Know Your Mother Tongue

It so happened that a polyglot visited the court of Sri Krishnadevaraya. He told the king that he could read, write and speak impeccably in 18 languages. He challenged the scholars of the court and asked them to identify his mother tongue.

Scholars in various languages were summoned and were asked to hold a dialogue with the guest. Each one of them had a personal interview with the said scholar. They found for themselves that the multilinguist was claiming nothing but the truth. Yet, the challenge was a matter of prestige to the reigning king. He turned to his intelligent court jester Tenali Rama to find a solution.

Accordingly, Tenali Rama waited for the scholar to retire for the night. When the polyglot was in deep slumber, Tenali Rama threw some cold water over him. Almost immediately the shocked sleeping man awoke and shouted. “evarura waadu?” Tenali Rama sneaked away from the scene only to tell the king that the mother tongue of the scholar happened to be Telugu.

This little story is a pointer to the fact that no matter how many languages we might learn and master in life, our mother tongue stands supreme and foremost for it is embedded in our psyche ever since the day we are born.

We learn our mother tongue from our parents and immediate family and neighbours in the aural or shravana mode. We are never sensitised to any aspect of grammar when we learn our tongue. We grasp aspects of syntax, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation merely by being exposed to it day after day throughout the formative years of our life.

Despite all this, most urban Indian children have lost sight of their mother tongues. Mixed marriages, nuclear families, the need to study in schools of different medium due to relocation of families from their native places can be identified as root cause of this trend.

India is a country of several such languages, most of which are still alive. We can interpret our glorious literature, tradition, culture, arts and architecture better because they share an invisible link with the associated language. A little effort and utilisation of modern technology and media coupled with human effort can keep the link to languages alive and pass them on to posterity.

Route To Our Roots


The other day, I landed an assignment where I had to translate a slim booklet into Kannada. I took a brief look at the English version and thought it was pretty manageable.

A closer reading revealed it to be challenging in parts. I gathered that the dictionary would help me circumvent my problem. I promised to turn over the finished work in two-day’s time.

Putting pen to paper would have been the most comfortable way of completing the work. However, I was asked to turn in a soft copy. This was a tall order, considering the fact that I had absolutely no expertise in handling the keyboard in the vernacular. The next best option was to transliterate. It was a tedious process. I went through the whole exercise in the hope that the opportunity was a boon in disguise to hone the skill.

About 20 man hours later, over two days, I felt that I deserved a pat on my back for my accomplishment. I had spoken too soon, albeit mentally. The moment I submitted my meticulous work with pride, I was called and told cursorily that I must rework on the questionnaire as it was incomprehensible. Key words were missing, meanings were distorted and the format was formidable. I was taken aback and rushed to my soft copy to verify the accusation. A detailed revision of my work revealed no mistakes as far as I was concerned. But I wanted to be doubly sure before calling back. So, I requested a competent friend of mine to cross-check my work.

When I was given a clean chit, I felt brave enough to call back. This time, I wanted to talk to the chief and address the alleged grievances. Apparently, the lady did not know the lingo, nor did the person who assigned me the job. They had a native Kannadiga validate the work. The receiver was duly handed over to the latter. Within a few minutes of the conversation, I realised that we were not speaking the same language.

It turned out that the young lady was actually assaulted by my chaste Kannada. She was so accustomed to ‘Kanglish’ like tens and thousands of her generation that she had lost sight of the distinction between the two languages. Regional versions for words like schedule, reference, care, insurance, interview and university, among such others, were a novelty to her. The verbs and certain words in the written language seemed alien to her because she was unfamiliar with the difference between the written and the spoken language. Such being the case, it was quite understandable that the technical equivalents in her mother tongue sounded alien to her. I cleared her doubts; rather, I cleared my reputation before calling it a day.

The incident set me thinking. I realised that there was more to it than being blamed and clearing my name. The young lady, possibly singled out for her ability to read the Kannada script, was simply doing as bidden. Here was this hard working, intelligent, educated girl taking care of office responsibilities with the élan of a professional, but sadly, she had lost touch with her mother tongue, quite like the millions across the nation. If such a person found it difficult to grasp the contents of translation, there was every chance of the same going over the head of the common man who was expected to answer it.

A certain unarguable logic supports us, when we as a nation place supreme value on English education so that our children can thrive across our multilingual nation and flourish in the global village at large, when parents of children belonging to different ethnic or lingual origins use English as the common language in order to avoid confusions, and migration compels people to master the common tongue.

In such a scenario, the moot question is — how do we get to protect and sustain vernacular languages with their ethnicity? Well, the answer lies at home. If families conscientiously expose children to their mother tongue during the formative years, the goal can be achieved. It has been scientifically proven that language-learning skills in children can be rated the highest between the ages of two and five. So, parents need not worry about their children losing sight of English or other official languages, for, Indians have a penchant for being multilinguists sooner or later in life. Besides, the media, the teachers and the peer group of the kids will attend to the development of other language skills of the child.

The ability to speak, write and read one’s mother tongue can prove to be beneficial in more ways than one in the long run. If the route to our roots is familiar in the form of our languages and dialects, we can carry forth culture and ethnicity for the coming generations. We have come thus far as a nation, without losing sight of our hoary past. We are game to gear up for a futuristic world. In such a backdrop, a little effort on the part of parents can go a long way in conserving our languages.