Mother tongues and their bleak future in India


By Arka Mondal

“Polak and I had often very heated discussion about the desirability or otherwise of giving the children an English education. It has always been my conviction that Indian parents who train their children to think and talk in English from their infancy betray their children and their country. They deprive them of the spiritual and social heritage of the nation, and render them to that extent unfit for the service of the country. Having these convictions, I made a point of always talking to my children in Gujarati. Polak never liked it. He thought I was spoiling their future. He contended, with all the vigor and love at his command, that, if children were to learn a universal language like English from infancy, they would easily gain considerable advantage over others in the race of life. He failed to convince me.”  –  Mahatma Gandhi

Every mother tongue has a unique identity that speaks volumes on a distinctive heritage, culture, melody and color. Besides being the most precious treasure in our lives, the mother tongue has a very powerful impact in the formation of an individual.

Since the sound that a baby hears while being inside the womb is the mother tongue, it has an obvious role in shaping the personality of an individual. Therefore the need to preserve one’s own mother tongue is underscored in the fact that the psychological and emotional development of a child depends on what is conveyed to him right from the beginning. It matters tremendously that language expressions and vocabulary are chosen with care when we speak to children.

An individual’s initial understanding of the world around him, his first learning of things, the perception of concepts and skills begin with the mother tongue, the language that is first taught to him/her. Similarly, the child expresses his first feelings, his happiness, fears, and his first words using his mother tongue.

As the most integral stage of an individual’s life is spent in the imprints of the mother tongue, it plays a pivotal role in shaping our thought process, emotions and our concept of the spiritual world. Such is the impact of the mother tongue that there is no denying the fact that an Indian feels comfortable in saying “Ram and Shyam” rather than “Tom, Dick and Harry” even after graduating from an English medium institution.

It has been witnessed that children who come to school with a strong foundation in their mother tongue pick up sustainable literacy skills in foreign languages. This can be attributed to the fact that the ability to converse in a foreign language is developed through the mother tongue.

The mother tongue familiarizes a child with the nuances of a language, how to learn it and use it. This facilitates him or her to learn other languages as well. A strong foundation in their first language contributes to learning another language and helps to develop stronger literacy skills in the language that is taught in the school.

It is evident that when children continue to develop their abilities in two or more languages throughout their primary school years, they gain a deeper understanding of language and gradually acquire knowledge about how it can be manipulated and applied in different ways.

Unfortunately, in a developing nation like India, children face tremendous dilemma when their mother tongue is replaced by a foreign language at the nursery level. Neither do they learn their mother tongue proficiently, nor do they become an expert in the foreign language. The colonial hangover and the notion that English language makes a man smarter and fetches him a job have an adverse effect on the mother tongue.

With English medium schools cropping up like mushrooms after an overnight rain, mother tongues in India are staring at a silent death.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his native language, that goes to his heart” Nelson Mandela.