A Doomed Mother Tongue

Say you were walking down the street and turned a corner to find me standing there, the first fleeting thought that would probably cross your mind would be, “Oh it’s an Indian girl.” To all of you alleged ‘colour blind’ people out there, no that’s not racist, it’s a fact. I am an Indian girl (well British Indian if you want to be specific, but without hearing me speak you’d never be able to figure that out!).

To be honest I’ve come to embrace the fact that my culture/race is a huge part of my identity. That’s how people process me in their heads when they first meet me: the Indian girl. Fortunately, I’m relatively in touch with my heritage so it’s not too much of a burden to bear, thanks Mum and Dad I owe you one.

However, rewind about 16 years and I was far from being grateful to my ultra-Indian parents! I hated them for forcing me to go to Punjabi school on the weekends. I hated the fact that we ate roti and daal five days a week. I hated that I was woken up by the sound of Sikh prayer CDs every Saturday and Sunday morning. I hated that if my parents had the TV remote control, we’d be watching nothing but Indian channels for hours on end. I hated that we were always ready to open our home to random ‘relatives’ from all over the globe. I hated that everyone else I knew went on real holidays and we only ever went to India to visit family. I hated that I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair. I hated that I had to wear Indian attire to functions when my cousins wore dresses and jeans. I hated that the smell of my Mum’s cooking always stuck to my clothes and hair. I hated that my dad never spoke English and had an accent whenever he did. Trust me when I say that the list goes on!

But now looking back as a somewhat mature 26 year old, I can’t believe how much of a brat I was! And I am so grateful for each and every one of the things on that list. Because having experienced some of the world now and having met lots of different types of people, I know that I’m a much more well-rounded adult as a result of my parents exposing me to those things as a child.

The English culture was always going to find me and infiltrate my system, that was inevitable living in the UK. However, my parents knew that my Punjabi heritage wouldn’t be as easily accessible and would require much more effort on their part. But I’m pleased to say that they succeeded in their mission, welldone guys you did well.❤

Now while mine would generally be considered to be a ‘normal Punjabi upbringing’ for a second generation Indian, obviously not all brown kids in the UK grew up the same (I’m talking about 90s babies specifically here). I’ve met a lot of British Indians who like me, would also be labelled as ‘Indians’ on first glance. But apart from their ripe complexions and names that no one can pronounce, they’d probably have a lot more in common with your average white person than their fellow Indians. Why? Because they’re disconnected from their cultural identity. One of my old work colleagues, a twenty-something year old British Indian girl, told me that she revelled in the fact that people typically assumed she was Spanish as opposed to Indian. She also refrained from wearing a kara (a steel bracelet which is a symbol of the Sikh faith) because she didn’t want any fellow Indians to spot her in public and start talking to her as one of their own when she didn’t speak a word of the language; the mere thought of putting herself in such a situation noticeably made her feel anxious. :/

And the thing is, so many of my cousins who are my age and younger share similar sentiments of embarrassment/cluelessness when it comes to our heritage. That’s just how it is these days, there’s even a Buzzfeed post about things you’ll relate to if you can’t speak your mother tongue. I guess it’s down to cultural assimilation, essentially, these guys aced it! Cultural assimilation is important for survival and an easier life yes, but I don’t think that it should ever be a one-sided process. It shouldn’t be a case of everyone adopting the values and beliefs of the dominant group in society, refuting their own traditions and practices as some sort of trade off. It should be a two-way street where we’re all able to mix and match the best bits of our cultures to create an awesome fusion that everyone can be proud of.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Like I said, I know a lot of British Indians who embrace the English culture with open arms and yet if you put a piece Punjabi writing in front of them, I’m about 99% sure they’d fail to identify which language it even was!

But it’s through no fault of their own; I think that the responsibility of making kids aware of where they come from lies solely with the parents. I know of countless cases regarding people who were born in the 1960s/70s in India and then raised in the UK, or of others who were the first generation born in England to Punjabi migrants fresh off the boat. They grew up in close-knit Punjabi migrant communities, didn’t get a full education, were married off young and then went on to start their own families. However, while some continued the tradition of preserving their Punjabi heritage in the UK, others were hell-bent on practicing a much more Westernised style of parenting that was the complete antithesis of what they experienced themselves. They made the decision to abstain from speaking Punjabi to their children (English only), they opted out of cooking Indian food at home, they stopped the obligatory trips to the Gurdwara on weekends and they cut off second, third and fourth cousins and maintained a small circle of just their siblings and friends instead. All in an effort to give their kids what they felt they missed out on growing up: a better opportunity to be successful in society, essentially by being more like the locals.

