The Myth of My Mother tongue

The language that I first learnt to speak when I was a child was an accidental one as I happened to be born in a particular language community and the language of this community became my mother tongue by default. Like all other children of my age and locality, I had no choice in the selection of my mother tongue and I picked up the sound, the vocabulary and the idioms of this language as it was spoken in my immediate neighborhood. As a child I made the sense of the strange new world around me with the help of this language. I used this language to dream, to talk, to cry, to sing and even to quarrel with my siblings. Everything was perfectly alright till I went to school.
In the admission register of my primary school, my father declared Bengali as my mother tongue just as he had to enter my caste and religion in that register. To my horror, I came to know that the language that had nourished me during my preschool days was not a language at all, it was a dialect, a variant of the ‘standard’ Bengali language spoken by the educated people of Calcutta living thousands of miles away! It is the language of the elites of my community and if I am to climb the ladder of the upward social mobility I should give up the tongue of the rustics! When I grew up I realized that ‘mother tongue’ is an ancestral property that I inherited and it would be the marker of my identity as long as I am alive in his world.
Learning the ‘standard’ variety of my mother tongue was a nightmare for me. In the ‘standard’ language, a cat is called a “biral” but I knew it as a “mekur”, the “pani”(water) became ” jol” (water) when I brought it to school. The conflict between the “home language”, my mother tongue and the “school language” was enough to confuse me as a child. The conflict between my ‘unofficial’ mother tongue and the ‘official’ mother tongue traumatized me. As there was little opportunity of speaking the standard Bengali outside the classroom, my reading and writing ability in the official mother tongue got the upper hand. Whenever, I tried to speak the ‘standard’ variety with my friends, they would mock at me, ” Look, look, the desi kukur is barking like a bilati kukur!” ( A native dog is barking like a foreign dog.”
In retrospect, I feel that the compulsion of using another variety of my officially designated mother tongue was more threatening to my self-esteem than the requirement of using English at the Middle school stage. The experience of being scolded for using the mother tongue ‘wrongly’ or ‘inappropriately’ during the early childhood hunts me till today.
There is nothing unique in the story of my tryst with my mother tongue. Many children speaking the related varieties of an officially recognized language might have faced similar situations.
Determining the mother tongue is always problematic. I have met many children who do not have a single, easily identifiable mother tongue. Take the example of Rohan, a six year old child, the product of a mixed marriage. The father’s mother tongue is Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language while that of the mother is Khasi, an Austric language. The family has been living in Bangalore for more than a decade. The language of communication between Rohan’s father and his mother is English though both of them can speak Hindi, Bengali, Khasi and Kannada. Rohan speaks English while communicating with his parents. He understands both Bengali and Khasi a little though he does not utter a single word in those two languages in the presence of his parents or other paternal or maternal relatives. His caregiver at home is a monolingual Khasi lady who does not speak any language other than Khasi. Will Rohan’s parents declare English as his mother tongue as this is the ‘first language ’ that Rohan has learnt during his childhood? What happens to his ancestral mother tongue? If language is the marker of ethnicity, what will be the ethnicity of this boy whose mother tongue is neither Bengali nor Khasi? The common language between the parents is not the ancestral language of either of the parents.
Let me cite the case of Argha born and brought up in the multilingual cosmopolitan setting of Bangalore. His Bengali speaking parents never uttered a single Bengali word in his presence, they spoke to him in English since his birth and we also have our conversation in English whenever he was around. The first language that this boy has learnt for intra-personal as well as interpersonal communication is English. As Argha’s parents live in a cosmopolitan residential complex, Argha has learnt Hindi and Kannada along with English and he is now quite fluent in all the three languages. What will be the mother tongue of this multilingual boy? English, Hindi or Kannada? If mother tongue is linked to a child’s early language experiences, then Argha should have three mother tongues, English, Hindi and Kannada. In this multilingual scenario, Argha’s ancestral mother tongue is noting but a foreign language for him.
I have a question: Shouldn’t we give up the concept of a single mother tongue? Can we ask a child, “What are your mother tongues?” instead of asking him, “What’s your mother tongue?”

References: Gupta,A.F. (1997) ‘When mother tongue Education is not preferred’ in Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development http://www.researchgate.net/publication/240535809

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