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What’s My Mother Tongue?

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“What’s my mother tongue?”
A very simple question, but shook me to the core when I was asked this question by my 14 year old son six months back. His question was related to a school form which he had to fill and it debarred him to write English as his mother tongue.
Today many of us, who live in foreign shores, have this inner conflict and it is a question we face from our next generation, who are born and brought up in foreign countries. They don’t know their native languages well and are at a crossroads of identity crisis. A child identifies himself with the language and culture he knows best. But, here the language which my son was comfortable with was not legally allowed to be put as his mother tongue. Thus, these children who are unaware of their own culture, language, and history lose confidence in themselves, the family, society and the nation to which they belong.
Many bilingual children, who rarely speak their mother languages at home, once they start school, have their mother tongue gradually replaced by the majority used language. They may retain comprehension, but will use the majority language with siblings, friends, and parents. Unfortunately, I often see kids from the same minority community speak the majority language instead of their mother tongue among themselves, even when they are outside school. Preferring second language to first language most often occurs because children do not know how to express themselves fluently in their mother tongue in certain contexts and situations. They lack vocabulary and literal expressions in the mother tongue and find it easier to express themselves in the majority language. By the time children become adolescents, the linguistic gap between parents and children has become an emotional chasm.
As a parent living far from my native country, I had the fear that my child will not learn his mother language well. With that in mind I started the Bengali School (voluntary organization) at Reading three years back and started teaching children from the Bengali community of India and Bangladesh. I have always felt that peoples’ heart languages are central to culture, community, education and identity. When a child doesn’t know his language well, we cannot say that he will be nurtured with his culture properly, as the relationship between language and culture is deeply rooted.
Nelson Mandela once said that “if you talk to a man in a language he understands,that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
The mother language is certainly one of the most precious treasures in our lives. It’s our duty and responsibility to preserve it and pass it down from generation to generation. A child’s first comprehension of the world around him starts with the language that is first taught to him, his mother tongue. In the same manner, a child expresses his first feelings, his happiness, fears, and his first words through his mother tongue. A strong bond between a child and his parents (especially mother) is established by virtue of love, compassion, body language, and also through the most important one, which is the verbal language.
Speaking another language is a really useful skill to have. Multilingualism is our ally in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. However, “Mother languages, along with linguistic diversity, matter for the identity of individuals. As sources of creativity and vehicles for cultural expression, they are also important for the health of societies…..”
I am never ashamed to use my mother tongue (unlike many in my country, who prefer to speak in say, English even in a homely social gathering). I will always respect it and will share its value with others. And whenever I come across someone who claims to have forgotten his mother-tongue just after some months stay in a foreign country, I vow to stop, face the person and make him/her converse in and realize the value of our mother-tongue.

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