Mother tongue: language of expressing feelings, emotions

Mother tongue: language of expressing feelings, emotions

The International Mother Language Day is celebrated every year on February 21 since 1990 after the declaration by the United Nations to recognise the sacrifices of the people who lost their life for the sake of their mother tongue in Bangladesh. To every one of us, mother language is one of the most precious gifts that we have in our lives.

Each and every language spoken throughout the globe represents a unique and distinct cultural heritage, melodious songs, colourful environment, tasty foods and a healthy society to live in, where people express their feelings and emotions with each other without any hesitation.

The beautiful sounds of which one hears, understand and gets familiar in the mother tongue since the very beginning has such an important role in shaping our, feelings, emotions and thought process. The concept of the mother tongue is a fascinating aspect of language that has transcended generations.

To have a better understanding I asked one of my first generation American-born Indian students Meghal and she said, “I have experienced the interesting facets of language and culture. My mother tongue is English, however, my parents grew up speaking two different Indian languages: Gujarati and Kannada”.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with “mother tongue”. She ended up speaking English, only English, in her household because her parents were not familiar with each other’s language. Every now and then they would speak to her in Gujarati and Kannada and she was able to pick up on what they were saying. Mother language has a very powerful impact in the formation of the individual and maintaining language equates to preserving a cultural and upholding tradition.

Language is how we not only communicate, but how we connect to the growing world around us. In a reply to my question she said “while my mother tongue may be English, I still attribute all of my heritage and understanding of culture to my Indian identity and my parent’s mother tongue. Although English is my first language, and I cannot fluently speak Gujarati or Kannada, I still consider those to be my mother tongue languages over English. I am the first native English speaker in my family, which makes me feel like I cannot say that English is my mother tongue.  To me, language goes hand in hand with identity and lived experiences and my experiences are more associated to that of an Indian roots than anything else”.

According to Leanne Hinton, “More broadly, the loss of language is part of the loss of whole cultures and knowledge systems, including philosophical systems, oral literary and music traditions, environmental knowledge systems, medical knowledge, and important cultural practices and artistic skills. The world stands to lose an important part of the sum of human knowledge whenever a language stops being used. Just as the human species is putting itself in danger through the destruction of species diversity, so might we be in danger from the destruction of the diversity of knowledge systems?”

Within multilingual societies, maintaining the languages of ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity. Using one’s mother tongue at home will make it easier for children to be comfortable with their own cultural identity.
A language is more than just a means of communication. It is a repository of a community’s collective history and heritage. It also provides an identity and a focus that binds a community together, which makes individual accomplishments easier.

Future generations

With Hindi having a prominent web presence, Hindi songs in Devanagari script can be easily found and enjoyed. And also because of the presence of regional languages on the web, words such as puja, namaste, lassi, mehendi, kabaab have become common in American cities.

On the importance of mother tongue, Sanjeev Shekhar, an Indian-American living in St Louis, Missouri, says: “It allows children to know their roots and they will be able to pass it on to their children, thus securing their culture for the future generations.”

To preserve the linguistic and cultural diversity we must encourage the use of mother tongue as much as possible.  Therefore, familiarity with the language is seen as the gateway into the culture because it provides the bridge into understanding the culture by providing access to literature and poetry, original historical texts, religious texts, philosophical works as well as music and art. We should always practice, speak and teach our new generation to speak and communicate each other in their mother tongue.

To know your language is the key element in keeping and preserving the fundamental nature of your culture. Time has come to stand up for the right to speak and teach their own language to celebrate their vibrant linguistic and cultural heritage.

We must and should not underestimate the power of language and work together to promote mutual understanding and cooperation. We should take this opportunity to reaffirm our respect for each other and celebrate the great diversity of languages and cultures throughout the globe.

Knowing a new language always opens a new window in our world view and makes us more aware, open-minded, and respectful to other cultures, lifestyles, customs and beliefs. The only way to preserve language and culture is to pass down through generations. Language programmes at the primary education level as well as the secondary education level play a key role in making students global leaders.

If we do not continue to emphasise language and pass down our parent’s and grandparent’s mother tongue, we will be left with a generation that will not be able to connect to their roots and engage in the community.

(The writer, a linguist, teaches at the Washington University in St Louis, USA)