How Important Is Your Mother Tongue?

An incident that happened the other day at the shop in the temple.

The old man at the counter asked Anu in Malayalam, “Kuttikku entha vendathu?” [What do you want child?]

Anu understands Malayalam quite well but doesn’t speak to anyone outside the family because she is not fluent and confident. She looked at me. I repeated it to her in English and asked her to reply to him in Malayalam. She was reluctant. I did not force.

The man, known to me for years, asked her, “Malayalam ariyille?” [You don’t know Malayalam?]

He repeated it. I saw Anu shrinking away.

As I picked up the incense sticks and wicks, I heard the old man say, “Shame! Shame!”. 

I looked at him and then at my child who was feeling uncomfortable.

He repeated again, “Shame! Shame!


And Again.

That was it. I could no longer hold it. Though I wanted to scream my lungs out at him for making my child feel inadequate, I controlled myself.

And then I told Anu, “Ask uncle if he knows French.

I could see his face going blank and hers brightening up. He sat down on his chair without another word.

While leaving the shop, I asked Anu to say Good Bye to him in French.

Au Revoir!“, she said.

And we walked out hand in hand. I could see in her eyes how much it mattered to her.



How important is it to know your mother-tongue?

Is it something that the kids cannot survive without?

I would have left the place quietly had he stopped after the first time. But repeating it meant that he was deliberately mocking the child. And mocking or ridiculing someone is not something I take in good spirits. I have always and always taught the girls to be sensitive towards others. To not tease or mock anyone. And I proudly say that the little one goes a step ahead. She confronts fellow classmates who mock others. She makes them understand how the other person feels. And the best part is that her friends do take her word seriously and the teachers appreciate it.

Like all grandparents, my parents want my children to learn their mother-tongue, Malayalam. Likewise, their paternal grandparents want them to learn their language, Garhwali. They keep repeating it to me every now and then. I completely understand their point of view and their sentiments. But I don’t see the lack of knowledge of a language as a hindrance. Not knowing a certain language cannot restrict them from leading successful lives. I can fluently read and write Malayalam but I don’t see it helping me in any way other than being able to communicate with people or enjoying Malayalam movies. Mother Teresa didn’t know many of the languages. Nor did Buddha. Didn’t they lead their lives happily and meaningfully? Didn’t they do any good good for humanity because they didn’t know many languages?

Dad keeps telling me how everyone is making their children join various classes: dance, singing, arts, language learning etc., and how I don’t take any initiative. I did take them to whichever class they wanted to. And they continued as long as they felt good about it. I believe that forcing the child to take up something will not do them any good. May be I am wrong. But I am fine with whatever they are doing in their lives right now. I don’t compare them with other children. All I tell them is to put in their best efforts in whatever they are doing and I am fine if they fail even after that. I don’t want to burden them with my (or others’) expectations. More than all of this, I believe it is important to teach them human values and life skills.  I won’t be proud to see them bringing in laurels in different activities while hurting others with their words or actions. Multi-talented children with no respect for others is not what I am here to raise. They will learn things as and when they feel like. We are not going to join the rat race just because others feel we are any less competent.

Some of you may call me an over-protective parent, but may be I am compensating for what I lost as a child. Had it been a child of her own age, Anu would have given it back herself. She chose not to respond because he was an elderly person and this mother taught her to respect age and experience. But never at the cost of her self-esteem.

My kids don’t know their mother tongue. Fine. That does not make them any less worthy in this big world. They are here to live beautifully, laugh heartily, share generously and spread unlimited joy. Period.


17 Replies to “How Important Is Your Mother Tongue?”

  1. Big hug Rekha. My kids are also not fluent in Malayalam simply because everyone around them is speaking in a different language. Like you, everyone reminds me of the same and want me to put them in language classes. I don’t want to force them. They will talk when needed. I loved your response to the mallu guy.

    1. I don’t know why but it is comforting to know that I am not alone. As for the people and their views, I won’t let it affect my children. None of us should. They will learn whichever language they prefer, when and where and by whichever time they want to learn it.

  2. What a perfect post for me to read, Rekha! I too often feel guilty that the kids don’t know their mother tongue. Their environment also doesn’t permit that they speak anything other than English. The Husband pooh-poohs my worries but both sets of grandparents do occasionally mention how important it is. You’re quite right; being fluent in Hindi and Bengali only helps me communicate with the elders.. People of my generation and beyond are perfectly comfortable with English! The same with extracurricular activities, if my kids are not interested, I don’t have the energy to drag them to class!

  3. It’s my belief that a person should not only know their mothertongue, but should also be proud of it. However, if one is not fluent in it, it’s not a matter of shame and one should not be degraded for it. I actually hate people who mock others for not knowing something. Wish I was there to watch the face of that guy! 😀 You served him right!

  4. I have no respect for a person who can mock a kid for not knowing her mother tongue. But, personally, I think, we should help our kids to learn their respective mother tongue. It’s a difficult job, as I find with my son; he can speak fluent Bengali, but his proficiency is challenged when it comes to writing. Still, I try… 🙂

  5. You gave a great lesson thereto your girl. Language is just a way to communicate and it becomes a barrier when you don’t know the language. However, love, kindness, respect – all these go very well without the knowledge of any language. This is the most important lesson you can give to your children. With your choices, if I were you I would have done the same. They should learn what they want and not what others want them too. To be able to choose an activity for themselves is also a life’s lesson.

