In India when most of us know two or three languages and are equally comfortable in all, I find it strange that when confronted with a little bundle of joy who doesn’t understand any language at all, we almost unconsciously slip into our native tongues while we coo and croon over the little one. From hard nosed rational adults we suddenly start talking in our own native tongues, even gibberish at times, which is even more ridiculous because all sound would seem equally strange and incomprehensible to the infant in question!
What is it about babies that make us automatically go back to our roots? Suddenly we remember things that we’d never thought of in years and associations of childhood come flooding back to the fore. We instinctively associate baby with things that we were brought up on and think that is the best way to bring up a child.
My friend Pascale, an early childhood educationist who has taught in international schools once told me that if a child’s earliest or first learning is in his mother tongue, he is more likely to develop superior cognitive skills than one who is taught in an alien tongue. This, she told me was particularly true if the child is being brought up in a third culture or a culture alien to his own. In fact she actually carried out an experiment with the foreign students in her class where she insisted that they spend one class reading books in their own language as part of their regular school curriculum. She said that a few months later, she actually noticed that their process of learning had improved. She then employed this technique among the pre-primary school children where they were encouraged to go through picture books or basic alphabets in their language. These kids found learning a breeze all through their primary and secondary school life unlike an earlier generation of foreign children who always had to struggle a bit to keep up with the rest of the class even though they were born in the same culture as the other children.
This revelation made me all the more determined to consciously talk with little P in Marathi and even when we are talking to one another in English, we easily break off into Marathi while talking to him. While it was fun introducing him to lullabies and rhymes especially the nonsense rhymes of childhood that we had heard as kids, it was equally enriching for us to learn newer ones that we were unfamiliar with but are essentially a part of our folk lore.
I am sure I am not alone as there are many Indians in my situation particularly those who are living in cosmopolitan or urban societies or away from their own linguistic group, who switch so effortlessly, seamlessly as it were, from one tongue to the next and relying on our native language to calm infant nerves and soothe them to sleep. Somewhere, somehow, this babble of seemingly meaningless rhymes and lullabies, folk tales and fables unlock certain processes in their little brains and awaken their minds.
English is the official language that seems to equip one to conquer the world and everyone is busy rushing off to give their child an education in English. But education is a skill that equips on for life, it is not restricted to merely acquiring knowledge: it is a process of learning, the acquisition of a skill to enquire, to investigate, to analyze, to frame hypotheses, to test one’s guesses and eventually to come to a conclusion. It is this process that is set in motion by the meaningless babble in the native tongue.
Convinced by the logic in this argument, I would happily switch to talking to him in Marathi while chattering away in English with my friends till the other day, when one of my other friends who is also an early childhood educationist pointed out to me that a child’s mind is like a sponge – one that observes and imitates everything it sees asked me, “Why don’t you teach little P Sanskrit? It will make learning so easy for him when he grows up.” Now wasn’t that carrying going “back to the basics” a bit too far?
As a mother of two thirty-year old daughters and a grandmother of a nineteen week old grandson, Sunita Rajwade has been there and done that. A hands on mom, she has seen two girls grow successfully through babyhood, toddler hood, adolescence and adulthood; solving their maths problems and contributing to their angst of growing up with a mom “who doesn’t understand”. But now as a grandmother, she’s being appreciated for her “wisdom” and “understanding” and would like to share my experiences of this wonderful journey from motherhood to grandmotherhood.