My 20-month-old still just babbles, doesn’t speak much except a little bit of Mamma, Dada, Bua, Tata (for Papa), Didi, flawa (which is for flower) and lizza, for his favourite thing in the world — lizards! He also says, aao (come in Hindi), when he wants to call any of us. But I’m not here to bore you with my boy’s developmental stories (though as a mother, I think they’re far from boring!). I’m here to discuss one of those mothering dilemmas that come with our times. Should I tell my boy that the tree in the garden is a mango tree or an aam ka ped? Should I ask him if he’d like some cucumber or kheera? Would he like some milkie or doodhoo?
I’m essentially a bilingual now. Not by birth, but by education. My mother tongue is Hindi, so is my husband’s. And Hindi is still the language spoken at home. I take pride in the fact that I know my Devnagri as well as the English alphabet, though like everyone else from this part of the world, my Hindi is liberally peppered with Urdu. I also feel there’s nothing bright about not knowing your native tongue, given the right context. It’s quite another matter that years of English education has conditioned me to think in a language that wasn’t the first I spoke.
So where was I? Yes, about whether I should teach my son to say grass or ghaas, corn or bhutta… I have friends and cousins living in metros who converse with their children entirely in English, because that’s the language they also use to communicate with each other, and since there’s no one else at home, they feel no need to resort to Hindi, except while speaking to the helpers in the house. I’ve met those kids, and honestly, I’m mighty impressed at how they speak such good English at 3, 4, or 5 years! It’s the language of the educated in our country, and like any ordinary Indian still reeling under the belated effects of the Raj, my first reaction is to hope my son’s not going to look like an idiot for babbling in Hindi. But thankfully, I also know better than to let first reactions decide what’s right and not for us. And here’s what I have decided: I’m not going to keep him away from knowing his mother tongue before he learns cat-bat-mat. I understand that I come from a culture that’s perishing in neglect, because we’ve not done enough to preserve it. But culture isn’t just about heritage buildings and folk songs. It’s so much about language. I have had the chance to meet a fair number of really successful people from UP, who’ve made it big in the entertainment world by the sheer dint of their language skills — the enunciation, the vocabulary, the diction, which still retains a certain degree of purity. It’s the kind of Hindi/Urdu that Mumbaikars can never speak. Why is that a skill I must not pass on to my son? I’m not saying he’d go on to be a wordsmith of Hindi, or a singer, but it’s something he will take with him from the place he was born in.
I come from a completely Hindi speaking family, and I think my English speaking and writing skills are more than adequate. Yes, perhaps I wasn’t speaking fluent English when I was 4, 0r 5, or even 8. But it’s not a survival skill my life depended on. So, there’s no reason why my boy will not pick up another language, along with Hindi. And I understand children this young can pick up more than one language pretty well. But I don’t want him to be grappling for the right tenses in Hindi, and the correct syntax, and the proper word for an object, while he rattles off English without any problems. I just want him to take a little bit of his culture with him in the way he speaks. I like that idea.