  6. Bhasha tho bas ek madhyam hai apne vichar spasht karne ke liye aur hamare bache who ache se kar sakte hai so chill kuch to log kahenge logo ka kam hai kehna ha ha ha thoda jyada hoga nai ha ha ha:)

  7. Well done Rekha. You are a good parent. 🙂 Not everyone knows what they are doing with their children and not everyone protects them like you do.

    I was also born and brought up in North though I’m basically a Keralite. I know to read and I write a bit of Malayalam. I learnt it because I was adamant. Neither of my parents forced me, but when I went on vacation I found myself a tutor and learnt by myself. Started reading newspapers and slowly picked up. Malayalam is one of the most toughest language to learn, needs a lot of patience. In my little experience over the years, this language has helped me in different ways. You twist your tongue in 56 I also believe learning a language is always an added advantage, you use it or not, it’s still an advantage. I hope you motivate your kids to learn Malayalam. #endofrant.

    Well, that person is just being a Keralite. As you must be already aware, many of our people are pricks. 😛

  8. Well written, Rekha. I love Malayalam. My son understands Malayalam, reads and also writes Malayalam. But he doesn’t speak a word in Malayalam, he refuses to speak saying he is not fluent in it. We talk to him in Malayalam so that he doesn’t forget what he knows. And because of this, he gets teased a lot when we go to our village and I hate it. Like you, I support him whenever someone tries to put him down. I get irritated but it is just the way people are. Most use words to hurt rather than please these days and it is a sad thing. Hope the next generation learns empathy and compassion early on in life.

  9. I will not call you over protective of your children, because through your words, I have seen the love you have for them. 🙂

    I don’t understand the necessity for knowing a language, even if it is our mother tongue. if communication is effective, that is sufficient. Some people are there who take to mocking that. I remember when I was young and went to my native place, there were some people who would tease/mock me endlessly for not talking properly in Malayalam (because I didn’t have any accent of that part of Kerala. 😛 ) I agree with Preethi. I hope the next generation learns compassion too. It is much needed.

    Even some of my cousins don’t know to speak Malayalam, having been born and raised where it’s more important to learn another language. It has not held them back and I am sure A and LL won’t be either. 😀

  10. The man in the store shouldn’t have done that Shame, Shame thing. That’s awfully immature and actually quite disturbing. I can also understand the pressure kids these days feel regarding their learning and fluency in their mother-tongue, what with English pretty much taking over all of urban India.

    But having said all this, I still believe there is a deeper value in all of us knowing our mother-tongue, not just enough to get by but also having a good appreciation of the language, its literature and nuance. There is a lot of cultural wisdom inherent in a language and it will be a loss if we lose it. We Indians are lucky to have a richly diverse culture, why should we lose it by losing our languages? It is a shame that our education system as such doesn’t encourage a good proficiency in our mother-tongue, whichever it is. All literature on progressive education supports learning of mother tongue and reaching reasonable good proficiency.

  11. A nice point of view Rekha and one that I often face myself. I speak Tamil and my husband Malayalam and I keep trying to teach him at least one. Now he understands, but he doesnt speak. I have also heard comments like these, fortunately none so insulting to the morale of the child and it has always put me in a dilemma. For plain practicalities, I want my son to speak at least some Indian languages, as he prefers to converse only in English as of now.

  12. I myself a 19 year old pure delhi girl born to a beautiful malayali family. Let me tell you I have never been to kerala for more than 5 times in my whole life. I was born here in Delhi. Perhaps all the kerala that I have seen and embraced is from the brilliant fiction of malayalam cinema and music. I was never trained in malayalam. I can barely write my name in malayalam . But I am proud that I stand out from my other counterparts by the way I embrace my culture. Yeah you are right not knowing your culture doesnt make you any lesser person but knowing them certainly makes you feel special. My mother tongue is my cultural identity. Nobody forced me to speak malayalam. But it was my choice. I believe that keeping up your Identity in a crowd does make you special if not better. I am proud that eventhough without any assistance I try to understand the language and make it a point to wear it as my identity. What I am tryin to say its your choice. Lets take the example of Lilly Singh itself, an out and out Canadian but what makes her special is her command on Punjabi and Hindi and how proudly she flaunts it in her every video. My question is..wasn’t she around a bunch of Canadian American kids? Its a choice! Speaking/knowing your mothertongue will just add the uniqueness to his/her individuality. Why I am intimidated is that I have couple of friends ( mallu) who think its embaressing if you speak in your mothertongue. But thats not the same with other people I meet. If you ask any of my bengali or punjabi friends you would see how enthusiastic they are about their language and culture. Why we are so uncool towards our roots? Fluency doesnt matter..even I dont have a perfect palakkadan accent but the thing is why cant we welcome our culture if we haven’t done that before. Why can’t we just throw our inhibitions to learn a new language and Whats better than learning your own mother tongue 😄😊

  13. It’s not ok to bully someone for lacking language proficiency. But at the meantime, knowledge of an additional language could open up vast amounts of opportunities which otherwise wouldn’t be there. And people tend to easily trust someone who can communicate in their languge. The greatest and perhaps the most important skill to have is communication and any additional language will help miles on that. I regret not learning French, Chinese and Japanese when I had a chance just because I didn’t know what’s the point of learning an extra language but now that I am older, I regret it. And slowly making up for that by starting with German.

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