Friday, April 27, 2007

Mother tongue (father tongue?)

Posted by Saheli

My kids have neither :(
I am maharashtrian and my husband is gujarati. After marriage when I went to 'sasuraal' everybody talked to me in gujarati (even my husband). My sweet B-I-L was my translator. Ours was a "love marriage" so my first goal was to impress my in-laws. I made up my mind to learn gujarati. (mostly it was bcos I wanted to know what everybody was talking about me. It was easy for them they could talk right in front of me.) A few times (actually a lot) I sensed that my MIL said something very nasty but, I still don't know what.
Anyways, like a 'pativrata' I started learning the new language and so I was able to understan if they talked slowly. I was so proud of myself and so was everybody else.
Even after coming to US I continued to speak gujarati and now I am very fluent too. But, in all this marathi got lost somewhere. Though I still speak with my father/brothers/sister in marathi, I have started (already) losing the touch.
My son spoke gujarati till he started going to school. Now he speaks only if wants to 'butter' me. He is 9yrs old now. He understands Hindi a little bit and some of gujarati but no marathi - sob sob...
Now my daughter who is 4 yrs younger than him didn't speak any Indian language at all. Her first words were 'no'.
I speak with them in gujarati and always get the answer in english. My son used to go for Hindi classes at our local hindu temple. But, after the basic alphabets he quit.
It really makes me very sad that I didn't pay enough attention. I should have been consistent and should have made them speak our language. My dad and everybody from my side of the family keep telling me to talk to the kids in marathi. Its like starting all over again.

I wanted you ask you guys how do you deal with language issues.
If you ask my kids what is your mother tongue, they would say, "!"


Sandeepa said...


"Pink" is a very good answer :) :) Liked that

My daughter is only 3 and we both speak Bengali with her at home. So that is the language she is confident in. She knows that "School is English" and "Home is Bengali" so she switches accordingly

Don't know what will happen when she grows up. I have friends whose kids are 9-10 year olds and speak very good Bengali while some friends kids hardly speak Bengali while their parents speak good Bengali

No clue how and why it worked for
some and not for others

Asha said...


Welcome to the ABCD world!!! Actually,American kids who have Indian heritage are not confused at all but we parents are, strangely!

My kids understand Kannada if I speak slowly and can't speak back.Only language they know well is English and Spanish from school.

Like you I have sometimes trouble speaking Kannada with my hubby after living outside India for more than 17yrs!I forget proper Kannada words.

What do I think? If they don't learn as toddlers ,there is no way we can force them to speak our mother tongue nor do they CHOOSE to learn it when they are older.May be when they are 40yrs old,they might try!!;D

It doesn't bother me much since their life is here and not in India.I should have taught them since childhood at least until 3yrs old,it's too late now.At least they are interested in Indian culture a little,do not reject it out right!!

You could try and teach a little Marathi or Gujarati in summer when they stay home a lot.May be that will interest them:)

MahaVishnu said...

My son spoke Telugu at home until he started going to daycare at around two and a half years. After that it became a one way street in English. He understands a lot of Telugu, but only says a few words in it. So I converse with him in English - most of the time. When I am tired or overly upset, that's when the Telugu words start tumbling : ) In fact, at around age five, he made a pact with me. I have to speak in Telugu, if I am going to yell at him in front of his friends. His reasoning - " My friends don't need to know that I am getting yelled at!".

SJ said...

I speak to my 2 year in Bengali as much as I can at home. She does understand and replies in Bengali too - of course she si not yet fully capable of separating the 2 languages and frequently say things like "I book rekhe dao-ing" (Bongo-English for I am putting the book away). I have heard from friends that most kids when they start school suddenly become embarrassed about their mother tongues and the descent begins there. However like Sandeepa I know some kids who continue to be fluent in the Indian languages and some who understand but only reply in English.

Vee said...

My kids are too young and not even speaking properly, so I can't really say anything. But, I know an Aunt and Uncle whose 20 yr old o never spoke a non-english word in his life. At 18, at some cousin's (indian) shaadi, heard hindi film songs and got so hooked that he learnt the language to understand those songs better. Nowadays, we get our bollywood recommendations from him. He was the one who told us about the Ash interview on Oprah. We had no idea! So, don't give up hope and keep exposing them to your Marathi/Gujarati culture.

