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How native is your tongue?

Mumbai (2013-02-18): 21st February is celebrated as International Mother Language Day. If you are a Calcuttan (or Kolkattan), you couldn’t miss it as the day is observed as Bhasha Dibosh in solidarity with the former East Pakistanis who wanted Bangla/Bengali to be declared the official language, long before the birth of Bangladesh.

As history records, the Bhasha Andolon (language movement) of the 1950s in East Pakistan led to immense social and political conflict. It literally coerced the Pakistani government to grant official status to Bengali language in 1956. It even gave birth to a new country... Bangladesh, the only country created due to a language stir that evolved into a political movement for secession.

 Bengalis are very proud of their language; they speak it fluently. They teach it to their children, even while living abroad. But what about speakers of other languages? Do you speak your mother tongue or native language? More pertinently, do you even know what your mother tongue is? It could be the native language of one or both your parents. It could be the first language you spoke wherever you were born. The language could either have been taught to you or unconsciously picked up by you because it was being spoken around you.

For those of us born and living in cities not of our ethnic origin, there is a conflict as to what exactly our mother tongue is. It gets more confusing for kids born of mixed ethnic parents. The parents often choose one language between them or else the spoken language of the city they live in. Then there is the medium of instruction in school, and the second or third language that one has to study till 8th or 10th grade. The language that grandparents speak is at times different too.

Unconsciously I resolved this dilemma very early in life. Since I was born in Bombay and Marathi was the spoken language in the play ground, I picked up some of it. My parents spoke to each other in Kannada so I learned that. They spoke to their parents and siblings in Tulu so I picked that up too.

We moved to Delhi, and I could speak fluent Hindi soon, without mixing up genders like many South Indians do. Like all good Southies, I was given a choice to learn either classical music or dance. I chose Bharatanatyam, so rudimentary Tamil was picked up along the way. If you live in Delhi and need to get around, then a bit of Punjabi helps. I studied English and Sanskrit in school and college, and Hindustani/ Urdu at place of work. A smattering of many and mastery over none.

Most of my friends speak their mother tongue or native language some of them just enough to communicate with their aging grandparents but not really comfortable holding forth in lengthy conversations. However, almost none of their children speak their parents’ ethnic language. Languages are thus lost over generations.

According to the 2001 Census, 30 languages in India are spoken by more than a million native speakers, and 122 by more than 10,000. But language experts say that 96 per cent of the 380 languages spoken in India are endangered. UNESCO estimates that 187 languages in India are under threat of disappearing; nine are already extinct. Majority of Indian languages will be extinct if efforts are not made to preserve them. This needs to be done at schools, and at homes.

Why is it necessary to preserve our languages? Because a language defines our social and cultural identity. Linguistic pride however need not be chauvinistic or divisive. It can be enriching and inclusive, where it leads to expansion of thoughts and ideas.

Hindi was adopted as the official language of India in 1965 only after long and acrimonious debates. The anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu, both before and after Independence, show how sensitive the language issue has been in India. But today’s Tamilians enjoy Hindi movies and watch Hindi soap operas, their weddings have mehendi and sangeet ceremonies, and well, they have reluctantly accepted Hindi while not letting go of Tamil. Bravo!

Historian Ramachandra Guha has observed that writers in Kannada have won seven Jnanpith awards, a record equalled only by Hindi, which has many more speakers than Kannada. And of these seven Kannada awardees, three did not grow up speaking the language. So why not start learning or re-learning your mother tongue now? It is never too late. Who knows you might win a Jnanpith award too!

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I am the Editor News, at Asian News International (ANI), Indiaís leading Multimedia News Agency and the India Correspondent for Channel News Asia, a Singapore based broadcaster.
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