Last month, when Home Minister Amit Shah remarked that people from different states should speak in Hindi instead of English, it ignited an age-old debate over linguistic diversity in India. However, in my home—and in several others’ I know—a linguistic dilemma has been underway much before that.
My seven-year-old daughter’s primary language is English. She speaks the language with comfort, and when with friends, switches between English and Hindi with ease. The only time she hesitates is when we speak in Assamese, her ‘mother tongue’. In our attempt to help our children socialise better with their peer group, parents, especially those living in cities and urban areas which have a mixed population, encourage the learning of a common, or popular, language, usually Hindi or English. While this helps children communicate better with those around them, it puts their regional language on the back burner.
The first word a child learns is usually in her mother tongue, or native language. It is a cocoon of comfort, spoken and understood by everyone at home. It is the one in which you learn to express yourself. The vitality of a language however depends on its usage.
According to UNESCO, there are four levels of language endangerment based on intergenerational transfer: Vulnerable (when most children speak the language, but only at home), Definitely endangered (when children don’t learn the language as their mother tongue), Severely endangered (grandparents speak the language, parents understand but don’t speak it among themselves or with their children), and Critically endangered (grandparents are the youngest speakers). If one were to compare census data of 1961 and 2011, India, one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, may have lost 220 languages over the last 50 years.
Regional languages are doorways to the world of local wisdom. Elders of a community pass on knowledge of local culture and traditions, food recipes, traditional medicines and medicinal plants, and folk tales in the language of their inheritance. Translation offers a bridge to access some of this knowledge, but often, the nuances are lost in between.
For example, when Aarav, her nine-year-old son sometimes asks her the meaning of certain words in the Odia folk tales she narrates to him, Amrita Dash, 36, struggles. “I honestly don’t know the exact translation of some of the Odia words,” says the Delhi-based corporate professional. When Shyama, her older daughter was three years old, she’d struggled to interact with her peer group because she did not know Hindi.
“We only spoke Odia at home,” Dash says. “But outside, we’d quickly switch to Hindi or English because these are the common languages. Shyama naturally struggled, but eventually caught on. With Aarav however it was more of a concern because he is a shy kid. We didn’t want the language barrier to further undermine his confidence. Hence we spoke to him in Hindi early on.” While that did help Aarav mix around with much more ease, Odia, his mother tongue, became the second language, one which he now uses sparingly.
Dash’s story is not unlike mine. Until age three, my daughter spoke only Assamese, with a smattering of English. We live in an eclectic neighbourhood, moving across the country every few years because of my spouse’s nature of work. As a result, no matter which part of the country they are from, most children around us are taught Hindi and/or English early on so that they can mix around with ease. When she started play school, I realised this made perfect sense and therefore encouraged my daughter to speak more in English—the language we, as parents, are comfortable in. Assamese, except at home, was not a part of her world, not among her friends, not in the books she reads, not in the animated TV series she watches. Unlike her cousins back in Assam, or Aarav’s in Odisha, the children are not learning their respective regional languages, even as second language, in school.
Does this mean that they would not be able to understand the treasure trove of songs, poetry and stories in their regional language? Be unable to read the dog-eared recipe notebook of their grandmother?
The onus, as is the obvious answer, falls on the parents. Research shows that multilingual children are better at cognitive skills, improved memory and decision-making process. However, and like all things else, forcing a child to learn a language, especially when they are already learning another, can lead to loss in interest.
But, as parents, we sometimes underestimate our children. My daughter for instance, makes do with her broken Assamese when at her grandparents’ and with her cousin and the peer group. Last I was there, she even learnt a beautiful Assamese song, a classic Dr Bhupen Hazarika number no less, from her grandfather. Her love for music melted all barriers—real and imagined—as her untrained voice loving embraced every word of ‘Kohua bon, mur oxanto mon’ (My restless mind is like the wild grass).
A few weeks later, it was another song, and then, another. My parents are thrilled, even getting ambitious at which song to introduce her to next. As she now relays me back the meaning of one of those songs, I realise that I have found my way to reintroduce her to the language of her inheritance.
Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur