21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life – sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
(This post was sent to us by Menaka Raman. Menaka Raman is helping Pratham Books build an online community for StoryWeaver. She is an amateur runner, amateur writer and amateur mother.)
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When I was growing up, there were a series of ditties that my mother and grandmother sing to my sister and I. The above, is one that paati would sing when she was making the kozhakattai’s for Pulaiyar or Ganesh Chaturhti. My sister and I were the sundelis (little mice) and she was the poonai (cat!)
And on Saturday morning, as either pati or amma oiled my hair, they would softly sing a song about the little lice that might be hiding in the folds of my braid (a bane back in the day, when there were 70 of us in a class, four to a bench. Coming home scratching our heads was commonplace.)
But these rhymes, they were a part of my growing up years, and when I had children of my own, I found myself singing these songs to them.
Like many other parents who are a part of the Indian diaspora living abroad, I too wanted my children to learn to speak Tamil. And for the first year or so we did. But then we became lazy. My husband and I speak to each other in English (unless we don’t want someone to understand what we’re saying. Then we switch to Tamil). And soon, after a year of only speaking to our son in Tamil, we lazily slipped into English. And it’s been that way ever since. 9 years and 2 kids later we all speak, think and dream in English.
My boys might now look at me blankly if I speak a long sentence in Tamil to them, but if I start singing any one of these songs, they join in immediately.
Last year, our building hosted a celebration for Onam and residents were invited to sing and dance as part of the festivities. A friend offered to teach some of the children Malayalam folk songs to sing on stage. I ruefully shook my head and said I doubted my children would be able to learn the pronunciations.
But I was pleasantly proven wrong. In a week, both the boys (even the younger one who just tagged along of practice) had learned two songs. I still remember how emotional my father got when he heard his grandsons sing for him over the phone.
I have many failings as a mother, but perhaps the one I feel the most, is that my children don’t speak their mother tongue as fluently as I would like them to.
Yesterday on Mother Language Day, after our bedtime story, we lay cuddling in the dark, and I asked if they would like a song. They nodded enthusiastically.
I started singing and they joined in; tentatively at first and then with more gusto.
Songs and rhymes are such a lovely way to teach our children a language. The rhythm, word play and use of sounds make them irresistible I suppose.
The year is young, and I’ve made a late new year resolution to talk, sing and dream aloud with my children more in my mother tongue! Will you too?