Saturday, 26 December 2015

Don't let your language die

Do you know what is a 'menu' called in Hindi? Can you name the three greatest Punjabi writers? Will you be able to make sense of Faiz's poetry without a translator? Unfortunately and shamefully so, neither will I...

Like many of you, I was born to educated middle class parents whose sole ambition in life was to see their children do well. And one of the pre-requisites for doing well was your command on the English language. So, having worked tooth and nail on their toddlers, they were overjoyed when my twin sister and I got admitted to a reputed school run by Christian missionaries. Now, if you have been to a Christian missionary school you will know how it is. You pray in English, you curse in English, you think in English, you speak in English and you even dream in English. Class monitors are often asked to 'fine' the students for speaking in any language other than English. You will, of course, learn Hindi formally because it is compulsory, but it will not be encouraged.

So, my schooling was majorly responsible for my love for the English language, and my family for my love of books. It just so happened that 99% of those were written in English.

I grew up to be one of those English speaking snobs who frowns on those who make spelling and grammatical errors, and can't stand the 'texting' language. I won't read text messages written in Hindi and my proficiency in Punjabi is limited to home schooling by my dad. Till date, I get cold feet if I have to write or speak formally in Hindi. Punjabi? I will hide my face and run. My accent is just too funny! 

I'm assuming that most of the people reading this will identify with what I'm saying. Our generation grew up to be in love with everything 'Englishy'.

My Nanaji would often reprimand my mother for our lack of Punjabi speaking skills. Trips to Nani's house meant that at least at some point of time you would be handed over the 'Ajit' newspaper to read. 'How will our 'virsa' (heritage) survive?' Nanaji would say.

To be honest I had not thought much about it until recently. Though I yearned to learn more Indian languages, I was happy and complacent in my English world. What made it important for me was my recent move to a southern state of India. Everybody here speaks a language I don't know and they guard it fiercely. They may know English well but among themselves they will talk in their regional language. Add to it a new mother's pangs about giving all the wisdom and knowledge she can to her child. This sort of shocked me with a Eureka moment. My virsa will get lost if I don't make an effort to save it! I say this at the cost of sounding like a fundamentalist, but the onus of saving my culture lies on me.

The language that you speak in is not just your mode of communication, it is thousands of years of your cultural heritage. A heritage that comes with its own prose, verse, vocabulary, religion, social customs, medicine and science. If we allow our language to die, we are also letting that thousands of years of heritage to die. Who will tell the foreigners about the Shastras if we can't study them? How will I tell people why my Guru is important for me if I can't understand what it says? How will my children discover the joys of 'Panchtantra ki Kahaniya' or the poetry of Dinkar if they have no interest in Hindi?

I think it is safe to assume that most parents hand over a book of the English alphabet before the Hindi one to their children. We presume that our kids will learn their mother tongue through daily dialogue. It is true that most kids will gain a working knowledge of their mother tongue like that. But it is also true that unless we work hard on teaching them this language and their culture, they will be unable to appreciate its depth. They will not have the right words to express the innumerable things that English has no room for. They will not be able to address an audience in their mother tongue.

We have to make them feel proud of who they are, and not just convince them that speaking good English is an important life goal. Learning English is important because it is the language of the world, of science and technology. It is the language of the World Wide Web. It has brought humanity closer in more ways than one. You will get judged harshly if you can't speak and spell in English.
But it is not what defines us. What defines us are our roots. Roots that hold the fabric of our lives together. Roots that provide us our identity as a civilization. Roots that will get lost if we lose our language.

We owe it to our children to give to them the best of our culture. We must talk to them in their mother tongue. Teach them how to read and write in it. Introduce them to good regional literature that encourages them to read more. Let the school take care of their English, French and German. You take care of their Hindi, Punjabi and Kannada. Occasionally, wear that saree that you've been saving for the 'ethnic days' at office. Your dress is not a 'costume'. It is YOUR dress. It is a part of your being.
I've recently made some pathetic attempts at reading and writing in Hindi. I promise I will try writing more often until I learn to express myself meaningfully. In my bucket list is also to write a poem in Punjabi and to learn elementary Urdu. Let's see how far I can get. Until then you try saving your virsa and mine. And make your children fall in love with it.

(Dedicated to my Nanaji, who has spent his entire life trying to teach Punjabi to reluctant souls like myself)

An edited version of this post appeared here.

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