Reena said...

As much as I respect my mother tongue I am of the opinion to not force any language on kids. You can continue to talk in your mother tongue and if your child picks it up then all good. But if she chooses to speak in English and understands your language then all good too. Give them time. Being multilingual at a young age is tough. They will come around. You can keep trying without forcing.

TheCooker said...

'Pink' is nice answer.

My 11 years old speaks fluent Marathi. My 6 year old understands Marathi but will reply only in English. (I say my success rate is 50%).
I totally share your frustration...I try to be firm with my younger one but worry that it will boomerang. So mostly, I let her be. And on my part, I continue talking to the kids in Marathi.
I agree with Asha, the kids are interested in Indian culture and it is not that bad.

Ranjani said...

in my case , my husband speaks to my daughter in english . myself & hubby sepak in english/hindi. I speak to my daughter in tamil.
So due to all this confusion, my daughter understands Tamil /Hindi/English , but speaks mostly in english .When she is replying in english , i automatically speak to her in english . I have to make a conscious effort to speak in Tamil .
Anyways , i really dont bother much as the imporatnt thing is she

Saheli said...

Thanks Sandeepa, Asha, Mahavishnu, Sj, Vee, Reena, Thecooker, Ranjani for your support and advice. I am more frustrated that I'm losing my marathi touch.
It feels good to vent out. Thanks for listening.

Sandeepa said...

Hi Everyone

Not trying to impose anything on anyone. But "Being Multilingual" IS not tough for kids. Many of us when we wre going to school spoke English at school and a different language at home, didn't we ?

Kids at the small age are very adept in picking up several languages.
When I talked to S's teacher that S might not be very familiar with English as she speaks an Indian language at home and I don't want to encourage speaking English at home too, she said that was fine as kids pick up languages fast.

So I think if you continue speaking your Mother Language at home and teach your kid to be proud of your culture and language they will do it. After all the more language they know its better. So if they can speak French (because you know it's French) why not Hindi /Tamil/Bengali/ whatever ?

Sorry about a long rant...but I am bit passionate about my language as I feel that will give my daughter her identity in a multi-cultural society

Of course 10 years down the line things might turn out different but at least I will try !!!

Reena said...

Sandeepa, Being multilingual at a small age of 2 or 3 is tough. I grew up outside Kerala so according to my mom I spoke a hotchpotch of English, Hindi and Malayalam when I was 3.

Why I said it is tough is not tough for the kid but tough for others to understand them which can lead to frustration at times. My daughter speaks a mixture of English and Malayalam even outside and sometimes kids don't get some of her words.

I am passionate about my mother tongue too but I don't believe in forcing anything at this young age. I will continue to expose her to our language and hope she picks it up. But I won't lose my sleep on that:):). Just my 2 cents.

Sandeepa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
indosungod said...

Kids take pride in learning their mother tongue. It was no problem teaching our older daughter to speak in Tamil, we spoke Tamil at home and she learned to speak it very well, when she went to preschool at age 3 she knew just a few words in English but by the end of the first she was conversing easily in English. She will talk in Tamil if we don't switch to English so the onus is on us to keep talking in Tamil.

With the younger one though I am at my wit's end trying to make her speak Tamil. She understands Tamil very well but it is very hard to make her speak. She learned the language from her sister.

Saheli said...

When my kids were little I read many parenting books and articles here and there and most of them said that when kids are little you can expose them to different languages and they will learn. That didn't mean they would want to...
When I was a kid I used to read/write and speak marathi, hindi and english.
(well, still do)
Like Sandeepa said, as kids we used to switch to the languages appropriately be it home, school or playground, my kids act as if English is the only language for them...sad. But, I haven't given up yet, I still speak to them in gujarati but when I have to yell at them or punish them I do it in English ;)

Me too said...

I generally thought that it was easier for kids to learn new languages when young. That Bollywood inspires ABCDs to learn Hindi is surprising!! And that you too learnt to speak fluent Gujrathi post marriage means your kids too will if they could just find an inclination/inspiration.

