When my mother died a few years back, I not only lost my mother, I lost my mother tongue too. My mother used to speak a language which my children could not understand. I did not allow my children to learn my mother’s tongue as I wanted them to learn the standard language, not the dialect of the rustics. My mother was the only person in the family who used a distinct language derided by the civilized world as a dialect. When my children grew up, they wanted to know why I had not taught them their grandma’s tongue, they felt that their inability to use their grandma’s tongue deprived them of her love and affection. They acquired and spoke the standard language at home, not the language that I spoke as a child. During their infancy, I was extra vigilant to keep them away from the sound of the language that I inherited, I avoided going to our ancestral village lest the kids’ language get contaminated by a language dubbed as an unsophisticated dialect. This personal narrative may sound strange to many people, but this is the grim reality confronting many Indians whose mothers’ tongues are incomprehensible to their children.
The so called prestige value bestowed on the standard variety of a language is also one of the causes of the disintegration of many Indian joint families. The wife of one of my friends in Bangalore had to face the wrath of her in laws when she refused to talk to the new born baby in the non-standard variety of the language spoken in her in-laws house. In order to protect her child from the ‘vulgar’ tongue of her in-laws, she persuaded her husband to shift to a new house in another locality of the city.
Till now, I was referring to the death of Indian languages due to the prestige value accorded to the standard variety of the recognized languages. The shopping malls of the metropolitan cities of India reveal another sordid story. Believe it or not, English is the language of the shopping malls of India. While shopping in malls, parents speaking English with heavily accented Kannada, Tamil or Bengali interact with their kids in English. Though both the parents speak the standard variety of an Indian language quite perfectly, they use English while interacting with their kids. Just as I protected my kids from the influence of the non-standard variety of my language, these parents protect their kids from the influences of the standard variety of their own language. For these kids, English is their home language, English is their school language and English will be the language of their professional life.
The death of languages is a universal phenomenon. Just as a dialect becomes a language due to non-linguistic factors and gobbles other dialects, the language of opportunity and economic empowerment has a tendency of devouring other disadvantaged languages. In India, people are traditionally identified by their languages, but it seems that language as a marker of social identity may undergo a sea change in coming decades. Due to large scale inter-State migrations and marriages, a new language-independent pan-Indian identity has been emerging in various parts of the country. Our children of the next generation will be multilingual in the true sense of the word, linguistic boundaries will not make any sense to them. Their linguistic repertoire in more than one language will make them more tolerant, more pragmatic and more humane than their parents. The citizens of the digital world will speak a language of their own, not the one prescribed by their parents. Have I a cause to despair?