Stepping out in Mumbai of an evening one often encounters a very predictable sight – the young parents ferrying around a young child, probably about 4 to 6 years old, shopping for something of the other. And if you happen to follow this typical family for a while, you will notice something peculiar. No matter what language the young couple speaks to each other in, when addressing their child, it is invariably in English.
Punjabi, Marathi, Tamil or Telegu, or even Hindi – might be the language the parents grew up speaking, the language they use speaking to their colleagues in office and associates in business, but not to their children. The young Lord or Lady might as well have descended from the officials of the British Empire, not just for the deference accorded to him or her, but also for the insistence on using the Queen’s English (suitably mangled) in conversation with them.
This is an urban phenomenon, no doubt, but it still is interesting – in a country with 22 official languages (21, excluding English) and over 700 distinct dialects, why is there such uniformity in the language used by the children of India’s urban elite?
Delving into the reasons behind this phenomenon might merit a more detailed study, but anecdotal evidence suggests that when children enter pre-primary school itself, the teachers advise the parents to start using English while speaking to the child, to give him a ‘head-start’, perhaps, or familiarise him with the language before even entering English-medium school. (This is of course, another big issue – the meteoric growth in numbers of English-medium schools while vernacular schools shut down or change their medium of instruction). With the child’s best interests in mind, the parents start to speak English at home. Since most of urban India lives in nuclear families, there are no grandparents to speak the mother tongue, and as often as not, even if they do live with the family, they too are capable of, and speak English with their grandchildren. After all, if English is the ticket to a better life, as numerous studies and career counsellors – and teachers – tell us, one would want to give young Amar, Akbar and Anthony (or Anita, Amina and Alice) an advantage in grabbing hold of that ticket, would we not?
In doing so, however, we forget the importance of language as a cultural link across generations. So much of the received wisdom of the elders is contained in the idiom of the language it was first spoken in. So much of literary merit is derived from the vernacular languages of India. For all the magnificence of the English literary tradition – and this writer would be the last person to deny it – the fact is, that we in India are heirs to works of genius in more languages than one, or even ten.
Ask any Bengali reader and he would lament that his children cannot enjoy Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol, the peerless book of nonsense poems which cannot but be relished fully except in Bangla. Tagore, Saratchandra, or for that matter Satyajit Ray’s movies – are best enjoyed in the language they were written in.
Premchand’s classics, Godan, Kafan, Gaban, Saut, Shatranj ke Khiladi lose much in translation from Hindi to English.
The acerbic wit of PK Atre or the more genial humour of PL Deshpande resonates far better in the original Marathi than in any English translation, however well-done it might be.
And these examples, of course, only scratch the surface.
Beyond literature, there are plays, movies, poems, songs – a vast world of art, rooted in the very soil of India, core to its essence. The child who grows up, cut off from this heritage, would bear no more affinity to his or her country than an average man on the streets of Venezuela.
So as parents, we really need to think about the linguistic influences we impart to our children. In trying to open the door to the outside world – through a language that the child will inevitably learn through formal education – are we closing the doors to their own world? Why blame the youth for not caring about the country when we cut them off from its languages? Why think that the ‘new generation’ does not appreciate ‘Indian’ culture, when their knowledge of their own mother’s and father’s language is so desultory?
The importance of English cannot be denied. In a globalised world, education should, and must, be primarily in the language the world speaks. But at home, at the very least, teach your children the language their forefathers spoke, so they can understand the songs that are their own, the stories that belong to them, the rituals you performed for them, and when the time comes, better understand themselves.