Focus on mother tongue

Critical for cultural heritage
Last Updated 25 February 2019, 18:51 IST

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2019 as ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages’. It is a well known fact that everyone had a language that they grew up speaking and that a good proportion of the world spoke more than one language. However, the idea that someone would regularly have to be taught in a language that wasn’t native to them had never occurred previously.

“This was, undoubtedly, exacerbated by the fact that I never made significant strides towards becoming fluent in another language. The closest I had ever come was a “working proficiency” in Spanish during my junior year of high school. When I think back on my perspective on this subject in the context of my parents, their accents never bothered me because I had just always been so used to them”, said Tej, a 21 year-old former student of mine at Washington University in St Louis, USA.

The International Mother Tongue Day is celebrated every year on February 21 since 1990, after the declaration by the United Nations to recognise the sacrifices of 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 food and a healthy society to live in, where people express their feelings and emotions without any hesitation.

“Fifty percent of the world’s out-of-school children live in communities where the language of schooling is rarely, if ever, used at home” (Malone). This is perhaps one of the most astounding figures about second language education. Schools have tried to tackle the problem by going to families of these children for help in having students gain comfort with a second language for their own learning.

They ask the parents of students to use the second language at home so they are more comfortable with it in school. This does more harm than good for reasons other than a second language being much harder to learn in regardless of copious levels of effort put in to learn it.

In the types of developing areas where this is a large problem, there are no resources to prepare students on this level and so their efforts are futile in that sense. They also cause a rift between families and their native languages in a wholly unnecessary way. Families feel alienated for their mother tongue simply because the school gives the impression they should feel this way. By propagating this attitude, these school systems are essentially destroying the diverse culture and background of human nature that makes our species so great.

As said by Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at University of California at Berkeley, USA, in “Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education”: “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”.

These problems are hard to fix. If one were to approach an educator and tell them to try to fix the problems themselves, the educator will frequently point to a lack of resources to be able to do this. Nevertheless, a greater effort must be made by educators to learn sympathy for the mother tongue of their students if different than their own.

The beauty of academic education is that majority of it comes from books that can more easily be produced in areas with greater resources. It’s on many of the educators in these parts of the world who are multilingual to produce orthographical and instructional materials for use in these developing areas. Given the resource crisis in the developing world, this is likely to be one of the most practical solutions. Children in developing areas have the thirst for knowledge, we must do what we can to satiate it.

Classroom environment

When students leave an environment of a classroom where the objective is to learn a particular language to an environment where they are fully capable of including everyone in it. By speaking their mother tongue on campus, either by choice or subconsciously, they are including everyone else on campus into their conversation and essentially into their friend circle.

This attitude of speaking their mother tongue when they have the choice to speak in this universal language may be beneficial from the teaching standpoint but also from social and cultural point of view. Language is the essence and identity of culture, and is a major tool for communication.

It is a major tool for exchanging ideas, emotions and feelings. To know your language is the key way to keep and preserve your culture. In recent times, the idea of linguistic and cultural awareness has increased; thus allowing the mother tongue to be more culturally accepted.

It’s clear we must strive to reform the systems that educate the youth to further the quality of learning a language, not target families who speak a different language at home. Destroying culture, diversity and family comfort all while supplying a dangerously low level of education for the sole benefit of the systems that are “educating” children is passed off as acceptable within these systems’ own view because they pass off the merits of mother tongue education.

Maintaining and retaining 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 speakers to be more comfortable with their own linguistic and cultural identity.

(The writer, a linguist and author, is with Department of Linguistics, Aligarh Muslim University, Uttar Pradesh)

(Published 24 February 2019, 18:31 IST)

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