Language or Mother Tongue?
Have you ever wondered in which direction humanity would or would not progress, had we not invented ‘language’?
Would I be writing this piece, or would you be reading it? I often feel amused at the thought of how ‘language’ came into existence, that too so many. And then there’s so much that happens around ‘languages’. It’s a part of our social identity and human existence. Being a pure ‘Bong’, I grew up knowing that ‘Bangla’ is my ‘mother tongue’, no questions asked. But my children, who were born out of a ‘Bong’ (Bengali) mother and a ‘Gujju’ (Gujarati) father, should technically have a ‘father tongue’ too! Funnily ‘father tongue’ sounds like a rather unusual term.
What does the term mother tongue mean? It simply defines the native language we exposed a child to since birth or the language that refers to one’s ethnic group. It is a part of that child’s personal, social and cultural identity. Probably, since a baby learns his first words from his mother, the term ‘mother tongue’ came into existence to define one’s native language.
Considering the number of mixed marriages happening in the recent years because of the shrinking of demographic barriers, this definition has been fading away and merging into the ‘language of love and camaraderie’ rather. According to the age old Sanskrit saying ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ that has references in Upanishads and Vedas, our country believes that ‘the entire world is a family’. So, if the ‘world is my family’, then what could be my mother tongue?
In a world of diverse languages, since our mother tongue is part of our personal, social and cultural identity, many of us associate deeply with that one particular language to a level of fanaticism. Having been born to a father who served the Indian Navy for 38 years, I was fortunate enough to have grown up in an environment where all the cultural barriers dissolved.
We never lived in one city for more than three years. Wherever the posting was, we bonded over duty, unity, humanity, pride and patriotism despite the varied ethnic backgrounds. It didn’t matter which language we spoke or which religion we followed or which region we belonged to. All that mattered was that we were Indians. From the broader perspective, I love being a global Indian. The flavors of all regional cuisines, shades of skin color, our multilingual culture and heritage offer us endless opportunities to study how all these came into being.
Although I haven’t grown up in Kolkata or any other part of the state of West Bengal, I love being a Bangali. But then that’s only an identification of which language is native to me. Again, if the ‘world is my family’, then there’s more than language to marvel about. Why then do we hold on to language or ethnicity as our identity?
Language and Communication
Language is a marvelous system of human communication through written, spoken or sign methods to express ideas and feelings. The ability to use language to communicate is unique to humans in the entire animal kingdom. If the number of languages in the entire world varies between 5000 and 7000, it is highly intriguing to know what is the origin of such a complex yet beautifully structured system of communication with unfathomable diversity. Some thinkers debated that the existence of language sprouted from emotions or the need to express, while others attributed it to the left brain for the rational expression of thoughts, ideas and emotions. The history of the evolution of languages is certainly a vast and deep subject to delve into, but we will not discuss that here.
The concern is about how we treat a language or languages. What does a language mean to us in today’s world? A medium to interact socially, bond emotionally or assert our ethnicity?
Languages don’t define us, but they identify us with our cultural backgrounds and classify us into various ethnic groups. So if the ‘world is my family’, then it is our collective responsibility to respect each language apart from our native one or mother tongue. Why then must we squabble about which language is superior to the other?
Languages have kept evolving resulting in many dialects. Every language has its own history of origin and evolution. It is quite mystical that humanity spread across the planet, separated by distance, geographical and demographical differences, still has the same DNA. Research through genetic analysis has proven that every two people on the planet share some relative relationship between them. Why should then language divide us?
The Ethnic angle
This thought always brought me to think about how languages unite us and help us bond with our fellow beings. When I lived in Kolkata, the City of Joy, for about five years between 2006-2011, it would amaze me no end to hear the non-Bengali’s speak impeccable Bangla. I could never differentiate their ethnicity. They could be Tamilians, Malayalees, Punjabis, Biharis, Gujaratis or Marwari–it just doesn’t matter anymore. Many of them not only spoke the language, they also pursued various creative interests in Bangla, like Rabindra Sangeet, poetry or drama. They, of course, learned the swear words too!
What made them learn the language of another ethnicity? Was it a choice they made or was it forced upon them? I pursued, figuring it my way through deep discussions with friends who were not Baegali by origin, but conversed in impeccable Bangla, including the swear words. The one thing that became clear was their sense of belongingness in an alien city. They didn’t feel out of place. In fact, they felt welcomed. The warmth of the people, their unadulterated hospitality, the inclusive atmosphere compelled them to fall in love with all that was Bengali. Not a Bengali, yet a Bengali by origin. I too would hesitate and thought I had to try hard to fit in. That was only a myth, that I am glad broke soon and when I left town, I took with me fond memories.
Another such city is Mumbai! The city that never sleeps is where all barriers dissolve and merge into this sense of belongingness in being called a ‘Mumbaikar’. Having worked in this maddening city for more than a decade makes me still feel at home whenever I visit it. Just before the pandemic, I had visited Mumbai on a work trip and stayed with a young couple who had rented their spare room for AIRBnB guests in their apartment in Lokhandwala.
