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 Lalita Iyer. Lalita is a journalist and author. She is being raised by a child and three cats and very often, she is confused what language to speak to them in. She has written two books: I’m pregnant, not terminally ill, you idiot! and The boy who swallowed a nail and other stories and has contributed to two anthologies: A Book of Light and Gifts of Teaching. She blogs at mommygolightly.com
, tweets @Lalitude
and instagrams at @booksidaisies
I should have known more languages.
Like I should have known to read and write Tamil, which is my mother tongue, the language that represents who I am and where I came from, the language my parents speak to each other in (although they switch to English and Hindi , and I have no clue how that happened)
I should have known Kannada (the language of my mother’s education, her childhood, of her home in Basavangudi, the language she still speaks to her sisters in, the language of her naughtiness and childhood friends )
And Malayalam, the language of my father’s growing up, his schooling, the language of his village Vettankarakavu in Palakkad, his anecdotes, first loves, his secret language when he would talk about us to his siblings or his mother.
We are what they call Palakkad Brahmins. Tamilians don’t take us seriously enough and Malayalis don’t consider us as one of them. I am, in effect, a Palakkad Brahmin born and raised in Bombay and although I speak fluent Marathi, Hindi and English, my own mother tongue took a back seat along the way. Yes, I do understand and speak Tamil and have a fair grasp of Kannada and Malayalam, but never deep enough to have a conversation in it, or to read and write in it.
Where did they go?
I guess we lost some languages when joint families became nuclear families, when people started choosing space over conversation or when we started believing that English was the be-all, end-all. Languages get lost or diluted when you stop playing with them, listening to them, dreaming in them, eating things that remind you of them. In my case, when we started replacing words in Tamil for words in English, when we were reading subtitles instead of listening to the words in, say a Tamil movie in my case. My mother tongue always came to the fore when I celebrated festivals with my family or when we got together for a community food project like making vadaams. I will not attempt to translate this, because it doesn’t have the texture when said in English, but if you read this post here
, you will know what I mean.
Since the language of my marriage was mostly English, it became the default language of speaking to our child. My family and my extended family somehow mimicked us and soon, there was English pervading my little household.
And then one day, when I began to write a book on family stories for Scholastic, and started recounting events from my childhood and stories from my grandmother, I was filled with sudden nostalgia for my mother tongue. I realized our collective folly. The only way languages are picked up is if you are surrounded by conversations around them. What my child didn’t hear, he didn’t pick up. I felt saddened and did my damnedest to repair the damage by asking my mother to always speak to him in Tamil and doing so myself. It was a bit late though. My son wondered why we were speaking in a funny way to him. We are still trying though.
But when it comes to everyday life, I can never get go of some Tamil words, like pashi (hunger), chaadam (rice), chandi (bum) and kushu (fart). In fact my grandmother used to tell us this really funny story about a man who couldn’t stop farting and when I started writing it down for my book, I realized how ‘fart’ hardly had the same effect as ‘kushu’, the Tamil word for it. In fact, I remember she would say this:
Avisha kushu aala kollum
Pada kushu parama sadhu
This, when translated into English means that while the stealthy fart can kill, the loud one is pure and innocent like a saint. I went on to write the whole story in the book, and it is often the most favorite of all children who can’t stop laughing till their sides hurt while I am narrating it. It made me want to listen to more stories in Tamil, and am now fully committed to looking for audio stories for children because I’m sure that’s all i can comprehend at this point. I also find myself wanting to speak Tamil whenever I get a chance, and I am always eavesdropping on conversations when they are in a language other than English, because every language has its own melody and normally, it is enough to get the gist of the conversation. Of course, they don’t know I’m doing this, so don’t tell them.