Ways to Involve Children in One's Mother Tongue


Ways to Involve Children in One's Mother Tongue


‘Madhivanan Illam’ - proudly proclaimed the wooden name board outside the aesthetically refurbished house of my beloved ‘Madhi Māma'(or UncleMadhi) whose full name was usually thus written in Thamizh; his mother language.

Thamizh is my mother language also and my memories of Māma and me exchanging Thamizh story books to enjoy during leisure time, our many discussions and speeches about all things about the world still remains fresh and vivid in my mind to this day. He was the reason I read so many Thamizh literature, stories and poetry. 

Madhi Māma’s attachment to Thamizh is well known in this quiet English neighborhood in East Sussex. Not surprising, since he was also a Professor in Thamizh, who dedicated many years of his work did many researches concerning medieval and older literature of Thamizh.

After his retirement he also authored several excellent crime thrillers and other short stories all in Thamizh and encouragedin his many speeches the children and youth of his neighborhood to join various competitions and events that involved his passion.

But it should be emphasized here that all this doesn’t mean he knew nothing else but Thamizh. There was many more to him. He was well versed in English, French and was fluent in number of other South Indian languages too. With a natural interest and curiosity in all things that came his way, he was always up-to-date with the latest technologies and was an encyclopedia all in one. 

Now I should explain the reason why I am now here after so many years in front of Madhi Māma’s house. 

Sometime back, during a short break in my busy office life, I happened to take my 12 year old son Harish and his friend to the beaches in East Sussex for the weekend. I lived in London Suburbs and did not want to trouble Madhi Māma to arrange lodgings at his home for me and my kids. There was no point. We only wanted to spend some time by the surf.

But he was there. He had come there for his ‘occasional’ beach walk. 

While the kids fooled on the surf, we talked about our memorable moments back in India, our family lives and inevitable busy office routines. I had to open my heart out to him of my recent concern - my son’s pathetic disinterest in his mother language-Thamizh.

“It’s his age Karthik”, Māma told me wisely.“It would come to him naturally as he grows up!”

I was not convinced, feeling suspicious that he was trying to console me and I gave vent to my frustration I had been hiding from my family for a long time;

“Māma, He can speak Thamizh well. But thati s not what I want to see in him.  He can’t write a simple essay in Thamizh properly! His spelling is terrible! His grammar is bad! He’s always complaining to me that this beautiful language is confusing and tough! English is much simpler he argues!

“My concern starts here Māma! Shakespeare dramas are easier for him than Thirukurral verses and Bharathiyar poetry. He should learn to embrace his own mother tongue first. Learning one’s mother tongue is a sort of emotion. You have taught me that. And now I want my child to understand the value of that emotion first before exploring other worldly languages.”

“Dad! Can we go home now?” my son’s voice suddenly called out to me in perfect English. Māma smiled at him and told me that he would call upon us during his next vacation as it was long since he had visited my mother too.
He was true to his word and turned up at my abode on his December vacation.
We were all overjoyed to see him after such a long time and received him warmly. My wife and my mother both busied themselves in arranging his room and preparing the Indian dishes he was passionately fond of.
In the middle of dinner, he addressed abruptly, “There are so many books here on these shelves Karthick. Different genres, English, Thamizh and Hindi.”
“All of us at home read Māma. As a habit. Harish is very good at it” I replied.
“That’s really good. Nowadays people have started to neglect reading books. Glad that you have made it a habit here.”
Madhi Māma was very good at observing things. While taking leave he graciously suggested, “Karthick, veetuku va oru naal. Pesalam. (Come to my home one day. We’ll talk).

So here I am back again in Sussex, staring at his name board hung at the entrance to his house.
I rang the doorbell.
Māma’s daughter-in-law welcomed me warmly and informed me apologetically that he had gone out to the beach. I was politely ushered into the visitors’ longu

So here I am back again in Sussex, staring at his name board hung at the entrance to his house.
I rang the doorbell.

Māma’s daughter-in-law welcomed me warmly and informed me apologetically that he had gone out to the beach. I was politely ushered into the visitors’ lounge and with a steaming hot vegetable soup in front me, I sat waiting for Māma to return from his evening walk.

My phone rang. It was Madhi Māma. His aged voice came to me over the soft hiss of the surf. “Karthick, I heard of your arrival. Good. Now as you sit there simply observe the happenings in my house until I come. You will realize what you have overlooked”.

“Sure, Māma” I promised and he hung up. I resumed sipping.

I had already observed quite a few things around the house. First the kids - 2 year old Izhayini and 6 year old Yazhini - had the habit of calling out to their parents as ‘Amma’ and ‘Appa’. The endearing terms sounded close and affectionate. Even to me it felt like music. My first mistake struck me. I had neglected Thamizh and took pride in making my son call me dad and my wife - mom.
Not ‘Appa’ or ‘Amma’. I understood the implications. Dad and mom are just words to us Indians. But ‘Appa’ or ‘Amma’ conveyed lot of emotions.

While I waited, I noticed Māma’s granddaughter, Izhaiyini, playing on the tiled floor with two sets of alphabet made out of cardboard. The two sets of alphabet appeared to me like a combination of both English and Thamizh!
The little toddler could spell most of both English and Thamizh alphabet and count up to twenty in both the languages. I wondered how many of us teach our little children to count in our mother tongue, before mastering English.
In an effort to make them learn and understand and speak fluently some foreign language like English or any other language we choose important for them to learn, we encourage them to speak in those languages.
And in course we tend to ignore our mother tongue.

The spoon hit the bottom of the porcelain bowl and as my kind hostess hastened to refill it, something else caught my eye. There were wooded carvings and posters of thirukurral within the house affixed to its walls as a part of its interior decoration. It was done beautifully and with good taste. Result was, the kids saw these verses on a day to day basis, so they became naturally attached to Thamizh – like a second skin.

Without even talking to him, the visit alone to Madhi Māma’s house has taught me several good lessons. Children learn from what they see around them. We have to provide them the platform and environment to actively engage them in knowing our mother tongue and about its richness as well as its importance.

Everyone in Madhi Māma’s house spoke fluent English but that was only when needed. Māma had brought up his children and grandchildren teaching them the importance of using one’s own mother tongue – before using a foreign language.

Now I remember even his eldest grand daughter who grew up in Poland speaks proper Tamizh without any accent. It was achieved by having a strict rule of talking Thamizh inside their house and nothing else!

I understood why my son is very fluent with English but bad at Thamizh. He is using English at school, Hindi in his neighborhood, and English again at home. He has a limited opportunity to speak or use Thamizh than the other languages. None at all!
My son speaks in a mix of English, Hindi and Thamizh. (more frequently English and Hindi). Hindi came with it being his third language at school and due to my work commitments of spending a few years in northern India.

The vegetable soup was delicious. I was feeling full.
Outside the hall I heard footsteps. Someone removing shoes and then came that unmistakable sound of clearing a throat. Madhi Māma has come.

He smiled down at me in that particular fatherly attitude that I loved as a kid. Even after thirty or forty years he regarded me as a kid.
And so I am.
I said regretfully “I understood where it all went wrong Māma. I am now clear of what I should henceforth do to let my child embrace his language. Thank you Māma”.
“I know you would come to realize your mistakes Karthik .” said he and called for his soup.

Thanks for taking time to read this. Hope you enjoyed it! Do not forget to drop me a hello during your free time! Until I meet you with another story bye for now!