Thursday, September 18, 2008

In ode to the Queen's language

I'm a mix-breed: My father is a bonafide Gujarati and my mother is a Tam-Brahm, who speaks a dialect of mixed Tamil and Kannada (thanks to her Mysore roots), but she was raised in Gujarat, so she ends up speaking a tri-lingual mix. Needless to say, I grew up with a smattering of all three languages, but my mother-tongue, to speak in purely metaphorical terms, has always been English. It's what I dream in, cry in, fight in and make-love-to in. It's like an extra limb for me - and it many be the Queen's language, but it's also mine.

One of the craziest things about education today, and even more so in Gujarat where English is still considered by many as an uncomfortable second language, is the insistence on kids speaking and reading English. Parents go out of the way to pick playschools and kindergartens where the principal/teacher proudly says, 'we insist on teaching in English.' It's odd to see them correcting small children when they speak in their native language, especially when there is no English being spoken/read at home. It's almost as if we force our kids to have dual identities - I say identity, because what I speak is such a firm part of whom I am, but many may not react to a language the same way - English-speaking at school and Gujarati/Hindi/Native language at home.

Nino started using words to communicate a little after he turned one. Nino's Dad and I made a conscious choice to speak to him, read to him in Gujarati - for two very basic reasons. One, his caregiver is comfortable in that language, and it is she who spends the maximum time with him, speaking/playing/sharing. The other reason was that we were sure that Nino would actually grow to love English the way I do and the way Nino's Dad has come to. I remember, before we settled on the current Montessori that Nino goes to, we checked a few pre-schools out, especially the 'latest trend in education' kinds. The insistence on English was borderline scary. 'What if my son does not respond to English,' I asked one such principal with a fancy chain of schools from Delhi. 'He will learn to - we don't allow children to speak in Gujarati,' she said.

Of course he'll learn to, but a child already traumatised with leaving home for a new environment need not be alienated by a new language as well. Thankfully, the current teacher actually believes in this philosophy and she uses a generous smattering of Gujarati/Hindi to settle the kids while communicating largely in English. We now read to Nino in both Gujarati and English, and we sing to him in about half-a-dozen languages. I express disappointment in English - and also talk to him more in the language, only because I'm more comfortable in it.

So far, he's picked up quite a bit of English - he understands most of what we speak, though we'd never heard him speak a full sentence (unlike Gujarati, where he can hold his own even in a debate!) till today. As I got him ready for school, my fledgling turns to me and said, 'Okay, I'm ready to go.'
Perfect grammar, delivered in a matter-of-fact tone as he turned towards the door to say 'bye'.
It's his first sentence in my mother-tongue and I'm delirious with joy. May he discover its beauties like I did.


momstir said...

That is so special! So how did you celebrate? Do you go to Crossword often? I would love to go to the bookstore on a weekday morning. Seems perfect for kids.

a hug for Nino :))

Nino's Mum said...

:) Thanks for the hug.

How are preps for Pickle's budday going?

No, no, we did not celebrate *sheepish* - but yes, going to a bookstore on a weekday seems like my ideal 'sinful' outing. Yes, we visit Crossword so often - you've been to a'bad before?