No country for mother tongue?

Language matters

No country for mother tongue?

With English being seen as the elevator to a brave new upwardly mobile world, it is promoted by parents and teachers alike, relegating the mother tongue to secondary status in everyday life. Is mother tongue on its way out, wonders SHINIE ANTONY

That English has infiltrated every cranny of the country is unarguable, but has it, with its promise of better lands and homogenising powers, begun to overwrite our own bhasha? Once upon a time India had many, many languages; some died, some acclimatised, some barely made it alive. The remaining are today reeling under the ‘English’ rule. Besides being pan-nation, English hints, wrongly, at higher education and guarantees, rightly, instant rapport. It is the café-speak, the official medium, the Jack of all tongues.

There are of course the words seemingly without desi replacements, like button, switch, car, bus, train, plane, platform, ticket, station, battery, stamp, etc. One rarely says phisalpatti for playground slides. But then, language was created to connect, is meant for contact, that’s its job. In Bhopal, cabs are called docomos ever since taxis carried the Tata DoCoMo ad. If buses in New Zealand say, ‘We kneel on request’ for senior citizens, our lorries go ‘Horn-OK-Please’. While adapting we initially strive to keep the spirit of the first language, the arterial lingo, the speech we think in, alive even at the cost of caricaturing a second language. Then the second language strikes back.

While UNESCO puts 198 Indian languages in its list of endangered languages, the 1971 census could count only up to 109 mother tongues. The elevator to a brave new upwardly mobile world is bilingual or even multilingual, made up of a couple of vernaculars, Hinglish, Indian English and — whoosh! — English.

Crossover culture invests in a newly minted market, which increasingly has monolingual roots and perhaps mistrusts purely regional mediums for their ‘blind alley-ism’. Commerce clarifies the new intent.

Says bestselling author Chetan Bhagat, “Mother tongues will remain, but any language holds relevance if it has economic relevance. In that sense, we have a father tongue, the language that helps us earn a living. People will gravitate towards that, and sometimes it can be at the expense of the mother tongue. I always say, Hindi is your mother, English is your wife. Love both, just don’t say who you love more!’

“Yes, mother tongues are disappearing,” agrees Mini Krishnan, editor, translation, Oxford University Press, “in the face of the global pressure to conform to something called universality or global identity which moves from outward preferences in food, clothes, cosmetics, tech-possessions, to inward thinking and choice of language to communicate in. Finally, this leads to a drop in the number of people who can write creatively in that language and its readership also declines, making it difficult for any kind of knowledge discourse to be held in it. Which publisher can invest in a 100-odd copies and hope to pay his employees?”

While Bhagat recommends a slightly polyglot path and Krishnan points out the business end, Vani Mahesh, the founder of Bangalore-based online library easylib.com, stresses on the snob value of English: “Mother tongue is disappearing because it is not fashionable for middle-aged mothers to speak it. We like accented English. So we don’t teach our kids their native language. What if they are caught speaking it?”

It is true that the middle class will have little to do with schools that are not ‘English medium’. So, is mother tongue on its way out? Are Telugu, Tulu or Tamil headed for the historical archives of deceased vernaculars?

And will a time come when all our literature, cinema and cultural recordings be available solely in English?

Delhi-based author Jaishree Misra strikes a practical note. “I think it is too early yet to bemoan the complete disappearance of our mother tongues and regional languages. But yes, I do see signs of a gradual devaluation as aspirational young Indians — and, let’s face it, most youngsters are aspirational — are generally very keen to learn English so that they can compete better for jobs and get ahead faster in workplaces.

Is this a good thing or bad? I think we need to be pragmatic, so I support young people who, given half a chance, would rather practice their English speaking skills than speak the mother tongues they are probably more comfortable with.”
With English so rampant and ‘posh’, efforts to preserve the going-going-gone scripts seem puny, dauntingly uphill.

Says Bangalore-based writer Jahnavi Barua: “Knowing one’s mother tongue was something we took for granted, in our generation. Now we have to consciously teach our children their mother tongues. It is important that they know it. An entire world is closed to a child if he or she does not know his or her mother tongue.”
But, does the child understand this in time for his imagination to get its head around a particular tongue?


Krishnan says: “Every language or mother tongue carries a world of images and idioms, proverbs and similes that place its speakers in a cultural continuum, linking them to their past and to future speakers of the same language. Languages shape political and cultural identities, and guard memories. So the death of a language, a mother tongue, is essentially the loss of an intangible world.

Human language binds, networks, dramatises and provides a way of telling and storing its stories. Language is about the story of human communities and we cannot afford to lose languages. Because then we lose our stories.”

