Forget Marathi, Tamil, Bengali: your kid is English only

by Lakshmi Chaudhry  May 31, 2011 09:31 IST

#language   #mother tongue   #OnOurMind   #Tulu  

"Due to a 'communication gap', the present generation has stopped learning Tulu. In order to prove wrong UNESCO's prediction on Tulu becoming a dying language, we had decided on textbooks," says a hapless Palthadi Ramakrishna Achar in an Indian Express article headlined, 'Any Takers for Tulu Textbooks in Dakshin Kannda District?' The answer: a resounding no!

The efforts of the Karnataka Tulu Sahitya Academy to revive the endangered language has run into resistance not from the authorities but the community itself. After extensive lobbying, the department of state education approved Tulu as an optional language from Class VI onwards but seemingly to no avail: "[I]t is the lack of enthusiasm among parents and headmasters that pained Achar. 'Tulu bodchi' (we need no Tulu) was the common refrain when they [began] approaching schools with the offer to teach Tulu."

In language trouble. Oswaldo Riva/Reuters

Yes, we don't need Tulu or for that matter any local language because we – for all our ethnic pride – believe that our children's future lies in the close embrace of English. It is the language that has allowed us to conquer the global market. Sure the Chinese may be as smart, perhaps even work harder, but hey, we speak English. It is the language of opportunity, as my maid, Kumari, well knows. "Theresa is in English school," she tells me proudly.

But surely knowledge of one language doesn't need to preclude facility with another – not in the new multi-ethnic, multilingual India. Over the past 20 years thanks to the liberalisation boom, vast swathes of Indians, rich, middle class, and poor, have criss-crossed the country in search of opportunity. In ‘new’ Bangalore, Manipuri beauticians, Malayali nurses, Punjabi housewives, Tamil maids, and Andhra businessmen live cheek-by-jowl, expanding each other’s linguistic horizons. The Gujarati businessman at the vet's clinic chats in Kannada with the assistant, drumming up some broken Tamil as he makes small talk with me. Kumari, who arrived in the city as a young illiterate woman from Dharmapuri, has since added three languages—Kannada, Hindi, and  rudimentary English — to her skill set.

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse," averred the Spanish Emperor Charles V. The youngest generation of Bangaloreans are no less talented. "My child already speaks four languages," is the boast I hear most often from other parents. This dazzling multilingualism, however, carries a hidden loss, of mother tongues that are slowly slipping from a new generation's memory.

"My kids only speak to me in English now," says a Tulu friend of her teenage children, "We tried so hard to make sure this didn't happen. We spoke to them only in our language – no English or Kannada. And then they went to school, and stopped speaking it entirely. I don't know what happened."

Actually, she does know what happened: "Each time the teacher would show a picture, he'd raise his hands and yell out the word in Tulu. And all the kids would start laughing." It's a story I hear over and again, even with languages that are hardly endangered. "My daughter stopped speaking Tamil at around 10. She told her aunt, 'It's for talking to servants'," says a childood friend's wife. "I certainly didn't teach her that!"

But we do teach our kids that it is important to get along and get ahead. And  to do so in an English-language school with its attendant peer pressure that often requires unlearning your mother tongue. English is also the default benefactor of our multi-ethnic urban culture. All this unity has come at a certain price.

Until a year ago, my three-year old daughter – an American citizen by birth, with an Iyer mother and Jat father -- was almost entirely monolingual. For all her hybrid credentials, she’d learned to talk in a Tamil-only household that included my mother, her attendant, and my maid. Worried about her relationship with her absent father (stranded far away in his tech job in San Jose), I did my best to raise Mallika as bilingual, with hilarious and unintended results.

As suggested by my trusty parenting manual, I started speaking to her solely in English – only to have her stubbornly respond in Tamil. The system worked just fine in her mind: I understand Mama; she understands me; excellent! It was all good until we took our Punch and Judy show on the road. "Madam, this is your daughter?" asked the old man in the park. When I nodded, he said, "Then why you not speak Tamil? Maybe you should learn."

Once reserved for the school or office, English is now the new mother tongue, reigning supreme even within our homes. It is easy to blame the schools, but it is more often we – the urban professional class — who have spurned the language of our childhood. Where our parents weaned us on Telugu, Punjabi, Marathi or Oriya, we’re busy teaching our kids English nursery rhymes and their ABCs. My mother lulled me to sleep with songs of the great Tamil poet Bharathi; I sing Que Sera Sera to my child each night.

We’re rapidly becoming, in author Pavan Varma’s words, “a nation of linguistic half-castes, insecure in English and neglectful of their own mother tongue;” fluent instead in a shoddy urban patois that reflects an eroding connection to the past. Unlike Tulu, our mother tongues may not be in danger of going extinct, but they remain endangered in another sense. Our children — unmoored from tradition — may indeed speak four languages, but none with real mastery, depth, or worse, a sense of identity. As a Bengali friend put it, "My nephew is comfortable in Bengali, but he will never dream in it."

"A different language is a different vision of life," said the legendary Italian director Frederico Fellini. As expected, Mallika’s English has improved by leaps and bounds after a year in pre-school. But she no longer speaks to me in Tamil. I can't help wondering what the price of this changing 'vision of life' will be.

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