Last time I spoke to my mother, she extolled the virtues of my nephew..and the most important of these virtues was the fact that he could say thakkalippazham for tomato. Where as my children will look at you and say “say what?” as if you spoke Latin if they heard someone say Thakkalippazham..they wouldn’t even know it is a Malayalam word.

I always get a lot of criticism for not teaching my children their mother tongue, not just from my own mother, but also from every other Indian I meet. It is like I committed a huge crime.

Years ago, I read somewhere that the language you dream your dreams is the language you are most proficient in. For me, I wanted my children to dream in English, not any other language. Their future depend on their ability to converse and write in English.

So what if my children do not speak Malayalam? What are they going to lose? Their cultural heritage? Learning Malayalam was not going to give them a head start in life, neither would it give them any monetary benefits. There is a unit cost to every activity in life. I was not going to invest my time, energy and money to teach my children a language that would not give them any benefit. The only benefit I could see was that my kids could speak to their cousins in Kerala in Malayalam. And since most of their cousins speak English, there was no real return of the investment (my time and money)

By making sure that my kids have a very good grasp of English also made it possible for them to get good grades. Now, that I consider a good ROI. As I wrote before, Yaya wrote her IB final English exam without reading the required books. She got a 7 for HL English. She could do it because she really has a good grasp of the language and can wing it even If she didn’t read the book.

I believe every child should learn a second language in High school. I know this sounds contradictory. Instead of confusing my kids with two languages in their childhood, I gave them a head start in English and then got them to learn the second language by sending them to complete immersion classes.  As I mentioned early, I am only willing to invest my time and money in to something that gives a good ROI. There are 4 languages I was interested in teaching my kids that I considered a good investment. French, Spanish, Mandarin and Japanese. Since my kids were keen to study in US, I felt it is better to teach them Spanish. So I enrolled both my daughters for Spanish Immersion, in a school that is really far from my home. The school near my home offered German Immersion and I didn’t think unless my kids want to live in Germany or perhaps Switzerland or Luxembourg there was no real need to learn German. My son is terrible in languages, but is still learning Spanish as a second language, because he knows it will help him in the long run. He is going to Peru in a few months time for student exchange, so he can improve his Spanish.

No, my kids don’t understand what is Thakkalippazham.. My oldest child has already got admission to few of the top Unis.. and for me that is all that matters..

Note: There is plenty of research evidence that suggest that kids learn languages at younger age. As I studied in Malayalam medium till 10th and struggled learning English in Pre degree, I wanted to prevent my kids from going through what I went through. So I chose English as the only language we spoke at home.

12 thoughts on “Language

  1. Hi Sarah,

    I agree with you. Having a second language is a valuable asset; if only I had fluency in another. ? Here in the USA ( as I’m sure you know ), Spanish is very prominent.
    With the influx of Brazilians, Portuguese is another growing idiom.
    I love exploring languages. Thanks to my former Cambodian pupils I can count to ten in Khmer and, thanks to you, I’m now familiar with a few Malayalam words though no clue how to PROPERLY pronounce them. I’m trying to explore the connection ( if any ) between the Malay and Malayalam languages but have just started that venture.

    Hope you continue writing for a long, long time !


    • Paul Naves: Proto- Malay is the origin of Malay..It has been influenced by Sanskrit, just as Malayalam originated from Proto-Dravidian and has Sanskrit influence. But I don’t think there is a link between the two mostly because the movement of the people.. Austronesian people inhabited Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia etc and Dravidians moved down to south India.

  2. Hi , I know that difficulty as I never taught my kids malayalam but we speak at home to kids . Might be because of that my kids english are horrible , sometimes I ask them when u think are u thinking in malayalam or English?

    • Nitha: English is the key to a good start in life. You have a good grasp of the language, you get good grades which will help you get admission in to a good uni.. I know there is this ideology that children who are bilingual at young age do well in their life… Look at Obama, the only language he knows is English (some say he knows rudimentary Indonesian). He is such a good orator..if you look at all the past American presidents, very few knew a second language. If I am not mistaken Roosevelt (both) knew French, but had terrible grammar and Bush and Clinton knew a bit of Spanish. But English has always been their mother tongue.. Yet every immigrant is desperate to teach their children their mother tongue.. What is wrong in teaching children English and give them a head start?

    • Don’t worry, mine doesn’t speak it either and we speak both Malayalam and English at home to him. He replies only in English, buts sometimes like to say some words like ‘Illa’ ‘venda’ etc. We have never forced him to speak in Malayalam. Every word he ever spoke in Malayalam is because he felt like it/wanted it. Assuming you are in the US, I think they will be fine unless you force them to speak in Malayalam. Mine does have some accent for certain words which I noticed when he was speaking to one of his friends in the neighborhood, but then I have noticed Chinese American kids have a mild Chinese accent, Latino Americans have mild Spanish accent and African American kids have their own accent and so on. So that’s not a big deal at all in the US.