In effect, then we are in the process of changing the accent of our thoughts, of our gut feeling, dreams and intuition. However, when it comes to walking into the sunset, all regional languages, naturally, cannot be lumped together.


Poet and critic K Satchidandan, who writes in Malayalam and English, explains: “The danger to mother tongues is real while the degree of it varies from language to language.

English becoming the language of aspiration for the middle class and even lower classes and its promotion by parents and teachers, relegating the mother tongue to secondary status in everyday life, the impact of the social media where English is the preferred language, the emergence of the world-wide-web and other major information sources that are mostly in English,  the difficulty of finding employment after being educated in the mother tongue (they will have to find jobs within the state which is near-impossible in our situation), the social vanity associated with speaking and writing in English, parents having to live outside the state for their livelihood and children being born into another language milieu — all these have contributed to this decline.”

Keerti Ramachandra, who has taught middle school to post-graduate journalism courses and worked as an editor with various publishing firms including Katha, admits that perhaps from some urban upper/middle class homes mother tongues are disappearing, especially where the prevalence of mixed marriages is high.

“Things get a little more complicated when people live in regions where neither the father tongue nor mother tongue is spoken. For example, people who come from Marathi-Kannada families or Tamil-Punjabi families, living in Delhi/Kolkata/Mumbai. Children grow up picking up the language they are exposed to at school (usually Hindi/English) rather than the one spoken at home. Sad? Yes, but one cannot preserve a language artificially. Languages will not disappear; they will grow, evolve, as long as people need to communicate effectively, only it might be a different Marathi/Hindi/Tamil/or any other language,” she says.


This details the flexi and organic properties of a given vernacular to modernise itself along its own ethos and flow, mop up external interference at its own pace. But what of those who’d rather go the whole hog and dismantle what is, swap a speech/script from scratch?


Writer Namita Gokhale, who is also one of the founder directors of a publishing firm that co-publishes in Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and other Indian languages, warns: “The Indian traditions and natural ability for multilingualism allow us to access and inhabit many simultaneous and often contradictory realities. It would be a real tragedy if we were to trade this in for a 1,500-word sterile globish English vocabulary, as seems to be the aspirational trend in many sections of society.’

Shini Cyriac, the headmistress of Rajagiri Kindergarten in Kochi, echoes her on the subject: “Youngsters nowadays are not too keen to speak in their mother tongue. It can be due to peer pressure or a false sense of prestige that English is a superior language. But in no way can we find fault with the younger generation. Parents are to be blamed for this. They do not realise that to understand the nuances of other languages mother tongue helps a lot. Not only that, the mother tongue reflects our culture and traditions. If mother tongue faces extinction, the human race too will suffer.”


“What is a greater pity,” says Misra, “is the gradual disappearance of rich regional language literatures with very few people interested enough to pursue the study or development of these.”

Satchidanandan speaks of initiatives like the Malayalam Mission in Delhi to educate children in that language. “Maybe there should be more such fora. Parents should use their mother tongue in communication and inculcate in children a pride — not a narrow and insular one that promotes loathing for other languages — in their mother tongue and teach them at least to read and write in the mother tongue. Governments should promote mother tongue by making it compulsory up to at least the matriculation level. All these, I hope, can help in the revival and rejuvenation of mother tongues,” he says.

Now, modern India is no Tower of Babel despite the clamour of voices. Journalism, literature, business, politics; no field is untouched by verbal plurality, by the need to translate into as many languages as possible. But the spine of a superpower language that binds fluently to a network outside is seductive for its universality and global reach, which is why ‘spoken English’ classes are everywhere. On one hand is the downplaying of heritage as a mere and probably colloquial habit, of what one owns and should safe-keep. On the other hand is instant comprehension, cyber connectivity and the primal need to articulate to a larger reach.


Ramachandra adds: “Personally, I feel sad that people are indifferent to using language effectively, creatively, beautifully. Regional languages are rich in idiomatic expressions, analogies and sayings that native speakers (literate or otherwise) used so naturally. I wonder whether we have added to that enormous body of phrases/idioms. One reason could be because much of this is preserved in the written texts and we don’t read quite as much. The oral tradition was the most effective way of passing stories, languages and traditions down.”


What is true is that mother tongues are stuttering down a do-or-die crossroads, if not during this generation, then certainly the next. And while all are agreed upon the importance of preserving the identity of what can best be described as an almost pre-lingual umbilical parlance, there are those who have deliberately stopped mouthing their mother tongue to speak English that much better.

Comments (+)