Speaking my mother tongue

The Asian Age.  | M J Warsi

India, All India

Americans are now raising their children to be bilingual or even multilingual.

Washington University in St. Louis is home to hundreds of international students from all over the world.

Today one often gives little thought when speaking about their native tongue. But is it ever a simple task to go about speaking of our mother tongue? People of the Indian subcontinent make up one of the largest communities of immigrants to the England, United States, etc. This means that the languages spoken in South Asia are spoken outside those borders as well. Hence, diaspora communities create more nuances in the types of speakers of their language. Some whose native tongue is the South Asian language can be bilingual, but there are also heritage language learners who want to reclaim their culture.

On the importance of mother native language, my colleague, Mushtaque Ahmad said: “Personally, I feel very close to my mother tongue, Urdu. Urdu is not only my mother tongue but despite decades of learning and training in English language, I have always somehow managed to retain my interest in Urdu language — in both language and literature. I love Urdu poetry — nazm, ghazal, etc., and although I can never claim perfect academic or technical command over its language or literature, but I have always nurtured this desire to ‘serve’ my mother tongue Urdu in every way possible.”

Americans are now raising their children to be bilingual or even multilingual. So why do we seek to learn languages other than our mother tongue? Why spend hours memorising the genders of new nouns, different verb conjugations and how to pronounce letters in a new alphabet? Each person has his own answer to this question. Whether it is to communicate with a beloved grandparent, to stay competitive in a global market or simply to increase your knowledge, it is essential to learn culture in tandem with the language you are learning. We need to understand culture in order to get the perspective of native speakers, understand the history of the language, and so that we can visit the region in which native language is spoken.

With a semester stay at the Washington University in St. Louis, I began taking Hindi courses to learn more about the language and the culture that was feeling ever distant as I entered my early 20s, said Abhi Kapuria. Students throughout the semester have written dozens of pages, read dozens more stories, and even compiled a play-like final presentation to become more proficient in learning a language, which they considered the mother tongue of their parents.

However, all of these experiences have cumulated in almost everyday usage of the Hindi language in their daily life. Of course, there are terms which have been engrained into the American culture, like “chutney”, “Diwali”, and “samosa” (even “namaste”), but these are at best derelicts of the ability that students around me possess. In the classroom, full adherence to speaking Hindi is observed, as it should be. All of the students communicate in Hindi and are corrected in an open and constructive manner.

I do not believe, however, that this truth is surprising, unexpected or even bad. When a student leaves the community of the Hindi classroom and enters the greater world of the campus setting, he or she must be aware of what their choice in language does to the people around them. I believe that if a student chooses to speak in a language, like Hindi, with other students on campus, they are essentially entering into a multilingual scenario and feeling like they are a part of a larger community.

Washington University in St. Louis is home to hundreds of international students from all over the world. These students share a diverse culture, experience base, and of course language. It is not uncommon to find many of these students walking in small clusters on campus all speaking in a language other than English. To them, it is simply communicating in a way that is easiest for everyone in their group to understand. The international students have created an exclusive group that essentially everyone in the community is welcome to. The sense of overall community emerges when we have groups that exist in such a manner.

While walking on the street or going to the class, the truth may be that these students find it much easier to speak in their native tongue, as they find it easier to speak in Hindi with their mother who admittedly still struggles with a mastery over English. When we leave an environment of a classroom where the objective is to learn Hindi to an environment where we are fully capable of including everyone in it. By speaking their mother tongue on campus, either by choice or subconsciously, we are including everyone else on campus into our conversation and essentially into our friend circle. This attitude of speaking their mother tongue when we have the choice to speak in this universal language may be beneficial from the teaching standpoint but also from social and cultural point of view.

This dynamics of the linguistic phenomena presented by the South Asian diaspora extends the importance of considering the context in which the mother tongue is being spoken. Not only is the native language something that is worth contextualising regionally within South Asia, but also beyond those borders. In addition to regional dialects within South Asia, Hindi being spoken outside South Asia calls upon one to consider the context of the language spoken in an even more serious manner. Therefore, when speaking about importance of mother tongue, it undoubtedly carries significance to consider the weight of the categories being used. May be in future years, the discourse will adopt new terms to adapt to the changing environment.

M.J. Warsi is a well-known linguist, author and columnist. He may be reached at: warsimj@gmail.com