03-May-2016

The mother tongue challenge



Even before Bobo was in the realm of possibility, I knew that I would like a child of mine to be able to speak my mother tongue. I am no Tamil scholar. I can barely read the language. I can’t write in it. My spoken Tamil is quite colloquial. My school education had favoured Hindi thanks to parents with foresight. 

Yet having rediscovered my roots in my twenties, I could not help but appreciate that I had inherited a wonderful language with a rich heritage. Not to mention, despite my English August-ness, I still loved the fact that I could get inside jokes in Tamil and could see movies in the language and somehow, subconsciously the language had become a part of me. 

D was not interested particularly about his progeny learning his mother tongue (we don’t share a mother tongue). So when Bobo was born, D was in charge of Bobo’s English education and I was going to be responsible for his Sangam (or not) Tamil.

In the beginning, it seemed a bit odd cooing to Bobo in Tamil. For one, D and I spoke to each other only in English. For another, I spoke to my immediate family in a combination of Tamil and English, switching to the latter when I got excited or irritated or happy or sad. English, infact, was virtually my mother tongue. However, I knew that if I did not get into the practice immediately, it would never happen. This was also borne out by research I did later which told me that babies can start distinguishing languages based on common sounds they heard, as early as ten months.

With the hours I worked, I had only a couple of hours every day of the working week with Bobo. This meant that was all the time I had to pour Tamil into his ears. I would speak to him in Tamil. I would read to him in Tamil (English books that were translated in my mind before the Tamil words came out). I would read him Tamil books, something I had not done since primary school, my lack of fluency evident from the very long pauses between words or even mid-word.

The rest of the day was with our Filipino helper and D, both of whom spoke English. Not to mention, everyone in Singapore speaks English so that is the sound you are exposed to the most. When my parents visited, Bobo got a lot more Tamil but only for a few weeks at a time. I tried speaking to D in Tamil (luckily he can understand the language quite well) but it was odd to have a conversation in two different languages and mostly I stuck to English.

When Bobo started to say words, and then speak, it was no surprise that he chose English. After all, here was a toddler trying to communicate for the first time, and naturally he would choose a language he was most familiar with and in which he had a very good chance of success. This was not to say that I wasn’t deeply disappointed. I had been going on for over eighteen months. All I had to show was a few words when I pointed at things and asked Bobo to say their names.

I had to be patient. I continued speaking in Tamil. Bobo began his pre-school and his English got better and better. He was also exposed to Mandarin at school, adding to the confounding mix. At two, there were still no visible results. It seemed like a futile exercise but now more out of habit, I continued to speak in Tamil. All his queries in English were met with a translation of his query into Tamil and then a response in Tamil.

He was also now allowed to watch TV in the weekends and his limited TV time was filled with DVD episodes of his favourite Dora, dubbed into Tamil. He watched the episodes quietly, not responding to the queries that Dora or Boots threw at him in Tamil.

In the meantime, I found to my pleasant surprise that speaking entire sentences in Tamil without using the simpler and easier English words, began to come naturally to me. Still better, my Tamil reading improved considerably. I, of course, was a long way away from reading a classic but I could get by when it came to short stories for toddlers. Even if Bobo did not learn anything, atleast I would.

Then around the time Bobo turned three, both of us were watching a video of his from when he was two. He seemed to know a lot more Tamil words a year earlier than he did at three. I was shocked by how little progress he had made and came up with a rule – Speak to mummy in Tamil or there is going to be no speaking to mummy at all.

The implementation of this rule was helped enormously by the fact that D was based in another city on account of work and had become a weekend visitor. The only person available to talk to Bobo was me and I would not respond to English.

The first couple of days were tough on Bobo. I figured that the pain was temporary. I had seen enough NRI kids whose parents claimed that they understood their mother tongues perfectly well but were too shy to speak in it. If I did not force Bobo to speak in Tamil now, he would never get the confidence to do so in the future.

On the third day, Bobo said something in English and as usual I asked in Tamil ‘I did not understand. Mummy can only speak Tamil’. Bobo turned away saying ‘I did not say anything’. I was tempted to just give him. After all, one of his parents was missing from the scene and he could not talk to the other parent. Then a few minutes later, Bobo’s love for talking overpowered his shyness and he asked me whatever he wanted to in broken Tamil.

Voila! The breakthrough that I had been waiting for had occurred.

Bobo began to form broken sentences in Tamil. I would wait for him to finish and then repeat the correct version of the sentence again in Tamil for his benefit. With practice, he got better and better.

Then my parents arrived. My dad immediately caught onto the fact that Bobo was good at speaking in English and he could optimise the limited time he would get with his grandson by speaking in English. My entreaties that he was supposed to set an example for Bobo by speaking in Tamil fell on contrite but forgetful ears. My mom made a more conscience effort to speak in Tamil but the fact was it was my dad who spoke the most to Bobo and had his ear.

Then a strange thing happened. Bobo’s Tamil began to improve. It turned out that my mom and dad spoke to each other in Tamil and Bobo had started to soak in the language. Also now that Bobo’s English was quite ok and it had become a subconscious part of him, he could move onto other challenges like mastering Tamil. By the time my parents left, Bobo could have a conversation with me in Tamil (albeit with very basic words and expressing very basic sentiments) without feeling self-conscious and dare I say, some enthusiasm. 

I am feeling terribly proud of both him and myself. It was a tough project to undertake and while I had never thought about the effort, I realise now that it would have just been so much easier on me and him to stick to English.

I am told that I still have a long way to go before Bobo remembers the language well into his adulthood. Constant practice will be needed. I am also not sure how I am going to teach him to read or write in Tamil, especially given that I cannot do the latter well myself. But having come this far, I think with a bit of effort, I might just make it work.