Self Improvement · Understanding

The importance of the mother tongue

I sat there, listening to my mom translate my second, now primary, language to my first language so that my grandma and I can communicate with each other. My grandma answered in my first language and I understood. Any follow up after that, if simple, I did, if elaborate, I was blank on. My mom was needed as a medium for my grandma and I to connect on a deeper level simply due to my lack of connection to my mother tongue.
It was disheartening.

If you’re from a multilingual family or have family in other countries and are unfamiliar with your native language, you understand the struggle. The struggle of communicating with family members, conveying your thoughts into words and feeling a sense of belonging.

In my effort to learn English, I gradually lost my natural touch with my mother tongue, Gujarati. It was English that naturally flowed freely through my mouth. It was English that I thought in. And it was English that I was able to express my thoughts in an eloquent manner in. Gujarati became a language I had to remember.

Though Gujarati was spoken at home, as my parents also became more familiar with the language along with the rest of the family in the US, speaking in English was accepted. I spoke in English and my parents would reply in Gujarati. Consequently, understanding the language over time didn’t become an issue, but speaking it fluently, did. Without practice, I lost the flow. The flow that I first learned.

I remember days in my childhood where my parents would call our family in India and I would avoid all communication with them, solely because I wasn’t able to speak the language well. I had the desire to speak to them but because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up the conversation without butchering the grammar, I stayed away from it. Consequently, my family and I lacked consistent communication until a much later age, causing a gap between us. They didn’t know much about me after I moved to the US at a young age. Nor did I know anything about them. I lost touch with them completely.

Without a sense of connection to my native language, instances like this caused somewhat of an identity crisis. I feel it when, even nowadays, I can’t properly articulate my thoughts without jumbling through a mess of words. It comes more naturally now, but identifying the exact words that express my thoughts and emotions is unnatural. I’m forced to voice words that don’t quite fit and I’m forced to keep quiet when expression isn’t an option. That disconnect, no matter how small, is daunting. It’s hard to accept not being able to speak to my own parents or family members freely purely due to not knowing a common language.

English is taught and spoken in the United States and that is a language everyone here should be fluent in. But, becoming acquainted with your native language is also imperative. Because in the grand scheme of things, can you imagine that a generation or two before us were fluent speakers of a language and a generation or two after us wouldn’t be able to speak even a word of it? I can’t accept that it was simply due to one person’s decision or lack of interest in the practice of a language.

I can’t accept that that one decision changed the outcome of generations after me.

Familiarizing yourself with your mother tongue can provide more culture and history.  It can bridge the gap between the past and present.  It can create an even deeper connection between you and others.  That’s why I felt it was necessary to finally learn the language. It was essential that I can communicate and not sit quietly in a room full of Gujarati-speakers. That I can be openly and instinctively expressive with my parents, family members and friends. And that I can eventually teach my kids the beauty of their mother tongue.

mother tongue


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4 thoughts on “The importance of the mother tongue

  1. Really well written Karishma.
    There are still a handful words and phrases that I only can explain in Tamil. Language is really just a type of perception. If a language is lost a way of thinking and formulating ideas is lost. If that idea intrigues you, I recommend the movie Arrival.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, keep it up!

  2. Hi Karishma, I agree! I just came back from a trip to India and I experienced that speaking fluent Gujarati was essential to building rapport and personal connections with family and friends. On the other hand, I had to communicate in Hindi when I traveled outside of Gujarat, and Hindi is a language I definitely am not able to speak well. I found I could not build the same level of rapport and connections when I couldn’t speak fluently.

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