It was the dawn of 1971. My wife and I were going home from Vatranasi to Haridwar. When the train stopped at the Lucknow railway station, I got off the train for tea to wet our beaks.
An ex-professor of mine, who was also on board the same train, spotted me and called and asked, “When did you arrive? How long are you going to be in India?”
He knew that I had been living abroad for a few years. Once I answered his questions, he invited me to join him on a teaching assignment, sponsored by the National Council of Educational Research and Training in Delhi.
With a slight hesitation, as our plan in India was to spend time with our parents not teach, I accepted his invitation.
After I delivered my first lecture on, “Teaching Hindi as a foreign language?” a student, who was a lecturer at a Post Graduate College, came to me and said, “Sir, your Hindi is excellent, but your last name, ‘Kurl’ suggests that you are not an Indian.”
Before I could respond to his comment, a couple of professors, who were standing close to me, blurted out, “You are almost right. Dr. Kurl is only half Indian. His mother is India, but his father is German.
The student, left gloating over his astute observation about my mixed-up bloodlines, not knowing that he had been sold a bag of lies.
Now back to mother languages; on November 17, 1999, the United Nations proclaimed February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
This proclamation, as I see it, has three parts: the contribution of mother languages to the cognitive and emotional development of children, the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity and the need for multilingualism in the modern world.
Everyone knows the first language children are exposed to by their primary care givers, including family servants, becomes their primary vehicle of communication between them and their family…and later, between them and their entire monolingual community.
It becomes the medium of their abstract thinking, dreaming dreams and expressing their emotions. Through this medium, they learn to question, investigate and share their observations. Whether the language is Benagali or Haida, Hindi or Hopi, Marathi, Panjabi, Tamil or Tlingit or Urdu, they form their identity and remains their medium of communication until they leaves their monolingual environment and enter a bilingual or multilingual society, like we did.
Linguists and psychologists, based on the linguistic background of children, recommend that their primary education should start only in their mother language. Why? Because, that is the only linguistic exposure they have had since their birth. Because they are familiar with the grammar, vocabulary, intonation and stress patterns of their mother languages.
If they had been raised in a class and gender sensitive society, they would know how to talk to their elders, women, their peers, their youngsters, even to their domestic and farm animals. They might be familiar with dozens of words for fish or snow, but might not know words for the latest scientific inventions.
Concepts foreign to their primary linguistic exposure are dificult to internalise to retain mentally. Foreign concepts often raise barriers in the path of intellectual and emotional comprehension. Why is that so?
It is so, firstly, because mother languages function meaningfully only in monolingual societies. We cannot expect children, grown up in monolingual communities, to comprehend NASA operations through their mother language, unless their mother languages are fully evolved, unless their mother languages are in congruence with NASA operations, as English, French, German or Russian are.
And secondly because a meaningful education of children takes place only when they are allowed to move from the known to the unknown. Only when their educational foundation is laid in their first language, they learn more through other languages spoken in their wider bilingual and multilingual setting.
As Member of the National Parole Board, I was an avid advocate for developing Correctional Teaching Programs in prisoners’ mother languages. I used to notice that some of them had no clue what they were being taught in the class.
In today’s fast moving world, living multiculturally and working multilingually is a need we cannot leave unmet. Though we know the process of achieving multilingualism is complicated and demanding. We experience the old systems incapable of keeping up with new cultural and linguistic patters, which keeps us pushing and steering in unknown lanes.
I say mother languages have no choice but to evolve. Nothing that is organic can remain the same for ever. People are organic. Cultures are organic. Languages are organic. They change. They evolve. Evolution is an enriching process. But let’s not mistake evolution with demolition. Evolution means assimilating, not getting assimilated.
You know, we have assimilated thousands of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, English, French and Portugese words into Benagi, Hindi, Marathi and Panjabi, yet our grammar, intonation and stress patterns, generally known as, “accents” have remained the same. The proof is in our pronunciation of English words. We speak English with Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi accents. Don’t we?
Whether we live in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, our cultures expect us to remain proficient in our mother languages but life continues to demand us to gain proficiency at least in one foreign language.
No South Asians living in Canada, no matter how many South Asian languages they speak, can rise in the Canadian Public Service, unless they are proficient in English and French as well. Some of us might call it, “legislated discrimination”. I call it, “senior public service tax”. Like it or not, you will have to pay it.
Canada is the most liberal democracy in the world. People living in this country, at least the ones I know, have a genuine appreciation for its multicultural and multilingual policies. Multiculturalism and multilingualism enrich our lives. They contribute to our cultural competance. They contribute to our economic growth and enhance our quality of life.
Multiculturalism and multilingualism are the basis of the United Nation’s International Mother Language policy, because they are in keeping with the spirit of the organization.
THEREFORE, WE HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO KEEP THIS SPIRIT ALIVE THROUGH OUR CONTRIBUTION. LET’S GET ON WITH IT.