Saturday, February 12, 2011

Myth of Mothertongues

Part 2:Primary languages in place of mother tongues (words 1168)

Change of mindsets, a global requirement: If, with Konkani as their mother tongue Goans have kept their identity alive through tumultuous 5 centuries as a Portuguese colony and later during the period 1961-1985, when its viability as an independent state wasat stake, it has been now another debate. This outlines the struggle between emerging futuristic aspirations of a vibrant society and rooting for identity in chaotic globalization, springing up not just in case of Konkani but amongst all other Indian languages, too.
This is a larger issue of opening avenues of progress with wider horizons, where English rules supreme; diverse socio-economics, two world wars and the post war meteoric progress in science &technology have resulted in this situation. Britain itself might have never planned or visualized such turn of events. Even in Balkan countries such as Sweden, which has never been under British Crown, English or French are compulsory second languages, however, most students choose English. This is remarkable because the European Union as such has been formally announced only about 10 years back. An argument often forwarded in India in defence of education in mother tongue has been of China, Japan and Russia amongst others who educate their children in their own Languages. But all these countries have been following this practice since early times, especially much before the Second World War. This period of mid twentieth century has become crucial not purely because of the war itself, but, during this era there was another explosion with far reaching ramifications than a nuclear bomb. It is primarily in the field of the information technology, and added to it are the developments in science & technology, economic implements and global societal developments as never before in the history of mankind. All these avenues function through English.
Freedom and aspirations: These developments have been decisive for native world languages because soon after the WW-II, old European colonies attained self rule and hundreds of millions of impoverished and illiterate people in these societies suddenly had to fend for themselves, from governing their fledgling nations, feeding their hungry poor to educating them. With prima facie social security, and food in the stomach, aspirations in no time started waking up in the breast of the ambitious modern man. This is exactly what freedom is all about!
To manage the issues involved, the United Nations, established after the WW-II, assumed the moral responsibilities of guiding these vulnerable democracies through their nascent days. Even though the Allies during the war, mainly US and UK, were English speaking countries, to provide education in English to hundreds of millions was beyond the infrastructural capabilities of UN which was itself quite unsteady at that time. Besides, selection of mother tongue as a medium of instruction was a matter of common sense and a readymade workforce for imparting education was available in almost all these countries. An offshoot of freedom in most colonies has been a surging sense of patriotism almost as a delayed passive response against the just overthrown colonial suppression. And what could be better way than through one’s own mother tongue, which is intrinsic to human communications. The mother tongue protagonists appeared on national scenes in every region especially in a country such as India, which was culturally more advanced than many other newly formed nations. To support or speak in colonial languages such as English became a sign of betrayal to ones mother land and its freedom fighters.
In Goa, similar to rest of India, this tussle has predictably coursed into a fight between mother tongue protagonists versus parents of young children who demand the choice of ‘sky is the limit’ prospects for their wards. Unfortunately for children, the parents do not have an organization to put their cases across, whereas the language groups are well organized and can pressurize governments. However, if the language groups and governments insist upon education through mother tongue, almost each one of their leaders and anybody else who can send their own children to English medium schools does so. Even during peak Marathi vs Konkani strife,in throughout ‘70s and ‘80s Maharashtrians in Goa sent their children to English medium schools when excellent Marathi medium schools were being run in all towns of Goa. This exposes the hypocrisy of mother tongue lovers.
As India's Supreme Court (SC) has said on July 21, 2009, it is parent's right to decide the medium of education and not any language protagonist. SC said if mother-tongue is sought to be imposed on the students, it would only further aggravate the problems of those studying in villages. “Otherwise, students from villages can’t compete with their peers in urban areas,” the Bench observed.
The phrase ‘mother tongue’ gets flaunted very carelessly but without any rigorous definition. Dictionaries all agree on one point, the language is spoken since childhood and not necessarily from mother. The matter is best resolved by science.
Brain research to help: Typically, science does not use the arguable word mother tongue, but mentions it as ‘early languages’ or better still, ‘primary’ languages’. These are languages learnt before the age of around seven, in whichever environment, in family, school or neighbourhood, but for all of them human brain forms a primary language center. The later languages learnt in years such as 10 or upwards have a separate secondary language center formed in our brains. Science does not make an issue of number of languages, but it says there could be even four or five primary languages (read mother tongues). These researches were done with a state-of-the art tool very popular with modern brain scientists and called functional MRI or f-MRI. Nature (vol. 388, p 171). The results cast doubts on the very concept of mother tongue as a single holy language. Besides the work in science & technology and its well accepted perception of primary and secondary languages, a simple observation around will guarantee that people who knew number of languages since childhood owing to transfer of their parents, or else, have done excellently in a very different language in higher education. In the end, what is the number and diversity of vocabulary offered by each of the varied mother tongues in India? The crux of the matter is do not limit your child to only one language even in school. Reading books in the language is many times more important than simply learning it on mother’s laps.
A mother tongue is an emotional issue embedded in human psyche. Working in a truly multi linguistic, multi caste-religious organization I was surprised to observe that mother tongue transcends caste and religious boundaries even within varying rungs of professional hierarchy. To communicate is an inborn need of all life forms at their own levels of evolution but most clearly it has been of humans, who may proficiently converse in many different languages with equal fluency.
Identity, aspirations and education: In summary, keep up the identity, but let education be according to parent’s choice and child’s talents.
Published in Herald of January 26, 2011
Kalidas Sawkar

1 comment:

Dr Hubert Gomes said...

Excellent, thought provoking article.