Every year on February 21st, the world celebrates “International Mother Tongue Day”. For those of us in the South Asian diaspora, raising kids outside of India, what does this mean?
I’ll start by telling you my story. My parents came to NY from Kerala back in the 70s. They were part of a vibrant Malayali community in NY, but eventually they moved to South Florida when I was in preschool. My parents sought out and helped to establish the Malayali community there, but it was not the same as living in NY – where you are surrounded by so many of your people that you can have a completely insular upbringing. Going from churches to social events to even the grocery store – you could speak and hear Malayalam spoken all day. In Miami? I heard more Spanish than I heard English, let alone Malayalam.
My language story is the same as many immigrant children. Here is the common lament of an immigrant parent, reflecting on their child’s inability to speak their language:
– “She spoke so well until she was 5.”
– “After she started school, she only wanted to speak English.”
– “The school discouraged us from speaking our language at home.”
– “I was afraid it would confuse her. I thought it would affect her ability to speak English without an accent.”
– “I don’t know how to teach her. She doesn’t seem to understand me. It came much easier to me when I was growing up.”
– “There are no classes or proper books.”
– “What’s the point? She’s not going to use it anyway.”
Does this sound familiar to you? Are you facing this situation with your child now?
Don’t give up. The truth is – language is inextricably woven with identity. To lose your language, is to lose a piece of your connection to your homeland and your family. To better understand why this happens, it’s important to draw a distinction between 2 key terms: “mother tongue” and “heritage language”. What do they have in common? What’s the difference?
Both terms refer to the language we were first exposed to as babies. But they have different outcomes. A mother tongue is easy to recall and may be practiced on a consistent basis with friends, family and the community. A heritage language on the other hand, is a language “inherited” from one’s family, but is lost as a child ages. It is literally crowded out by the dominant language of the environment. In almost all cases, that language is English.
Parents raising kids outside of India need to recognize them as “third culture kids” (TCK). Their identities are a mix of their Desi heritage, their religious upbringing, their race, but also undeniably, a different nationality – be it American, British, Australian, etc. Our goal should be to help them navigate this intersectionality, recognizing there is strength in embracing it all. Raising them with our food, dress, customs, and holidays, can strengthen their identification with “being Desi”. Language is no exception, when it comes to identifying as Desi.
Studies show that,“the most commonly observed pattern among the U.S. immigrant population is the language shift phenomenon.” This means that as families settle in the US, and children grow up, marry, and start their own families, the ability to speak the heritage language diminishes. In fact, “A consistent finding in the field of sociology of language is that heritage languages are lost by the third generation of immigrants.” That means if the grandparents came from India, it is very likely that the grandchildren will not speak the heritage language. Furthermore, “Such a shift was even more rapid among Asian-Americans as compared to Latino-Americans across generations.”*
Why do you think heritage language loss is so prevalent in our South Asian community? Logically – we are far away from our homeland, we lack resources, these languages are very different from English, as well as the fact being a native speaker is not a qualification in itself for being a good teacher. But that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It is beyond logic and eludes most language teachers and parents – as it has to do with the heart.
“Heritage language is not just academic…it’s psychological, rooted in shame and longing.”
As language is tied to identity, if a child is unsure of who they are, ashamed of being Desi or even afraid to try to speak the language – we can’t expect them to be successful, least of all become fluent. Kids can feel a greater degree of perfectionism and the fear of failure is more acute. It’s not as simple as failing an exam. It means you fail at being Indian, that you let your family down. For TCK to have a chance, they have to want to learn. They have to accept that this language is not wrong, bad or “other” – that multilingualism is normal.
Think of the slew of microaggressions (negative messages)* a TCK may experience daily at school:
– Amma is not a word – we say Mommy in this country.
– Your skin is so dark, like the color of poop!
– OMG your dad has an accent!
– Your name is Arjun? Wait…can I just call you AJ?
– What kind of Indian are you? Feathers or forehead dot?
Or from home:
– You’re not Indian enough.
– LOL you have a terrible accent when you speak [insert HL here]
– It was so easy for me to learn when I was a kid. What’s wrong with you?
– Don’t you know the difference between “pali” and “palli” in Malayalam? You’re hopeless!
– If you can’t learn the alphabet, then I can’t teach you
It’s not something we do often in our culture, but we need to talk about feelings. From a young age (even younger than you think) our kids will need help processing these questions and the feelings they create. Before we judge them for resisting our language, why not explore what is making them uncomfortable? Could they have received criticism or have been mocked by a relative for speaking incorrectly? Did someone at school make fun of them for their [insert language, food, dress, culture, skin color] ? Do they just want to blend in and be like everyone else?
Imagine your kids being able to connect with your family back in India. Can they ask Patti “How are you” in Tamil? Can they enjoy playing with their cousins and pick up the slang? Do they understand the priest during a pooja or the preacher in a bilingual sermon?
It is possible. There are so many more resources available today than my generation had growing up in the 80s and 90s. There are initiatives cropping up around the globe everyday with the vision of growing multicultural and multilingual South Asian kids. Take advantage of the resources out there, ask for help, and if it doesn’t exist – maybe you can help create it! Expect your kids to resist at times, but keep the big picture in mind. Learning their language will help them find themselves.
How did my language story turn out? I just finished my first formal course in Malayalam and I can already start sharing this knowledge with my kids. They were shocked that even Amma had to study and do HW. I did better than a novice, but I still made a lot of mistakes and constantly mispronounced words, but … I absolutely loved it. It has fulfilled a part of me that I didn’t know was missing.
 Cho, Grace. “Perspectives vs Reality of Heritage Language Development”, Multicultural Education Journal: Winter 2015.
 These are all anecdotal statements I’ve heard said in classrooms, to my kids and even myself.