Speaking in Tongues

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 by Maegan Dobson Sippy. A freelance writer, Maegan came to India to work with Tara Books in 2010, and has had a soft spot for visual books for children ever since. Together with Bijal Vachharajani she runs the Instagram handle BAM! Books, which curates children’s book recommendations with a South Asian focus. Her first picture book ‘Rats Bigger Than Cats’ is due to be published by Karadi Tales, and she lives in Bangalore with her husband, daughter and cat.)

I think that the first time I gave any thought to the phrase ‘mother tongue’ was when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and studying for my GCSEs in the UK. Part of the English Literature syllabus was an anthology of poetry. One of my favourites was called Search for My Tongue – which talked about the conflict between learned and inherited languages:

I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue …

wrote Sujata Bhatt, closing with a beautiful piece of imagery:

Everytime I think I’ve forgotten,
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,
it blossoms out of my mouth.

I recall that at the time, it seemed straight forward to me. Your mother tongue is the language of your family, the language you heard from birth. Your strongest language. The foreign tongue is the language of immigration, of a country you moved to, of learning.
I didn’t think much more about the poem until I moved to India six years ago, and began to reflect again upon the phrase ‘mother tongue’. Living in Chennai, I met colleagues whose strongest language was English, but whose ‘first’ learned language was Tamil. I made friends who’d prefer to write essays in English, but spoke Telugu at home. I moved to Bangalore, and met a family whose ‘mother tongues’ included Gujarati and Sindhi, but who chose to speak a mixture of Hindi and English at home. And I married someone who spoke Hindi exclusively until the age of eighteen, but communicated with me in English. The idea of a mother tongue became a lot more complicated.
Over six years later, and the birth of our daughter three months ago has made me start thinking about mother tongues again. I’m not sure that I’m any clearer about how to define the phrase, but I know that I want her to have more than one of them. I hope that the Hindi songs my husband coos to her, the Bhojpuri phrases she hears from my mother-in- law, and my constant English chatter feel equally comfortable to her. I hope that when she speaks, her first words will be a mixture of all three. And I hope that when someone asks her what her mother tongue is, she won’t know the answer.

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