Mother tongue

There was a group of guys named Daddy 1, daddy 2 etc in the medical college. They have been studying medicine for a while and are considerably older than the ‘normal’ students. Daddy 3 has been doing medicine for well over 10 years and no one knows how he managed to get the admission. Every year he came to the college a week before the exams ( apparently, no one in his family knew that he didn’t pass medicine and he was already working as a doctor in a clinic set up by his father in their village..that was the rumour, I don’t know if that was true or not!) and his roll number was before mine. We were all waiting for our Anatomy viva and it was daddy 3’s turn. Obviously he didn’t know the answer to any of the questions and the examiner was getting frustrated with him. Finally the examiner asked : What is your mother tongue?” for which daddy 3 replied ” sir, I have never seen my mother’s tongue”

Jokes aside, today I want to talk about mother tongue. A friend, whose daughter is in the same grade as Yaya is frantically looking for an English tutor, because of poor grades. ( it doesn’t help that Yaya’s grades are better) Her daughter is very smart, but unlike primary school, teachers in high school expects a lot more from kids and her report/assignments do not reflect her intelligence.

Mother is a firm believer of cultural roots and mother tongue and insisted that they only speak their mother tongue at home and the child was taught to read and write their mother tongue at home and learned English as ESL at school even though she is born here.

None of my children speak their mother tongue. They don’t identify themselves as Indians either. I would have loved to see my daughters wearing silk pavada, lots of glass bangles in their hand and them having beautiful long hair adorned with jasmine flowers, or my son wearing kasavu mundu.. If I really wanted that, then I should have stayed back in Kerala. It would have helped them tremendously, if they knew their mother tongue and we lived in Kerala. There would never be any cultural shock for them. But what is the point in them learning their mother tongue, if they are never going to live in Kerala? How would the Continuation of language and culture benefits them? It is not a crime against humanity that my children don’t identify themselves as Malayalees.

Learning a language doesn’t give you a cultural connection. I speak fluent French and Mandarin, that doesn’t make me Chinese or French. My cousins in Mumbai only speak in Hindi. Apparently it is really fashionable among the Mumbai mallu crowd to speak only in Hindi, but they are still Hindi speaking mallus.

If you are living outside India and are raising your children there, what are the chances that your children would want to go back to India and live?  Besides, you can always learn a language anytime in your life, but wouldn’t it be much easier for your children that they are proficient in English?

12 thoughts on “Mother tongue

  1. Hi Sarah,
    I was often asked why I didn’t teach my first child, my mother tongue, but those same people have not bothered to teach their mother tongue to their second child. Interesting! Anyway, I feel vindicated. 🙂


    • Angel: There is one thing I noticed with the expat Indians; They have one set of rules for themselves and another for the rest. And once they find a little fault in you, they are like terrier dogs..that got a bone and won’t let go. I told all my children that if they want to learn their mother tongue, I will pay for their travel and accommodation in India when they take their gap year holidays. So far, no takers.

  2. I will disagree..Maybe Im being whimsical and not practical at all. But I do think learning at least to speak your mother tongue (and food) helps forge some connections to your roots.
    Sometimes its simple things like enjoying a joke from a Mallu movie (Polandine kkurichu nee mindaruthu..:p), understanding the nuances of non translateable words..etc.
    My husband grew up outside India. But he does speak and write Malayalam and I am so glad he does. We may never end up living in Kerala (99% sure)..but somehow using the language reminds me of my roots. And I hope, it will be the same one day for my children.
    But like I said, it may be just wishful thinking.

    • Jina: the connection you have with your roots is because you grew up in India. Imagine, if you were living in India, and your parents only spoke to you in a foreign language because it was their mother tongue, only cooked food they ate in their home country, only mixed with people of their own back ground.. Would you have felt like an outsider in India? Most of my cousins who were first generation Americans can be classified as ABCD, American born confused desi..they didn’t belong in India because they are used to the comforts of the western life and hated visiting India every summer holiday and wanted to do things their American friends did during holidays ( camping etc) and they didn’t belong in US either because they were raised as Pukka Indians in US and camping/dating etc was not something their parents wanted them to do. They are neither here, nor there. My best friend is an American of Swedish descent. Her grandparents are Swedish..she knows nothing about Sweden and doesn’t think it was a huge loss. She is a true and true American and feels that she at home in US…You and I, we made the choice to live outside India..and don’t you think we should accept the way of life and raise our children to belong in their new home rather than straddle two cultures?

