The other night I was watching an Indian films award show and my dad happened to walk through. As usual he began criticising the actors for only talking in English when they’re off the silver screen yet they earn a living in Hindi cinema, speaking in their ‘mother tongue’. This got me wondering how many desis living in Britain can speak their ‘mother tongue’…or is English their mother tongue?
My previous employer once quizzed me over what I considered my mother tongue. I said it’s Punjabi but she argued I had been born and raised in this country, therefore it should be English. I justified it by saying for my generation – whose parents are born in South Asia – their ‘mother’ tongue would be determined by their ethnic origin…right?
Having discussed this at work with some great minds in the newsroom I received a contrasting view – the consensus was that your mother tongue is the language that you speak often – or to put it poetically – as said by one of our great news presenters: “It’s the language in which you’re fathered” [from the fatherland where you are raised]. Another journalist says she considers the mother tongue to be that in which you can count…
I was still quite confused as to what my mother tongue is because I have been raised to speak both in almost equal measure. In fact, because I was raised by my grandparents who only spoke in Punjabi, the first language I learnt to understand and speak was Punjabi.
Interestingly, for different communities it means different things – for British Asians (despite being born and raised here) the ‘mother tongue’ and even the ‘motherland’ is usually defined by your ethnic origin.
So what about those who can only speak English and cannot speak the language in which their parents were raised to speak? If they can’t speak it, will their children be denied the chance to learn it? And thus, the language will eventually dwindle outside of its country of origin? And then I suppose reading or writing that language is out of the question.
I was sent to Punjabi school and I must admit it felt like a chore, but I persevered and went on to do A Level Punjabi. It’s something I’ll be encouraging my children to be doing because let’s face it, if I don’t how else will they know the language?
I find it quite amusing when I see Asians enjoying music from South Asia and even singing along but they have no idea what the lyrics mean. As with all languages, the context is lost in translation so you don’t even get the beauty of it if you rely on interpretation.
I appreciate there isn’t really a need to learn another language if you live here – apart from English – unless your job requires it. But it would be a great loss if poetic and rich languages like Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi (to name just a few) were lost in coming generations living outside of India. You would lose a significant part of the culture too (God I’m starting to sound like my dad!)
People study ancient languages like Greek and Latin, but are we already giving our current languages archaic status?
I don’t listen to much Punjabi music but Jaz Dhami’s song “Boli” could not have put it simpler: “Mein Punjabi boli ha, menu bhul na jayeen javana.” [Direct translation: I am Punjabi language, don’ forget me youth]