It all began when a younger and reluctant version of me was summoned to my late grandfather’s room for an important “talk”. The talk was more of a lecture which started with my grandfather asking me the question,
“How well do you know your mother tongue?”
That conversation which took place years ago flooded back to my mind as I listened to my mother reprimanding me for knowing just about nothing about my Indian culture, which I vehemently protested against. History repeated itself as she repeated my grandfather’s question, resulting in silence.
There’s no pride in saying that although I can speak fairly well in mother tongue (Gujarati), I can neither read nor write in it. But it never mattered much to me as I like many others, mistook one’s English-speaking capabilities as a mark of their intellectual prowess. However, that myth was exposed when I saw a voluminous collection of Gujarati books gathering dust on my bookshelf and when my mother had to translate some beautiful pieces of Gujarati poetry to me, often butchering the desired effect. I tried consoling myself by thinking of people who share my state. Then again, that is just a pathetic attempt of an excuse.
Nowadays it’s not a surprise to see people struggling to communicate in their mother tongue, be it a teenager who is born and brought up in a foreign country or an elderly person returning to his country after twenty years. But who is to blame? With globalization, travel, and “expanding one’s horizons” taking over the world, it can be easy to drift away from one’s roots. Although a tad far-fetched, it’s worrying to imagine that a few generations later, people will be dumbfounded by their mother tongue. For example, I know quite a few people who fluently speak English but lack that fluency when it comes to their native language.
English, although not the most spoken language in the world, is a prefered mode of communication in many countries, especially those that were colonized by the Brits. More than a language, it has become a lifestyle of sorts and God help the poor soul who accidentally stumbles upon a group of hoity-toity English speakers… Agreed, knowing the language makes communication with others easier but why make it the benchmark of progress?
It isn’t a benchmark of any sort and to prove it, there are many places around the world wherein people have realised the importance of preserving their native language and steps are being taken. It was a delight to surf the internet and discover that authorities in countries such as Nepal, Madagascar and Zambia are putting time and effort to inculcate their native languages into the public, especially the children. Other than teaching a second language in schools, children are being taught their subjects in their mother tongue, and it’s bringing in fruitful results. It’s also a pleasure to see that in a global superpower like China, there is much importance given to being familiar with their mother tongue, and there’s hardly any stigma attached to someone’s English proficiency.
Knowing one’s mother tongue isn’t solely for avoiding embarrassment in front of relatives, trust me. Speaking fluently in five different languages is nothing less than a feat but it’s important to include your mother tongue within those languages. We create an identity for ourselves when we know our mother tongue, we preserve our ethnicity, our culture and knowing our mother tongue gives us the gift of understanding the various nuances and idiosyncrasies behind our lingo. In Hindi, we have an extremely useful word called “jugaad”, and till date, I haven’t been able to do justice in explaining the meaning behind this frequently used and ever-so-handy term… And that’s the magic of our mother tongue.