My daughter too hardly knew English before she started Preschool. It was a terrible time as she had never stayed away from me and on top of that had to be in a place where no one spoke our language(I felt horrible for not having prepared her!). Though many people caution me that kids tend to switch to English completely as they grow and forget their mother-tongue.

indosungod said...

met too, lot of us get anxious over the fact that if we don't prepare them before school they might lag behind, it was not the case with my older daughter. Her teacher was very supportive she learnt few of the words like pee,hungry in Tamil and asked us to continue speaking in the mother tongue and she will deal with teaching her English. And within a year she had become a fluent reader as well, she was reading fluently before speaking fluently.

Like my Swedish friend would say "the neurons which would light up speaking another language would never light up if we fail to encourage them to speak a second language".

Asha said...

Indo,I liked that *Neurons light up* thingie!!

My kids neurons light up for English normally and then once for Spanish and another just for cuss words in Kannada(specially for my son in that dept)!!;D

Why does he learn just the cuss words in Kannada so fast?!
Last week ,he flooded the master bathroom and 3 days later he scribbled on the counter top with permanent marker!!

Dee said...

I personally would like my son to know many languages, not just because of his identity part but because it will improve his IQ and will be a foundation for him to know the variety this world has. I am a Tamilian, but grew up in Bangalore. So I learnt Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, English right from my first grade and started learning Samskritam towards high school. I am speaking from personal experience that multiple languages for kids is not a big deal. They will surely learn and be comfortable.
Don't just stop with your mother tongue and English but also teach them a different language like Spanish or French...whatever you think will be useful for them in the future as a global citizen. Who knows when what might be useful ? :)

Me too said...

Indosungod, my guilt was not just because she didn't know English but because she didn't know English and she hadn't stayed away from me. The teacher's big lectures to her (about how she was big girl and that she shouldn't cry when mommy leaves and how mommies always came back) seemingly not making sense to my daughter frustrated the teacher!!
Now one of my daughter's teacher(now she is in a different school) amazes at how we, Indians speak more than one language and how my daughter switches between English(when I'm not around) and Tamil(when I'm around)!

Sandeepa said...

Me Too
Understand your problem. Even I had the same worry when my daughter started daycare/pre-school last year.

However I talked to her teacher and she was very supportive. She told me at 2 many kids don't even talk so its fine if S doesn't speak English. I taught her words like "hungry", "sleepy" etc. and the little english she knew from watching Barney helped.

But as Indo said, enforcing a rule that "bengali at home' and "English at school" is still helping to keep S speaking Bengali at home

But while S is a talkative child at home, she speaks less at school maybe because she is not confident in English. She undertsand and enjoys herself in all activities though so I guess she should be fine.

In fact in India I went to LKG (start of school) in a convent school where no language other than English was allowed to be spoken. I knew no English (as we only spoke Bengali at home) and I was uncomfortable for the first 2 years but then it was fine. So from my experience children do manage. So don't worry !!!

Yeah you are right we did have Hindi, Sanskrit in school so it's not a big deal. But I have forgotten much of my sanskrit, it was hard

roopa said...

For us we always speak in kannada at home so never stressed on english, when my daughter started preschool she was fine had complaints that she speaks a lot of tamil with indians finally she picked up english. All the while we never forced any english at home. For my second one we will follow the same. But here in singapore I rarely see such a problem, but latter when kids are around 15 yrs some are prone to speak only in english and forget many words too!

Tharini said...

Hi little contribution. Akhil was a late talker, arnd...20 mos, and he started off in Tamil. It was great. Then once he started school things changed and English became the preferred one. Since he was elarning to speak, we encouraged that...but now he doesn't speak tamil. He understands pretty well....but stumbles while speaking. So, now I am trying to reinfore that at home we speak tamil, and at school is it english.

He's slowly learning more words with it and I think we will slowly progress from there.

swapna said...

Hi saheli

this is a worry for so many parents.
we speak with my kid in telugu and english in the home.english is because if she goes to school it is must.normally in these days kids first word is "NO" only..don't worry.
Try to motivate them to speak with u marathi or in punjabi.all the best.
let them speak what they want but u p[eople don't use english while spoking to them.slowly they will also pickup.

