Am I Losing My Mother Tongue?

I grew up in Odisha. So, it goes without saying that Odia is one of the languages I acquired as soon as I started to speak full sentences. But by the time I was in school, my relationship with Odia started being restricted to casual exchanges in an easy-going atmosphere within the four walls of the home. Its charm whittled away as I failed to find any outlet to let it flourish in the subsequent years.

It is Hindi that captured my imagination in the initial years of schooling. Knowing Hindi allowed me to read and watch things widely accessible and understood by all my friends across the country. At the same time, I began to sense a chasm between my thoughts and their expression in Odia, which grew deeper as the years went by. It wasn’t until I was twelve years old that I managed to read and write in Odia in a way deemed just enough to pass as a semi-literate. I have tried to improve my Odia since then, but I am embarrassed to say that I fail to meet the tacit standards set for native speakers by a wide margin despite getting the hang of the structure of the language very early in my childhood by osmosis.

There is a difference between speaking a language as a native speaker and having native-level proficiency. They do not necessarily go hand in hand as one is much more tied to chance or birth than the other. ‘Native’, just like ‘fluent’, is a strange term in multicultural and multilingual settings—and more so in light of languages that owe their popularity to the spread of empire. Its purpose to maintain the integrity of a language by presenting a model to aspire to is understandable, but this also begs the question if all native speakers are equally adept when it comes to diction, grammar, and writing.

Often, the title of ‘native speaker’ is bestowed on any person raised in a country where the language in question is spoken in a set number of accents by those born and bred there. In most cases, the speaker happens to have learnt the language during their critical period, which is in line with the lexical definition of the term (as opposed to its connotations). If either description is anything to go by, I should be a native speaker of Oriya. While it makes sense in a way, it provides me with a badge of ownership with few occasions to prove if my grasp of the language is decent.

My experience is hardly an aberration among people my generation and younger in parts of India where an education in English is accessible. The stagnation in my command of Odia came from not knowing where and how to learn it with the same enthusiasm as I was encouraged to have when learning English—because it was limited in its utility.

Losing touch with regional literature is one of the most conspicuous cultural aftershocks of colonialism in India. Efforts to revive it have seldom been successful at meeting expectations and are very often enmeshed in chauvinistic sentiments that try to throw the baby out with the bathwater by dismissing the other languages taught at school (including English). Calling out the education department and demanding an improvement in the way languages are taught in classrooms may be one way of preventing regional languages from decelerating into a state of oblivion. But the areas crying out for a parallel, and probably a much more crucial, positive change are the arts and entertainment.

Any language learner would vouch for the role passive listening and assimilation play in keeping their spirits up while cementing the language they are learning in the brain. Music, films, TV series, etc. are great sources to rely on for incorporating the language you are learning into your daily life when you are on your own. Although Odisha has an immense wellspring of cultural heritage, it is mostly confined to traditional art forms. Mainstream art suffers in much more grievous ways than modern literature from a lack of original thought. The problem runs so deep that it seems impossible for artists to sustain themselves as outliers. So, anyone with a different idea has to look elsewhere to bring it to fruition. As a language learner, you are left with little opportunity for passive learning, and as a result, a dwindling motivation for any kind of active learning.

Preserving regional languages through oral communication is therefore essential to prevent their extinction. Up until a couple of years ago, I would have glossed over messing up a sentence or using way more English words than necessary when speaking Odia. However, approaching my mid-twenties has made me appreciate the importance of holding on to the ties that connect us through the passage of time. I have realised it does not take a lot to be observant of how I use my mother tongue and maintain it in my everyday life. It can be as easy as being more attentive to what I am saying, reading a newspaper, or even just counting!

In a country where the bulk of writings pushing against the system is circulated and read only in a few languages apart from English, it is increasingly urgent to use our respective mother tongues whenever it is possible to rescue them from veering into puritanism and obsolescence. Our mother tongues might be too ingrained in us to ever be completely forgotten. But they may well be on their way to being lost with time if we don’t actively seek out opportunities to keep them alive.

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