How To Help Kids Retain Their Mother Tongue

Jan 16, 2017

When my first child Mallika was born, I almost exclusively spoke to her in Hindi. I counted her tiny fingers and toes in Hindi. I babbled in Hindi baby talk in between nursing and diaper changes. In lieu of Hindi lullabies that I didn’t know, I sang slow tempo Bollywood songs while rocking her in my arms.

Then my second child Dax was born. Mallika had started pre-school. My husband, although also of Indian background, knows very little Hindi. So, in the daily mayhem of our lives, it was just easier to speak in English at our home. Beyond quick commands — wash your face, eat your food, wear your clothes, where is your water bottle — Hindi fell by the wayside. Although my husband likes to point out that when I lose my temper, I revert to Hindi, a result of being yelled at as a child in Hindi.

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It is important for me that my children learn how to speak my mother tongue. It’s a language with immense depths, with capacity for beauty and irreverence. At some point, I would like to share my appreciation for a turn of phrase in a Bollywood song or the way we talk about the weather in Hindi with my children.

At some point, I would like to share my appreciation for a turn of phrase in a Bollywood song.

But it’s challenging to maintain a home language when English is so pervasive. Besides its usage in school, most children’s popular programming — from TV shows and movies, to popular computer games and apps — tends to be in English. “It’s a lot easier for children to begin speaking the dominant language when they go to preschool or school because they realize that is the language everybody else speaks,” says James Cummins, professor emeritus at University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. As a result, Cummins says children don’t usually learn their home language beyond a rudimentary level, which has tremendous repurcussions. Besides individual children losing their potential for bilingualism and their ability to communicate with their grandparents who might not know English, Canada is losing its linguistic intelligence.

At the moment, I am struggling to keep my two children interested in Hindi lessons. Some days, I simply run out of time, and resort to basic word games in Hindi that compliment the task at hand: How to do you say water in Hindi? How do you say teeth? What’s toothpaste? What colour is the toothpaste?

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However, I have recently started to try and spend 30 minutes every day on a Hindi lesson with Mallika and Dax. After they come back from school, have a snack and finish the homework, they learn the Hindi alphabet. A bit of a bribe is involved; the kids know that the Hindi lesson stands between them and watching some TV. There’s some amount of whining, and the lessons sometimes devolve into fits of giggles at funny-sounding words.

We are a long ways away from reading even simple Hindi picture books. It’s a tough slog, but every time I catch Mallika singing along to a Bollywood song or Dax triumphantly announcing a Hindi word, I smile and hold on to hope.

Tips To Hold On To Your Mother Tongue

  • Send your child to school with a dual language name card. Write his/her name in English on one side and your home language on the other. This will open up a topic of discussion in class.
  • Talk to your child’s teacher about your endeavour. Ask if you can read a children’s book in your language to their class. The teachers will appreciate your engagement, and your child will have a sense of pride in their home language.
  • Make a routine of teaching your language at home. Start with something simple. Make your own flash cards in your language and go over them before going to bed. Slowly start adding other concepts like alphabets and vocabulary.
  • Find fun story books in your language at your local library and read them to your child. Make the language lessons fun.
  • If you cannot find books in your own language, you can make one up! Help your child to translate sentences. Depending on their literacy, they can even write their own stories.
  • Find rhymes and poems in your own language. Songs are a great way for children to memorize words. Then talk to them about what the poem means.
  • Involve your children in simple tasks, and use your language in carrying them out — whether it’s preparing a snack or tidying up. You can start by pointing out names or colours, counting, then building up to simple sentence structures.
  • Try and organize a regular get-together with other parents and children who are interested in keeping up with your mother tongue. You can organize games, read alongs or even a movie screening, if possible.
Article Author Aparita Bhandari
Aparita Bhandari

Read more from Aparita here.

Aparita Bhandari is Toronto-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Today's Parents and Chatelaine, among other publications, as well as the CBC. As the mother of two rambunctious kids, she is also an expert on Disney princesses, Monster Trucks, silly faces and the entire works of Sandra Boynton and Ian Falconer. She's currently a student of the Marvel Universe. When she isn't hollering for her kids to choose between tidy-up and time-out, she can be found baking.

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