      Last year my son had a project to write about what he did over summer in first grade. I was worried about what he would write and if he would be up to mark. So we let him write on his own while I wrote my first grader version in case we needed it. I read what he wrote and was blown away by the way of writing & words he used. It was soooo much better than what I wrote pretending to be a first grader. I am not saying he used better words than me, but he used very appropriate words for a first grader. There is no need to use pompous words to say something simple as a first grader. After that I have never tried to write anything on the side. 😀

      That day I realized the advantage of learning and thinking in a language from birth. Even though I went to an English medium school all my life, there was no way I could’ve articulated about any subject at 6 like my son did.

      • Thumbi: Kids need to learn to write using ‘pompous’ words. Because in the long run, their grade will depend on their language proficiency. One of the reasons my kids consistently score high marks is their language proficiency. Proper grammar and good vocabulary sets them apart from mediocrity.

        • I meant pompous words according to my style. He did use appropriate words at a higher level than a first grader ELA student; he has always had a higher vocab level than his peers and he continues to do so. He loves learning new words and try to use it when speaking at a different time.

  3. I agree with you Sarah. Especially about people fucking ridiculing you for not knowing the mother tongue, or better yet, not speaking it fluently. My question is one’s language a be all or end all ordeal? Among the Indians and Spanish ppl, they act like the world will end and sometimes if someone does not speak their language and well. It makes me want to punch them in the face sometimes. And yea, the fact that not knowing the “mother tongue” will disconnect you from culture is complete bullshit as I have seen many evidence of that.

    I actually had a desire to learn Malayalam fluently and read and write it at one point after having such an awesome time in India. That instantly was shot down after receiving condescending behavior/humiliating experiences from my mom and a few relatives who taunted and lashed out at me because I don’t speak malayalam right (and not being a ‘proper’ malayalee girl, different story). Because of that, I refuse to speak malayalam at home and started to despise the language. I also distanced myself from my dad’s side of the family especially now that my mom thinks because they are from the dad’s side of the family, they get special treatment because they are from the ‘patriarchal’ side (I was closer to them years before). But regards to language, I find myself speaking malayalam more comfortably with random strangers than with family because all I know is that my family are going to find some way to guilt-trip or mock me offensively and unappropriately. Just last weekend, I was talking to my cousin’s (bless her heart, she’s a sweetheart) new wife in India, I spoke in English and she in Malayalam/English, but we understood each other fine. I was actually was going to speak more in malayalam, however I realized my mom was on the other line snooping in our conversation. There was something I said that my cousin’s wife didn’t understand and my mom intruded tried by saying there is a ‘communication gap’ and the next day she tried to guilt trip me that there is a communication gap because my brother and I “don’t know” malayalam :/, despite one word/sentence my cousin’s wife didn’t understand. (We both understand it very well, I can speak it, not fluently though). Another instant was back in December. I actually spoke to an aunt in India during new yearand she said I spoke malayalam well, though we had only a quick conversation. She told my mom that and my mom didn’t say anything. Few weeks later during one of her rants she flamed me for not learning malayalam, acting like I’m foreign to it, despite being told by others that I can speak it somewhat and brought another example where I said something wrong in malayalam to someone else, but that was because I was uncomfortable and tense as I had to speak in front of my parents who I know were going to start some firefight regarding language skills. That crossed the line and really pissed me off. Her behavior, and also that of many other mallus have really instilled in me a negative perception of malayalees and Kerala that I am now done with Kerala and its messed up culture, especially since I get flamed often for not being the ideal traditional malayalee girl and have “ruined” my life :/. I tried to embrace Kerala culture and get the experience and whenever I feel a nostaglia for Kerala try to enjoy the experience of being a malayalee, I find something has to ruin it where someone “glorious” has to shove in my face how they are more “culturally malayalee” and then my mom finds out and I get flamed -_-.

    Ah well, I guess it’s better to remain American. At least we can create an identity we want to be rather than being shoved into one. I am working on being fluent in Hindi and want to advance more in my Spanish too (can speak read and write it pretty well now). At least I had a supportive non-judgmental environment when learning those languages.

    Like you I agree it’s good to learn another language. Wherever I end up living, whether US or Europe or wherever, I will obviously let my kids pick up the dominant language of that country, but will def encourage them to learn other languages, whether it is Malayalam or Spanish,or whatever. English is mandatory now I think in most countries, so am not too worried. I vow myself to never shame them or make them feel inferior just because they don’t speak “mother tongue”. To fully embrace and learn a culture, it has to be a enjoyable experience, not something that one has to be shamed and ridiculed into.

    Sorry for the long post and rant.

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