Monday, 15 March 2010

Speaking in tongues

Today's entry is a bit different, a departure from the norm, which is anyway missing from this blog. So if it's unusual it's normal at mrsquote.

The trigger for today's post was an interesting concept I came across here. An independent publishing house that brings out children's books in various languages, Tulika books’ blog had a very interesting topic for discussion, one that caught my eye for reasons I will dwell on in a bit.

"How different are the written and spoken forms of your first language? If you want children to become familiar with their first language, which form would you look for in children's books - formal or informal? Why?"

Languages have always fascinated me. I learnt the Punjabi alphabet relating similarities between gurmukhi and thedevnagri script on signboards over shops, hotels, bill boards, as we drove down highways through the bread basket of India or on a later date when I drove down the streets of Mohali chasing stories for the English paper I used to work for.

Which, however, is not to say I am a master of many languages, but I do admire those who can talk in tongues (not the divine kind, mind you). Case in point, the husband; he can prattle off in Malayalam, which is his first language, is a connoisseur of Tamil literature, a language he wishes was his mother tongue; he survived the Bangalore life with a smattering of Kannada; is very very fluent in Hindi (albeit with a strong malayali undertones at certain times) for a ‘southie’ who did not cross over to the north of the country till he began dating me and has impressed many a blighter with his English.

I on the other hand, can manage only English and Hindi, however, expertly, if I may add. I am very proud to say that I can mange my Hindi as well as my English, written and spoken, and without a trace of the Punjabi accent that I could have easily caught living with my grandparents or a malayali accent that my mom has not been able to shake off after all these years of living every where except in Kerela.

Now herein lies a problem - about my first language; or my mother tongue and for me, a point of contention. As you have guessed by now, my mom’s a malayali, dad a punjabi and I grew up in a mixed house hold. However, while I can more or less read Punjabi, I can’t speak it to save my life. I can barely follow Malayalam much to the chagrin of the in-laws who are hoping for a miracle when I would speak it in my sleep.

The two languages I have always felt at home with are English and Hindi. While I can read and write Hindi very well, I think in English. So does that make it my first language? I don’t know. While I am quite comfortable in this language status, I do want to learn the two languages that are a part of my heritage… something I would love to bequeath on the kid(s) someday. For while I concur that a language is a tool for communication, it has an inherent beauty that can be appreciated when one knows how to use it, be it reading the words, speaking the tongue or writing the alphabet. One doesn’t need to be a polyglot or a multilinguist to know what joy literature can bring to one.

Which brings me to the second part of the discussion, what would I do to familiarize my kids with their first language, which I wonder about, whether they will have just one. Given my conundrum, I think the children will learn their Hindi from me and Malayalam from their dad. And if by the time they come about, I would have mastered spoken Punjabi, they would learn that too. Most of it, I guess, would be picking up words from what they hear on a day-to-day basis and once they are old enough to read, from books. What I remember from my childhood is reading – a Lot… be it comics, course books, children’s books, illustrated or otherwise, I grew up surrounded by tomes, a luxury I hope to have my kids afford. I picked up the nuances of the language, in both the formal and informal set up. I was blessed with educators who kept my learning going outside the class room and at times, their area of teaching. I had a physics teacher who ensured that I was reading one novel at any given time.

Oh and another form of informal instruction that I can give credit for at least enabling an above average comprehension of Punjabi is listening to kathas (stories) from the Guru Granth Sahib that my grandparents used to regale me with.

So for me it will have to be a mix of story-telling, book reading, formal and informal instruction that would get the tots learn their first language, which ever or how many may that might be.


Latin Sardar said...

The force seems to be with you, quite strongly if I might add. :)

Tulika Publishers said...

So many fascinating questions you have raised here. The fundamental one is 'What makes a language a first language?' Because the parents speak it? Because you think in it? You might have given me ideas for another blogathon here:)

sengemo said...

Mai, have u forgotten the incident, which u told me some years ago, about you and your dad visiting some place where u mentioned some unmentionable word in punjabi and asked him what it meant? he 'reportedly turned RED!!

March Hare said...

@LS: Thank ye
@TP: Glad to be of help!
@S: Yup there's always a flip side, funny nonetheless! Still keeping the love affair alive!

Harman said...

nice post! I've been learning French for two months now...i had no previous knowledge of it, so it was from scratch. and it is so much fun to think in a new make sentences, and learn new words....i feel like a child! but to stay in naturally embodies usage of a language spoken/thought/written....that one is surrounded with...spoken/written...or through other expressions like film and music. but i also find language is such a block! its never easy to express the thought in the mind...but therein lies the challenge and the fun!

morpheus said...

nicely put. though i get the feeling language is heading the 1984 way. we're trying very hard to simplify the whole thing. Guess is natural when you have so much globalization and people trying to communicate across languages. But its still a bit scary to see how far ahead george orwell saw.