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International Mother Language Day 2023: The Importance of Intergenerational Connection to our Mother Languages

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela

For a period in my childhood, there was a rule in the house that we could only speak to each other in Gujarati. At the time, my siblings and I were resistant to this rule (truthfully, we found it annoying), but as we now reminisce as adults, we are ever so grateful for those times. Babhai (my grandfather) was particularly diligent about making sure that all his grandchildren learnt to read and write in Gujarati—I have vivid memories of sitting on his lap before nursery while he read to me in Gujarati. These are memories that I will treasure forever, and I cherish the fact that I was able to communicate so confidently with the elders in my family and community from such a young age. Not only does speaking your own language connect you to your heritage, it’s also the vehicle through which you can receive knowledge and wisdom about cultural customs, food culture, values, and religious belief. There is no price my siblings or I could put on this.

It’s a very different landscape as a parent today. My boys, and all our kids are under so much pressure, getting pulled from pillar to post. Aside from striving for academic excellence, they also have to keep up with football coaching, karate lessons, music practice and so much more. Ironically, Gujarati was their first language – they didn’t speak any English until their toddler years – but as it became a hindrance when we started applying to schools, we had to compromise. My boys began speaking to their grandparents in English, something we never did growing up. Gujarati slowly became a distant and vague connection to a culture the boys were related to but were never fully immersed in, something they could leave for another day.

Babhai would regularly complain to me that my boys didn’t speak Gujarati, and I would smile his comments away because it was easier to do than to face the challenge at hand. When he passed away two years ago, this forced me to reckon with the reality that my boys may never respect their language without my intervention, and this wasn’t something I was happy to accept. I promised myself to try my best to make sure they learnt Gujarati. After all, is learning your mother tongue not as important as becoming a tennis champion or getting a black belt in Karate? Furthermore – I want them to participate in and understand all the Gujarati jokes we are so used to making that definitely can’t be translated like “Mathu khai che”!

Despite their occasional pushback, both my boys are now learning to read and write Gujarati (thanks to a wonderful teacher called Vibhaben). I help and support too and won’t give up encouraging them, whether they get to GCSE level or not. Through dedication and work, I hope they cultivate the same kind of respect for their own language that I had growing up, one that I believe is incredibly important.

Of course, we are not alone on this journey of discovery and remembrance. I have peers from different backgrounds who place huge importance on teaching their children their own languages – from my Chinese friends who send their children to Mandarin classes, to the Muslim families I know who connect with Islamic centres so their children can learn Arabic. My Jewish friends send their children to Hebrew School in preparation for their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It’s this effort made by parents that cultivates the respect in our children for our respective cultures. Language gifts us knowledge, understanding, and the skills to communicate with our own communities. It is a bridge to our own.

So, to summarise, it took a huge loss (Babhai’s passing) for me to start taking this seriously but I wanted to share this lesson and sentiment with other parents and families. Let’s not focus on the challenge, but on the doors that language opens for us. Through this journey and commitment, we honour our elders, keep our traditions alive, and ensure that the old stories are never forgotten.