things but an example is that of an abusive parent and one who controls his tongue.  Who do you think is more likely to beat down his own children?

We need today to teach ourselves and our future generations that while expressing our love or anger is alright, the use of profanity to do so is absolutely unacceptable. The languages of the world are rich and flexible enough to provide enough room for creative expression without resorting to the use of bad words. If your tongue is sweet it will only invite more sweetness from others. Nobody likes a barbed wire.

Featured Image: 1820796 at Pixabay