Let me start by giving you a test. Say this line in your native language, quickly – without using a single syllable of English: I’m going to the market to buy vegetables like tomatoes and carrots because my friends are coming home for dinner.
Did you get 10 out of 10? Have you fought for the carrot? By the way, what’s the tomato in your language?
The same test a few decades ago would have been cake … or gajar halwa.
At the time, Hinglish, Kanglish, Tamglish had not entered our lives or our lexicon. English was there, a “second language” at best.
Today, these seniors must also master English and “the university” which gives them this compulsory learning: their own grandchildren.
It’s a common sight, the daily video call when the elders try to get a glimpse of their little ones growing up in a faraway land speaking a foreign language. This call is the small window of time where children bond with their dada-dadi, ajji-thatha, who tries to make sense of the words the children say. They respond, trying to tell their stories to the children, but realize that replacing raja-rani with king and queen doesn’t feel half as good. They don’t know much English and the children know nothing but English. There is a disconnect and one more story is lost in the translation. Grandfather’s Tenali Rama loses against Doraemon.
A lady I meet on my morning walk stopped to show me her lovely grandson on his phone. “Adi must be 3 years old now, aunt?” What is he talking about these days? I asked. “Lots of things, Mom… the only thing is I don’t understand.” He speaks French so fluently, you know! she said a little wistfully, remembering her daughter in the United States, who married a French colleague.
Losing the link with your own language is like losing a slice of culture every day. Slowly. It’s like the peanut butter you started spreading on children’s bread, instead of the sugar inside the hot ghee-filled chapati amma, which melted in your mouth.
But the generation that loses touch with the mother tongue is not to blame. Is it really their fault? The school – for which parents have paid out of pocket to be in English – prohibits children, and in some cases “punishes” them, from speaking in the local language. Western TV shows seem a lot cooler to them than folk songs and community concerts. Parents themselves prefer to speak, love and scold children in English, especially in public places. There is a shame in speaking in your own mother tongue, as if it is less than English.
Three years ago, at a film festival, I watched a great Mexican movie I Dream in Another Language. It was a tribal language called Zikril which has only its last two surviving speakers, both of whom are mature old men and sworn enemies. A young linguist from the United States arrives to make them talk to each other, just so that the language they speak can be returned to the world.
In India too, somewhere, a dialect is dying every day. Ganesh Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Center, estimates that India may have lost 220 languages since 1961, based on a census of 1,652 mother tongues. Another 150 languages could disappear in the next 50 years, he says.
Fortunately, a few people are working to prevent this. Like the Prabha Khaitan Foundation which organizes “Aakhar” (alphabet) programs which welcome authors and poets writing in languages such as Odia, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati, Magadhi, Rajasthani, Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Kottur Sampath created Sheshamma-Shallamma, an extremely popular and hilarious audio series of two old women talking about modern life in a forgotten Iyengar dialect.
In February 2010, Boa Sr, the last speaker of an ancient tribal language called Bo, died in the Andaman Islands, severing a 65,000-year connection with one of the world’s oldest cultures. Boa spent the last years of her life unable to speak to anyone. How lonely it can feel, despite a whole tongue living in you!
A language is so fragile. If you don’t speak it, it will disappear. Until one day we can order ‘Spicy Lentil Pancakes’ when all we wanted was a plate of masala dosa with sambhar.