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Holding on to the mother tongue

Holding on to the mother tongue
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Within multilingual societies, maintaining the languages of ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity

I am not white. I am not black. I am not yellow. I am Asian, but I am rarely classified as one. I am Indian, but barely recognised as one. I dress in jeans and T-shirts, I eat at the local McDonald’s, I watch “Will and Grace” with a religious fervour, and I listen to Justin Timberlake on my iPod when I am walking to class. But I have also read the Koran in Arabic, I fast every year during Ramadan, I love watching Indian movies, and I sing songs by Lata Mangeshkar when I’m cleaning the house. To most people this may sound like descriptions of two different people or a complete identity crisis. I also speak both Hindi and English fluently and feel comfortable with both parts of myself, one of my students said in response to my question on mother tongue. She said she considers herself part Indian and part American. Living in a diverse place like the United States, I meet and converse with all kinds of “desis” — but how many of them can speak and understand their parents’ native language?

Cultural awareness

Language is the essence and identity of culture, and is a major tool for communication. It is a major tool for exchanging ideas, emotions and feelings. To know your language is the key way to keep and preserve your culture. In recent times, the idea of cultural awareness in the U.S. has increased; thus allowing, for example, Urdu to be more culturally accepted.

At a time when Bollywood movies are rapidly making their way into American theatres, a cross-cultural experience is being defined. And not only through movies. Cusay, the traditional, hand-woven, ornate shoe of South Asia, for example, is no longer available exclusively in Indian, Pakistani and other regional stores; it can now be found in Macy’s and Nordstrom’s shoe departments and even at exclusive boutiques on Rodeo Drive. As distinctly Indian trends and themes make their way into American culture, it is becoming easier for Indian-Americans to assert their identities and celebrate their heritage and native language.



As distinctly Indian trends and themes make their way into American culture, it is becoming easier for Indian-Americans to assert their identities and celebrate their heritage and native language



A language is more than just a means of communication. It is a repository of a community’s collective history and heritage. It also provides an identity and a focus that binds a community together, which makes individual accomplishments easier. With Hindi having a prominent web presence, Hindi songs in Devanagari script can be easily found and enjoyed. And because of the presence of regional languages on the web, words such as puja, namaste, lassi, mehendi, kabaab have become common in American cities. On the importance of mother tongue, Sanjeev Shekhar, an Indian-American living in St. Louis, Missouri, says: “It allows children to know their roots and they will be able to pass it on to their children, thus securing their culture for the future generations.”

Part of curriculum

Studies in Indian languages are an invariable part of building a broader campus community that is aware of the rich linguistic and cultural histories that immigrants and their children have brought with them to the U.S. Many students take Hindi to fulfil their language requirement in colleges and universities. With this trend Hindi has also become part of some of the universities’ curriculum. Acceptance and opportunities given by the universities have encouraged many students to venture out and experience their mother tongue to its full capacity.

“A cultural event opens the doors for friendship and it allows you to communicate with people you would have never approached before,” said Sufyan Badar, who recently completed his PhD from Louisiana State University.

After 9/11, there has been a change in not just the U.S., but the whole world. There is a trend now to gain more knowledge about other cultures. Hindi is not forgotten in the U.S.; in fact, it is making waves across the country. Mushaira, yet another interesting cultural and literary event, is also making waves in the U.S., and is increasingly becoming very popular year after year. Most popular among these Mushairas are the ones organised in different U.S. cities by the Aligarh Muslim University Alumni Association — better known as the annual Sir Syed Day Banquet and International Mushaira. “[Holding] Mushaira in the U.S. and bringing poets from the subcontinent are attempts to meet and keep our tradition alive and provide an opportunity to the young generation to get familiar with their native language” said 45-year-old Shaheer Khan, the man behind this mission.

Within multilingual societies, maintaining the languages of ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity. Using one’s mother tongue at home will make it easier for children to be comfortable with their own cultural identity.

(M.J. Warsi, a doctorate in Linguistics, teaches at Washington University, U.S. E-mail: warsimj@gmail.com )

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Printable version | May 27, 2018 1:52:12 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-holding-on-to-the-mother-tongue/article6909599.ece