How do you celebrate International Mother Language Day? This UNESCO-declared annual observance is in its 24th year and will focus on multilingual education this year. Around the world, close to 40% of the population cannot access education in a language they are familiar with. This makes it difficult to keep kids in school and causes a huge gap in early education.
For me, International Mother Language Day brings around a different conundrum. I, like countless other urban, millennial moms will lament how little my children understand and speak their mother tongue. Don’t get me wrong, it is my fault that they are more comfortable speaking in English than they are, say in my mother-tongue Tamil. But every once in a while, (like on International Mother Language Day) I do feel guilty that I didn’t handle this better.
There was a story my paati used to tell me, that I remember almost 35 years later. The story was about a little sparrow who had a crazy craving for payasam and the confidence to convince a grandmother to make it for him. She cooks it according to his instructions and keeps it to cool down on a window sill, but the sparrow’s greed and impatience get the better of him.
My paati used to tell me this story in Tamil, the only language she ever spoke to me in. In her telling of the story, the chinna kuruvi (tiny sparrow) was small but formidable. The paati (grandmother) called the kuruvi – kanna (a term of endearment for young kids) and she made the payasam with sakkarai (sugar/jaggery), fresh paal (milk), and naila varutha drakshai (raisins fried in ghee).
I used to love listening to this story and would ask for it nightly. Naturally, I wanted my children to fall in love with it too. When it was my turn to tell the story, I found myself telling it in English. I listened to myself narrate the story and knew somehow, the essence was lost. It wasn’t funny, the punchlines didn’t land right, neither the kuruvi nor the paati were endearing enough, and you couldn’t smell the payasam being made. A classic case of essence lost in translation.
So then, what is it about stories told in our mother tongue?
Your mother tongue is what you hear your parents speak and you root your identity in that language. The first bedtime stories, terms of endearment from family, and the language your grandparents speak, all end up in a special place in your mind. It isn’t hard to see, there is a certain magic to stories when you hear them in the language you associate with your family.
Author Meera Ganapathi thinks and writes in English but several of her books have been translated into her mother tongue Tamil. As a south Indian, she sets her characters in contexts she is familiar with like in her books Uma vs Upma, A Friend For Poochi, and The Girl Who Could Not Stop Laughing. She says, “I grew up with English stories and fairy tales and the only connection to hearing stories in Tamil was from my grandparents, so it feels comforting to hear a language that you have such a deep connection with.”
Why didn’t we pass this along to our kids then? When and why did reading become all about English books, for some of us?
Somewhere along the line, the popularity of international titles, must-read book lists, and the association that those are the books we need to read to our babies at bedtime took over. Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon, sound familiar? Enter any Indian big box book store and you will find multiple shelves with books in English. Way back in the dimly lit area, you will find one shelf with books in regional languages. How many of us walk back there?
But there is hope!
Books for young readers in regional languages
India has always published books in regional languages. From Children’s Book Trust to Katha, Tara, Tulika, Karadi Tales, and Pratham – there are several organisations publishing books for children in most of India’s regional languages. Chennai-based Tulika Books has been publishing books in a range of experiences that are inclusive and representative. “In a discussion with members of the Free Library Network (FLN) we learnt that the children they interact with, even in urban centres are from less privileged backgrounds, many of whom are first-generation learners, prefer books in regional languages – easier for them to relate to characters or stories in a familiar tongue. At FLN spaces, in fact, children first read in their “home: language and are then slowly introduced to English books.” Says Radhika Menon, Publishing and Managing Editor at Tulika Books.
Back in 2015, not-for-profit publisher of children’s literature Pratham Books decided on an innovative solution to end the access problem of multilingual reading resources. Their focus was to bridge the gap between the language spoken at home and the language of instruction at school. They set up an online platform called StoryWeaver with open-licensed stories across reading levels. Today, they have over 51,000 stories in 334 regional languages! Now, post-pandemic there has been a renewed push to make books accessible to those that need them the most.
“At Pratham Books, we are working to publish more storybooks not just translated into mother tongue languages, but also created and conceptualised in regional languages. Storybooks give children a strong foundation for lifelong learning, and more importantly, the invaluable gift of the joy of reading,” said Himanshu Giri, CEO of Pratham Books.
This is great news not just for schools and communities that require regional storybooks for education, but for urban parents as well. Translated picture books are amazing to sneak in a little extra learning for second and third languages. Bring the joy that you felt while listening to stories in your mother tongue by having grandparents read regional language books to your kids. The possibilities are endless!
“(Reading or listening to a story in your mother tongue) feels like home! That’s the kind of heart-warming feedback we’ve got in our 27 years of publishing in eight Indian languages at Tulika books. NRI parents, particularly, tell us that they feel emotional when their children read our books in their mother tongue – it’s their way of staying connected with home,” says Menon.
Creating memories, nostalgia, and the comfortable familiarity of family and home – all created by reading. How’s that for a celebration that should hopefully become a tradition!