Learning the Mother Tongue

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Is language just a means of communication? To reduce language to just a means of communicating information or our thoughts betrays our ignorance about its numerous other dimensions like culture, emotions, identity, personality formation, and so on. Had language been just a means of communication, the human beings would have long found a common language much like the binary zeroes and ones that rule the digital world.

However, language is not so simple a phenomenon. Yet, this is the first reply that people give when questioned about their reluctance or inability to learn their mother tongue. It is necessary that we make some things clear at the very beginning of this discussion. No one is arguing here that one should not learn any language other than one’s mother tongue. 

Such an argument would be regressive and would deprive one of the vast amounts of knowledge and creative wisdom that is found in the world languages. Further, it would also seriously hamper one from pursuing different paths of knowledge and career. Also, to properly live in harmony with our fellow human beings in this increasingly shrinking world, we need to learn as many languages as we can.

Then, what is this discussion about? It is about the need for learning properly one’s own mother tongue, while also learning as many as ‘other’ tongues because the true tongue that one can have is the mother tongue, rest are other tongues. However, this discussion does not also aim to start a process of creating boundaries by ‘othering’ tongues and cultures. Though that came as an easy coinage of phrase, ‘other’ tongue does not mean a means of differentiation, but it just denotes a tongue that was not of your mother and so is not natural to you. 

The true tongue that one person can have is the mother tongue, the rest are other tongues.

The other aspect of this discussion that has to be clarified in the beginning is the phenomenon of one growing up learning the other tongue and not the mother tongue. This has become true with many families now as more and more children are being born outside of their native cultures. As most such children identify more or only with the culture they are born in rather than their native culture, it becomes highly difficult to determine their mother tongue. For instance, a child born of Indian parents, who have become citizens of the US, cannot identify with India as one’s nation or motherland. Such a child is brought up in the US and becomes a true citizen of that nation. All that person has as the remnants of Indian-ness is the gatherings at Indian festivals, places of worship, or social events. The nativity is reduced to the mere wearing of clothes and relishing some food. 

Nonetheless, that child’s mother tongue would remain to be the tongue that the native culture spoke simply because millennia of impressions remain hardwired in the genes and therefore also in the neural circuitry of the child. Mastering any tongue is difficult and takes years of training. However, it is always easier for a child to pick up the nuances of one’s mother tongue, even when spoken in a strange accent and even when practised in a non-native culture.

India is witnessing a very strange phenomenon. Parents are going out of their way to educate their children in English. Now, English education is necessary, and has made Indians fare well on the world scene. But, now Indians are insanely obsessed with English. Parents force their children to speak English just as the British or the Americans do. Recently, a child was seen begging for water at an airport, while the parents insisted that the child asks for water in English. The poor six-year-old struggled to enunciate the right words, under great discomfort of the parched throat. Parents ask the teachers at their child’s school to enforce speaking in English and to actually penalise, sometimes even by money, if the child speaks in one’s mother tongue or in any Indian language! India is probably the only country in the world where a school going child has to face punishment for speaking one’s mother tongue. 

One is seen as a person of learning only when one speaks in English, even though most of the time the language that is spoken is not idiomatic, often idiotic, ungrammatical, and largely a transposition of the idioms, phrases, meanings, and nuances of the mother tongue of the speaker. Mannerisms of regional affectations are transplanted into the English speech and what comes out is an unending spree of a volley of words which signify almost nothing to the listener, particularly if the listener is a native speaker.

Every language reflects culture, literature, and popular forms of culture like music, film, and folklore of the native community. Often when one learns a language as the ‘other’ tongue, one is not given the context or the culture of the language. This happens mainly because to learn a language in all its contexts, one needs a much longer time. Such time is not available to a person, who is learning a language out of some necessity. It could be for work or for education. This time-bound learning prevents one from going into the nuances of a language and hence what is easily acquired through the family and culture and what is handed down over successive generations regarding the knowledge of mother tongue is unavailable when learning an ‘other’ tongue. That is why one sees this strange phenomenon. A person born and brought up in a non-native country knows details about one’s tradition and folklore much better than the person born and brought up in the native country. This is primarily because of the obsession with learning an ‘other’ language and culture.

In the Indian context, the root cause of such a phenomenon is the millennia-old slavery that has seeped into the marrows of Indians. There is enough evidence, both in neurology and psychology, to prove that a child picks up on the subtleties of learning a language and also learns to distinguish one’s mother tongue from the ‘other’ tongues at a very early age, primarily due to the natal influence of the mother. Many linguists believe that if one can learn one’s mother tongue properly, one can master other languages at a much faster pace and with much greater expertise. Researchers on language acquisition of a child believe that the child learns one’s mother tongue easily and quickly as an infant as compared to ‘other’ tongues. So, the very process of language learning can be highly developed in a child only if she or he learns the mother tongue first. Any child can learn more than one language from the infancy. However, if the child is taught the mother tongue along with the other languages and also with increased emphasis and priority, that child learns all the languages at an amazing pace and with surprising ability.

Though we all should become multilingual, it is imperative that one has a working knowledge of our mother tongues, the only way that our neural networks and minds would cooperate fully with our tongues so that we virtually become master players of the tongue!

Author is Editor Prabuddha Bharata

To read all articles by Author 

This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more http://advaitaashrama.org/pbSubscription 

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