  3. True. You are right in the fact that I maybe feeling so because I grew up in India. But I do have friends (including my husband) who grew up entirely outside of India and still talks the language. And dont get me wrong, Im not saying do everything what we do back at home. I will be the last person to advocate that. And I will be the first person to say Mallus are the most convoluted of cultures I have ever seen. I myself, and friends who live across different countries in the world is fluent in multiple languages, mostly think or write in English, cooks all kindsa food and is obsessed with traveling to as many places as we can and experience different cultures. I have seen ABCD’s like you mentioned who hate going to India for summer, but will do non profit experience to beef up their resume. But I dont think everyone falls into that category. There are kids who are genuinely interested in knowing more about their culture and where their parents come from. I have a good friend who is based out of US who makes it a point that her kids get to spend the summers in Kerala. But she also makes sure every summer they go to another country as well. Maybe everyone dont get that luxury. But, language is the easiest thing we could imbibe.
    And even from a purely sociological perspective, if we don’t know our roots, we will just die out. And I also feel that its the responsibility of “global citizens” like us to inherit the goodness in where we come from and make a change in the not so good things (like kushumbu n kummayma..:). I would think if everyone just chooses to just be like where they decide to settle in, then the world would be a boring place..Just my 0.02$.
    But Im curious..dont you feel a little bit of everything??Can you not be a Malayasian/Canadian/Australian/Mallu?? even if you chooses not to..
    We could just go on and on about it…maybe some day over a cup of tea..
    (And please know, Im in no way judging you or your kids for not choosing to learn Malayalam. Culture is a very subjective term. My value labels for culture might be completely and based on different factors like you said..doesnt mean we all are wrong or right)

    • Jina: Your question “dont you feel a little bit of everything??Can you not be a Malayasian/Canadian/Australian/Mallu??” is the reason why I refuse to impart my cultural heritage to my children. Because I am a bit of this and a bit of that, I don’t truly belong anywhere. Yesterday, I was in Kerala, thinking about Chingam onnu ayi kannum..Beginning of Oct, I will be in Malaysia thinking about lantern festival End of Oct, I will be again in Malaysia thinking deepavali ayikkanum..My kids don’t care about any of those things. They truly belong here. So what if my culture dies with me? So many civilizations have come and gone..and so many yet to come..

      • I guess we reach two different conclusions based on the same logic..LOL..I want to be a lil bit American, a lil bit English, a lil bit Bombaiyya, a teeny bit Blorean and tspoonish Mallu too..
        I like new connections and new memories. But I also like to have some level of intimacy with where and what I grew up with. And it may be selfish. But I would want my kids to feel the same too. My best friend who lived in Australia till she was 10, found it extremely difficult to assimilate back to the culture when she moved to India because everything was so alien to her and dint know the language or anything about Kerala.
        But you are right. If your kids never plan to go back home (even if its to visit), it doesn’t make sense for them to go through the trouble to learn a new language or understand new things which is only culturally relevant.

        • Jina: I promised all of them that I will pay their ticket, room and board and all the other expenses any time they want to go to India and learn about their cultural heritage..So far, no takers. I know they will never go back to India..Perhaps they might go back to Malaysia

          • Haha..Thats adorable. Maybe they are just traumatized by the behavior of the other Indians around them (seems like most of them are ‘characters’ from your stories)..Some day, maybe they will find good company and yearning to see places which will take them to India as well. All said and done, home is where your heart is..:)

          • Jina: Yaya’s fb profile shows home town: Vancouver, Canada. My son’s says Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Baby’s shows Brisbane, Australia..All three were born in Malaysia.

  4. Just to add to it, again way late

    To each their own ! But I agree somewhat with Jina. Not speaking Malayalam is not a big deal, though it’s awesome to want to learn. But it’s good to be familiar with the culture. I would encourage your kids to be familiar with where they have came from (encourage, don’t shove it down their throats and tell them to be like olden style mallus!) and perhaps go to Kerala to see how life is like there, but only within a positive environment and positive people (not the hypocrits, judgemental you know whats). It’ll def widen their eyes and they will def be intrigued by the culture and perhaps will want to learn more about it and maybe speak fluent Malayalam later on 🙂 I’m happy I can understand Malayalam and speak it somewhat though I’m not fluent, but never did this create a gap in the love between my grandparents and me and my brother. I never really spoke Malayalam either until like 17 after a trip to India and eventually started speaking and converse decently after like 3 weeks staying there (understanding the language already is a big help !). My desire to learn the language grew because my paternal side of the family just makes you feel home and are amazing, they support and don’t judge at all-this makes you want to learn the culture alot (until there were some disruptions where my feeling towards Kerala changed a bit-I think we know about that haha). Someday I’d think I’d like to even read and write as well, a little bit at least, but on my terms, (not satisfy expectations of anyone). Even if they don’t speak the language, it doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about the culture. Do you do cultural things at home like making Indian food, celebrating Onam, wearing clothes and attend functions? If they know somewhat of these things, it’s all good !.

    I’m beginning to be fond of languages, besides English, I can speak Spanish, not fluently and I can’t understand when I get spoken back to unless the speaker goes very slowly (they go way TOO FAST, but it’s improving though!), a little bit of Hindi (hope to be fluent in this language), Malayalam (of course-can understand well and speak somewhat) and thinking of learning Korean 😀

    Good post !

    • J1289: I didn’t raise my children as Indians. ( They are only part Indians anyway). They have never been to any Indian functions, have never even seen an Indian dance performance and do not wear Indian dresses. I don’t see the need for them to feel any attachment to India/Kerala and even if they know Malayalam, it won’t make them Malayalees.

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