Saheli said...

Thanks everybody!
It does make me feel a little better that most people have these issues with their school-goers.
My husband and I have also started making more effort to speak our language at home. To lead by example :)

DR said...

Hi Saheli,
My two cents..totally MY PERSONAL OPINION....
I am a mother who would DEFINITELY want my son to speak bengali!!
it might sound a bit too HARD now..but thats ONE thing I surely want "A" to become...a fluent bengali speaker. I dont want him to write poetry in bengali or read thick volumes of Rabindranath in Bengali...but speaking?? O YES!! HE MUST!
We speak ONLY bengali at home...I hope and pray and wish he will pick up the language soon...well at present he is surely speaking DANGLA (dutch+ bangla)...but I think he will differentiate as soon as his vocabulary increases.

I want him to have bengali conversations with our parents...

Like many of you are very flexible with if you keep on asking them to speak their mother language its NOT pressurizing them.
infact relating to "mother tongue at home" and "english/foreign language at school" is a good way to differentiate....

btw, the answer "pink"is indeed a nice one..


Saheli said...

dr: You sound very determined. Good for you. Be very persistent when the kids start school. In my case, I myself toggle in marathi and gujarati and when the kids were little (I was very ignorant), I think I just did what was easier. Now that I have realized the importance, I am trying harder than before.
Thanks and Good luck!

mommyof2 said...


I have other way around.. I am punjabi & hubby is Maharashtrian. I don't have to worry about my kids learning hindi or punjabi cuz I speak to the in Hindi and when I yell, O Boy, everything comes out in Punjabi most of the time;-)They know both language enough to make conversation..

I have told hubby to teach them marathi so that his side of the family don't blame me for not teaching them but hubby thinks its not necassary. As long as they know hindi, its fine.. So no headache for me;-)

When I went to his place they used to talk in Marathi too but its so similar to hindi so I could understand a bit and he used to tell them to talk in Hindi so that I could understand and if they didn't know hindi (few relatives), he used to translate for me;-)

Saheli said...

Thanks Mommyof2!
Its good that your kids atleast know hindi. Mine understand gujarati but, always always answer in english. My 4 1/2 yr old daughter knows only one thing in marathi "Aai ga!" (O' Maa) :)

Sandeepa said...

Saheli I am laughing imagining your 4 year old saying "Aai Gaa" very very funny :)

mommyof2 said...

I think even if they answer you in english, they understand what you are saying and you can tell them to say that in hindi.. this way they will learn and its fine if they don't know 100%. I think As long as they can read the signs on shops, when they go to India and can communicate in even tuti futi hindi, its good enough.. so don't feel bad.. they will learn:-)

Saheli said...

Sandeepa: You should see her - one hand on the 'kamar' and the other on her forehead. (shhh... she imitates her mom)

Mommyof2: I think when it comes to their benefit, they are all eager to learn. I remember my son when he was 5 (ie 4 years back) learnt one sentence from his cousin to help him buy 'fruity' in Bombay (bcos they were always in the fridge and not visible to point and ask for it). He picked up the line very thoroughly, 'Mere ko fruity do.' He still remembers it.

mommyof2 said...

lol. Maybe you should try this at home too;-) Don't give him stuff until he ask for it in hindi;-)I guess this will speed u the learning process;-)

Raaga said...

Hi Saheli,

I'm not a mom yet, but I have mixed parentage myself.

My father insisted that both children will be taught both languages regardless of how tough it was. He always spoke to us in Tamil and my mom spoke to us in Konkani. ALWAYS. They spoke to each other in English.

When my parents were in Germany, my brother picked up German and English. And things didn't change even when we were in the US after I was born. As a result, my brother and I have picked up several languages along the way and I must admit that nothing gives us away.

I have now married a Telugu and have no doubt that I will teach any children that we may have, all 3 languages, over and above what they'll pick up on their own.

I've always loved languages and try to learn an Indian/International language a year.


Saheli said...

Wow! Tamil, Konkani, Germany, English, Telgu, I am impressed.

Thanks Raaga!