The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else,
if not here
in English.

— "Dedication", Gustavo Pérez Firmat

On February 21, 1952, Pakistan’s police opened fire on students of University of Dhaka (in erstwhile East Pakistan) protesting against the imposition of Urdu. The Bengali language movement demanded the inclusion of Bengali as a national language of Pakistan, in addition to Urdu, which was the mother tongue of only 3-4% of the nation, while Bengali was spoken by more than 50% of the population.

On January 9, 1998, Canada-based Rafiqul Islam wrote to the United Nations, asking them to commemorate the 1952 killings in Dhaka and mark the day to preserve languages from around the world from extinction. This led to the declaration of 21st February as International Mother Language Day. A dark day in the history of language movements, but also one full of hope. A hope that led to the creation of a new nation, Bangladesh, in 1971.

While this incident took place almost 70 years ago, the fight for mother tongues to remain relevant persists, in the face of dominating language structures. Language is a crucial part of a community’s identity and social reality. Given India’s colonial history, the different languages in the country are constantly jostling with the “global” language English for space.

Language hierarchies are constantly internalised and play up in daily social situations. Which language do we think and dream in? Can we call ourselves truly bi- or even multilingual? How many of us actively engage with our mother tongues? What do we even call our mother tongue?

I found some answers to these questions in course of my conversations with a group of young women students of business management. They come from different parts of India, and belong to diverse regional, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds. We talked about the two contradictory attitudes towards English – English as the aspirational language which brings cultural capital, and English as the language of the “show-offs”. Here is what some of them had to say:

Jacqueline Francis, 25, Jhansi

“Once, when my cousin from Goa visited us in Jhansi, I remember she was well-versed in Konkani and English both. At the time, I was still struggling to understand lyrics of English songs. I kept listening to the English song, We are going to Ibiza, and in order to come across as someone who knows English songs, I started to sing confidently: ‘We are going to eat pizza’. My cousin burst into laughter when she heard me singing it.”

Ojas Khurana, 22, New Delhi

“Living in a big joint family where everyone spoke in Punjabi and Hindi, my mother was single-handedly, constantly creating an English language culture for us. May it be watching cartoons or reading out bedtime stories in English, my mother made sure that English wasn’t alien to either my sister or to me.

“Enid Blyton was my mother’s favourite from a young age. I remember she used to read The Faraway Tree to us. Falling asleep to fantasy stories even allowed me to dream in English. The strange thing is that learning Hindi at school was more difficult than English.

“Technically, as Hindi is seen as more native to us, it should be easier to learn it in school, but that was never the case. From writing letters the wrong way to taking hours to read a simple poem in Hindi, I have only now as an adult gone back to learn and appreciate Hindi literature.

“There are some things that are easier for me to express in English, and some vulnerabilities which can only be shown in Hindi. My bilingual identity rests on my memories with both languages, how I see many different visions for my life in different languages, and the way I constantly shape and tell my story on two solid pillars instead of just one.”

Shubhra Bhardwaj, 26, Agra

“It’s been said that to get a command over a foreign language, we need to first start thinking in that particular language. But whenever I talk to myself, I think in my mother tongue. For me, it comes naturally.

“It’s very interesting how teenagers associate English with class. I also used to do something funny when I was 16 or 17, I always used to place orders in English at international food chains like Pizza Hut and McDonald’s. I don’t know the reason, I grew up seeing others do it and I used to think I would be judged if I don’t do the same. Now I know it was very childish, but I do encounter such experiences even today.

“It’s very disheartening that people who have adopted English as their preferred tongue in India look down upon those who choose to speak in their mother tongue, especially if it’s Hindi. English has become the language for elites and they use it as measure to judge someone’s intellectual level. People think someone is not intelligent enough if they can’t speak English.”

Geetanjali Sahni, 22, New Delhi

“My paternal aunt (chachi) has really young kids and when she gets angry at them at home, she uses words like ‘pagal and ‘bewakoof. But when we go to a family function or a high-end restaurant, she scolds her kids with words like ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’. I usually make fun of her for doing this. But yes, it is strange how there is a sudden change in your language as you move from your comfort zone to a social space just to maintain your ‘image’. And maybe this shows that we are comfortable with our mother tongue, but just to maintain a certain image we flip our personality as well as the language in which we speak!”

Sharon Robson, 23, Ernakulam

“My jokes miserably fail in Delhi, unlike down in Kerala, where I am considered quite funny. It also made me realise the plethora of language and regional references we rely on in our daily conversations. I switch to English when I am talking about politics or about a book. But I prefer my mother tongue (Malayalam) to carry out day-to-day conversations. I also find that intimacy is felt more easily when we speak the same mother tongue. This is a very complex relationship, where one has to use English to have hard or intellectually charged conversations, but also gets emotionally attached faster to a person who can speak one’s mother tongue. Also, whenever I miss home or feel very homesick, I watch an old Malayalam movie to feel better. There is no substitute for that!”

Vidushi Bhalla, 26, New Delhi

“I recall that when I used to be very young, I insisted that my parents converse in English. I used to feel embarrassed if my parents spoke to me in Hindi in front of people, whether in parent-teacher meetings, at gatherings at home, or at parties.

“I observed contrasting attitudes and language preferences while working with people from foreign countries – mostly in Europe – with non-English native languages. Formal email communication would almost always be in the countries’ native languages – eg. French in France, German in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Finnish/Swedish in Finland. Client calls and conversations with businesses in those respective countries would be in their native spoken languages.

“There is pride in knowledge of and fluency in the country’s native language, and in consciously choosing it over English. Even during business research and analysis exercises, often the analyst document, financial reports, and technical information would also be documented in the native languages of the countries instead of English.”

The English vs “mother tongue” debate is not limited to South Asia. In 1986, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote in Decolonising the Mind about the humiliation of speaking Gĩkũyũ in the vicinity of his school. In the book, he laments the cognitive dissonance in the mind of the Kenyan child because their language in the classroom – a cerebral experience – was not their language at home – an emotional experience. Thiong’o took a radical step later in his life when he decided to abandon English, and switched to writing in Swahili and Gĩkũyũ.

We don’t have to take radical steps, but here is a question we must continue to ask ourselves today: Can we not fall into the trap of language hierarchies, and do better by our mother tongues?