One late evening, I was feeling exhausted on my way back from meetings the whole day. I missed my little car. The local traveling had drained me of my energy. It was 10:30 PM already. My eyes kept gazing for something I couldn’t explain then; something that could delight me and fix my tiredness. I soon found one fix when I spotted a Kulfiwala still selling the signature malai kulfi one can get only in Mumbai. I licked off a 100 gm of it unapologetically, but that only uplifted my mood partially. The apartment was close by, but I didn’t want to go back to my room to just crash. My wandering feet took me to a beauty salon in Lokhandwala market. I expected nothing to be open at 11:00PM, but I was astonished to find the opposite. I had to remind that Mumbai is the city that never slept.
I was on cloud nine, when with the extraordinary welcome, and the professional zeal shown by the husband-wife duo owners and their staff. I felt I was the luckiest then and perched myself for a relaxing pedicure. They offered me more services and told me not to bother about the time. The child inside me was jumping with joy at the attention, but I controlled myself and said maybe a manicure too would do. They asked me if I would like a facial too since I looked tired. Now I wanted to pinch myself. Yes, yes… God is certainly up there watching the fun! I reluctantly said yes to a head massage, and that was the best service I have ever received so far. I thanked them profusely and tipped them handsomely before leaving. Now I wanted to be tucked in bed. Could they do that too? Bloody hell! I was going overboard with my wishes.
I shall tell you why I am reminded of this beautiful experience. The owners conversed with me, mainly in Hindi and broken English. I loved the way they exuded warmth, concern, and assurance in the way they spoke. Of course, they had a business to run, but what made them stood out for me was their zest for going that extra mile to delight the last customer that wandered into their workplace before they called it a day. Their attitude mattered. The professional intimacy and personal touch they conveyed in the way they spoke had me sold out to them. How does ethnicity matter here? They spoke languages I could converse in and they made me feel comfortable is all that mattered.
Language is no barrier – Internationally!
Another beautiful incident that is etched in my stock of memories is an outing with my Spanish neighbor, who lived in the same building as I in Kolkata. One fine afternoon, I had found her struggling to explain something to the security guard at our building’s lobby. I walked up to her and offered my help and found out that she needed a cab to pick up her son from the international school, as their car hadn’t arrived yet. Maria knew no language other than Spanish. How did I manage? We used signs, expressions, and sounds to express. I called for a cab, instructed the driver to drive her down to the school, pick up her son and drop them back home.
Soon I met her husband, Fernando Rueda, who was the Managing Director of a Spanish crane company that sent him as an expat to look after their units in Kolkata and Chennai. He had to learn English after joining the position to communicate with the local staff in both the cities. Despite speaking broken English with countless grammatical errors, he did well in bonding with his Indian staff.
One day when Maria and I went for a lunch outing, she carried a Spanish to English dictionary. I managed the rest with signs, symbols, and sounds of laughter. They moved to Chennai after sometime and we moved to Bangalore. They invited us to meet for a holiday with them in their Chennai residence. I still remember that night vividly when Maria, Fernando and I endlessly and animatedly talked to each other with broken English, gestures and Maria’s dictionary till the wee hours of morning. The language of love made it possible. I loved listening to Spanish words. They sounded strangely sweet. Maria often said to me, “Mui guapa”. I fell in love with them and I still want to learn Spanish so that I can visit them in Spain someday. My daughter has completed the first level, and she has offered to tutor me. Maria was a fantastic cook and learned more of Indian cooking from me, and often raked up Spanish meals for us with absolute love.
The Language of Love – One Family!
Language of love binds us with others deeply. The inclusivity and acceptance give us the impetus to adapt to another culture and learn their language because we want to connect with them at an emotional level. The need is born out of love and not external influence of egotistical purposes. People often discuss which language is more appealing; a characteristic that, according to me, is how pleasing it sounds to the ears and connects us emotionally. A language sounds pleasing when it integrates warmth in the voice of the speakers. Non-verbal cues turn into feelings in the attitudes and flavors the various ethnic groups convey in their native languages.
Haven’t you noticed that the sound of every language has its own distinct flavor and its signature tune is the differentiating factor? When we want to communicate in a certain language, it is our responsibility to respect it and learn the nuances to build our proficiency in that language. The grammatical correctness, an enriched vocabulary and the musical expression of a language attributes to the distinct sound of the language.
Since the ‘world is my family’, let’s be grateful to the origin and evolution of the thousands of languages that exist and aid human connection and communication. ‘Inclusivity in diversity’ also calls for collectively respecting all languages devoid of any ethnic bias. It’s only fair that we build our proficiency in those languages that we choose to use for propagating ourselves professionally, while remaining respectful towards the ones that we don’t choose.