Over the past few decades, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of people living abroad. As a result the new generation is being fostered away from its motherland. While most people try to preserve and pass on their culture to their next generation, not enough efforts are being taken to teach and save our mother tongues. If it continues this way, all these beautiful languages will disappear from these households and will be at a risk of becoming extinct. As language is such an essential part of a culture, it is very agonizing to imagine that with language, the cultural values will be lost too.
Celebrating our festivals, dressing up kids in ethnic clothes, making traditional foods at home are just some examples of how people try their best to follow their cultural norms even when living away from the country of origin. I believe that teaching kids their mother tongue is the key to help them understand their culture.
People sharing the same mother tongue can have much deeper and heart-to-heart conversation in their own language than in any other. I remember the day when I was boarding the “Maid of the Mist” cruise at the Niagara Falls, with my family. There, a crew person was guessing the native language of people boarding the cruise and was addressing them in their language. The mixed feeling of friendliness, amusement and surprise, when he said “Aap Kaise Hain (आप कैसें है?)” (“How are you?”), in Hindi, was extremely welcoming. The reason, I believe, is that sharing a common language, creates some bonding. Our mother tongue or our family language is a naturally inherited priceless keepsake. If our children are secluded from it, it will slacken the family bond and cause them to drift away from their root culture.
Our mother tongue, lets us enjoy movies, theater and songs in our language. Literature, music, art, and theatrical dramas are all reflections of the traditions, practices, and customs that are inherited and pursued by us for so many generations. It is amazing to see how kids unknowingly adopt these cultural values from such entertainment sources without us having to take any deliberate or extra efforts to teach. But this is possible only if they can understand their mother tongue. So I feel that for a successful transfer of our invaluable cultural teachings to the next generation, learning their mother tongue should not only be insisted, but it should be the foundation.
Many times, I have seen it happen, that the fear of not understanding the local language goes to the extent of completely ignoring and forgetting the mother tongue. When this happens, these are some of the consequences:
Participation of kids in any family discussions is dramatically reduced, especially when they involve parents or grandparents. This is because they cannot understand much of the conversation that is going on in their family language and they might walk out feeling bored. In the long term, they might start considering themselves somewhat different from the rest of the family and might not think of themselves as a part of it.
Conversations with relatives in the country of origin, might become very difficult for children. Neither can they express themselves clearly in their language nor can the person on the other side understand them very well. So the conversation time and frequency gradually becomes smaller and smaller. So, next time kids might try to avoid talking completely to escape any embarrassment.
The fun of just hanging out with cousins and relatives is missed because of the inability to understand and speak the family language very well. Again, they end up feeling left out of the family on such occasions.
Experts from the English as a Second Language (ESL) program have researched that kids who know and continue to learn their mother tongues can learn any language much faster and better than kids who do not know their mother tongue. The reason is – as a baby grows, she is continuously listening to noises around her. With an effort to communicate with people, she learns to recognize sound patterns hidden in these noises and guess their meanings. This cognitive skill is best acquired when learning her mother tongue in this way. And the same skill is later used to learn any other language easily. Also, the trick of guessing the meaning of words from context clues, another important skill in comprehension, is also best learnt in the process of learning a mother tongue.
I am writing this based on my experience raising three kids in the USA. We always talk to each other in Marathi (our mother tongue), at home. When my oldest son was starting his preschool, I was a little apprehensive about how he would manage at school with such a little practice of speaking in English. But when I discussed this with his teachers, they said that kids at his age are experts at learning multiple languages. They never advised me to switch to English at all times. And they were absolutely right. Within a few months, he was speaking English so well that I couldn’t help feeling amazed. At home, however, Marathi continued. Eventually, with the other two, I had no worries. Now all three of them are fluent in both the languages. Besides speaking, I also teach them reading and writing in Marathi because reading, writing and speaking are all essential skills needed to master any language. Practice of course is important and can be best given at home by all family members.
The purpose of writing this article is to highlight the need of saving our mother tongues if we really wish to save our cultures. Curiosity towards exploring other cultures and languages should always be there, but first the desire to understand our own family culture and language should be so deeply rooted that our children should feel proud in making conscious efforts of passing this rich heritage to their next generation. That’s when I will consider my teaching to be complete.