Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our Language travails

Raghav started off with talking in his mother tongue when he was little.......much like any other child. He loved telling stories and long ones at that - full of  sound effects that he added, actions, questions to the audience, facial expressions......almost acting out the whole story while narrating it! It was dramatic and astounded us. They were most often shared with us late at night - just before going to bed!

But all this ended quite suddenly when we started worrying about his talking only in Tamil. The worrying mode was something that we allowed ourselves to get into when he joined playschool and teachers there started asking us if we spoke to him only in Tamil at home. I don't know why we took it so personally and decided to talk to him more in English at home....because that has seen the end of Tamil for a while now I think!

Now, he likes to speak only in English; even if we ask him questions in Tamil, he chooses to respond only in English. His English is also very good - he knows when to use which word (even if he has just seen or heard it once in a book maybe) and how. Most of his English has been self-taught by watching the CBeebies channel on TV, reading books and watching some DVDs. Although we haven't really worried so much about his not speaking in Tamil now so much, his grandparents and some extended family were and often expressed the need to know our mother tongue. But Raghav always strongly retorted that he would not speak Tamil. I often felt that he reacted like that more because he felt he was being forced to learn something - that is something he has disliked. However, many in our family could not understand this and persisted in their ways. Sometimes, we even got sarcastic comments about how we as Tamils have forgotten how to say some words in Tamil and use a mix of English. At other times we were chided about the influence of Hindi or English in some words we used. One time I remember my father asked him if he would like to learn Sanskrit as it was an ancient language. Raghav turned to us and retorted : "If you and amma speak Sanskrit, then maybe I will!"

My husband and I stood our ground together - that I think is the most crucial part of this journey of unschooling. For, if each one tugs in a different direction, we would get nowhere! Both of us firmly believe that language is just a tool to communicate with others. So as long as we can use it that way, it helps us in our journey to learn new things. The minute we give it more importance than that and put it up on a pedestal; relate it to culture, history and society in a negative way, we fail to see the beauty of a language and its purpose. But we could not get others in our family to understand our way of thinking on this. So we did nothing really but wait and  and just let things be.  Raghav found his own ways of dealing with their statements and questions - sometimes a firm no, sometimes silence and sometimes just ignoring it and changing the topic.

Raghav has been listening to all the music we usually play at home - carnatic, western classical, old Hindi songs, old English songs, Tamil movie songs, Sufi music.....any music really! We have quite a huge collection and we listen to and sing together sometimes. As a baby Raghav enjoyed listening to carnatic music or old Hindi songs and would even choose the songs he wanted to listen, to calm down or go to sleep with an "umm" sound. That was also when we spoke to him a lot in Tamil. Soon, his interests changed. He switched to Kailash Kher and to this day that remains his favourite. He has learnt the lyrics, pronunciation and some meanings of words on his own! There were days when he used to listen to those songs through the day while doing something else, whenever we went out in the car.....constantly humming to himself. Now, even after a long gap of not listening to music, he can remember and recall the words.

A few days ago Raghav expressed an interest to learn Portuguese, Spanish and Nepali in that order! Now how did this interest come up? Well it is because of an ipad app that he has been using called "Stack the Countries" through which he has learnt a lot about different countries in the world, landmarks, languages, flags and so on. One day he came up to us and told us how much he loves Brazil and that he wanted to learn Portuguese, as that is the official language there! Well we were pleasantly surprised as this is the first time he has really expressed an interest in learning a language. And yes, it was not his mother tongue, nor the official language in our country! But so what?! This is something that HE really wanted to learn and I think that THAT is most important - to develop a love for learning different things. So I did a google search and found a great website for beginners to learn Portuguese and here it is:
I was so thrilled that I had found a way to channel his interest! For the rest of the day yesterday, Raghav sat in front of his computer clicking on different words, listening to them in Portuguese and repeating them! It was amazing to watch him choose the kind of words he wanted to learn - numbers, greetings, holidays and  weather! It was his own way....his own path of learning that he was creating....and that was what was beautiful to watch as a parent. I learnt yet another important lesson as a parent - to know when to be there and when to move out of the way.


  1. Priya,
    Great thoughts and it's nice to see how a child can connect his experiences and form his own learning path. From DVD to ipad game to foreign language! Isn't it wonderful to see them connect their dots.

    I personally have a love for language and as a child grasped what ever word came to me in which ever language. They remained in my head. I was very fascinated with Urdu. So, when I was 10 or so, I bought a Hindi to Urdu dictionary to learn Urdu. Then I bought a English to French dictionary. Language study is so much fun.
    And I think the more we know the merrier. Though, one will always have an affinity toward a certain language when it comes to thinking and experssing...

  2. Lovely to hear your thoughts Rashmie......I forgot to mention one thing in my post about his languahe learning - that he figures out the meanings of words himself just based on the context. I read somewhere (forget if it is in a book by John Holt) that most often we tend to use a dictionary with kids to get them to understand the meanings of words they don't know and how that actually undermines their own abilities to figure out for themselves what those words are or mean. I will try to get that quote sometime, but it clearly said that a dictionary itself is a book created by a group of people, that lists common usage or their ideas of what the words mean. We have never used a dictionary with Raghav and nor has he asked for one. I do believe that a dictionary itself is limiting in some ways. He has always discovered his own meanings, in his own way, which are close to what a dictionary would say.

  3. Hi Priya, this post is in my mind since last two days as first para reminded me Megh's style of story telling which he still sometimes says but now with added explanation mostly to my mom. We use Gujarati at home and people around us too use same. Th as we do not have any specific medium for learning we use Gujarati,Hindi or English books. My kids loves Spanish and they learn numbers,greetings etc. using net. Agree with Holt's view on dictionary...now i come to know why my daughter don't like to use English-Gujarati dictionary. But for me lang. is much more than just lang. of communication.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sejal....yes, language is much more than communication, but I feel that that is the beginning......the first steps.....so if a child enjoys taking those first steps on his own and makes sense of it is on his own, he understands it much better, in his own way, and appreciates it....rather than through the eyes of someone else. That was what I was trying to say.

  5. I got your point Priya,Completely agree on 'if a child enjoys taking those first steps on his own and makes sense of it is on his own, he understands it much better, in his own way, and appreciates it'.....but when children gather at home mostly from English medium then it creates very funny plus tragic situation when i tell them traditional Gujarati stories. I love english as lang. but i think with this approach we are missing something which is our own. At this age children are able to learn many lang....i feel children living in metros and having touch of many lang. are lucky...they naturally learns many languages!

  6. try to chk out whether he is interested in learning German, french or mandarin.bcz these languages have great scope in future.


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