But how has it really played out? Well we now have a whole generation of brown kids (aka my cousins) who know that they’re Indian because that’s what it says on the tin, but what it actually means, they have no idea. Sure a lot of the time they’ll do well in school and will probably go on to get high paid jobs, and that’s great! But in spite of their success, a lot of these kids struggle to ‘find themselves’ largely I think because they’re inwardly conflicted. On a superficial level, they’re aware that the world perceives them as “Indian” or “the other”. But on a personal level, they feel no ties or connection to that Indian identity; it was something that they were born with, not something that they chose or actively practice. In their minds they’re no different to Dave or Sarah down the road. Davinder and Sarbjit, on the other hand, are akin to aliens for them!

And as a result of being so disconnected from their cultural heritage, these kids have missed out on a lot. For example, they never picked up on vital social cues or the proper etiquette to be observed at social or religious functions. They’re unaware of the actual names of the countless Indian culinary dishes that they encounter at family functions. They struggle to identify and assign various kinship terms like Bhua, Massi, Chacha, Fufar. They feel no connection to the motherland, aka India. They interpret Bhangra music as nothing more than loud, repetitive gobbledygook. And heaven forbid someone tries to initiate a conversation with them in Punjabi, all they’ll get back is a blank, glazed over stare.

But truth be told, it breaks my heart to see this because these kids have been made to feel awkward and out of place in situations where they should really feel most comfortable. And like I said, it’s through no fault of their own. It shouldn’t be an either or situation, why can’t kids be raised to embrace the culture of their ancestors as well as the culture of the land they reside in, in equal measures?

I notice this in particular whenever my cousins all get together at my Nani’s (maternal Grandmother’s) house. Out of 13 grandkids, only six can actually hold a conversation with her. Seven of my cousins have never said more than Satsriakal (hello) and bye to her. Yeah sure they’ll physically be sitting right next to her, but when she’s telling her ridiculous stories and doing impressions of people they literally have no clue what’s going on. If someone were ask them what her personality/character is like, they wouldn’t actually be able to answer. And while a few of them used to fake laugh when they’d see the rest of us rolling around on the floor in tears from her stories, nowadays they just completely zone out. Gormless and eyes glued to their phones it’s like they’re waiting till the conversation reverts back to English so they can switch their brains on again. It sucks because they’re no longer at an age where they can just pick up a whole new language with minimal effort required. But most importantly it sucks because they’ll never have any real memories of our Grandma.

All in all, with the way things are going I think that Punjabi as a language is on a surefire path to becoming extinct, at least in the UK any way. It’s so rare to find someone in their 20s who is British born and fluent in their mother tongue, so when I think about the next generation (aka my kids) I literally have no hope for them! Because by that point the older generations will be thin on the ground and it’ll be up to semi-fluent British natives like myself to educate a whole new generation about a culture that they’re three/four times removed from! And that’s a big responsibility considering I have nowhere near the amount of knowledge that my parents have. But at the same time, it is something that I feel strongly about, and I’d definitely want my kids to be at least marginally aware of where they come from and to be proud of the rich heritage that they possess, even if they don’t know absolutely everything about it.

I definitely think that mother tongues need to be introduced at an early age by immersing the child in the spoken language as often as possible, that’s the only way that it’ll stick. Looking back, there are so many Punjabi words that we use at home and I’ve never even thought to use the English equivalent because the Punjabi version is so much more familiar to me. People can mock me and call me a “freshie” till the cows come home, but language is the key to inclusion, no one can deny that. And while I predominately speak English at home, I feel so much more connected to my heritage because I have the ability to participate in the Punjabi dialogue when needs be, for example, in the presence of the elders in my family or when I’m around any non-English speaking relatives or friends.

Knowing about your culture serves to keep you rooted and provides a strong sense of identity, I’d like to think that I’m proof of that. Even though my written and spoken Punjabi are far from fluent, I know enough to get by and I do believe that it’s as a result of that, that I have zero doubts about where I come from and who I am as a person.

Plus, English as a language can be quite limiting sometimes, being bilingual or multilingual allows you to express yourself more freely in a way that English doesn’t always allow for. And I’m sure that countless studies have proved that knowing multiple languages stimulates brain activity and boosts intelligence: win win!

I would like to end this extremely long, rambling blog post with a quote from the one and only Nelson Mandela that I think applies to this topic:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

9 replies

  1. A very well written post 🙂 Having spent my childhood in the UK and now settled in India, proudly zooming the map to Tamil Nadu, I can’t be more happier of how the identity of being Tamilians was always prominent and ripe in our home. We had a circle of other Tamil family friends, but most of their kids have deviated a lot from culture now. As you rightly said, it falls to the parents to make sure their mother-tongue is always on the tip of their tongues and the children are aware of what is right and wrong by our culture. My parents always spoke in Tamil between themselves as well as us, even though me and my brother responded to them in English. But whenever we spoke to our Grandparents and other relatives, we always spoke in Tamil. There was never a moment we couldn’t understand our mother-tongue. And after moving back to India, we were very determined to speak in Tamil alone, despite our school friends urging us to speak in British accented English so they could hear it 😀

  2. What an excellent post! Weirdly, I had no idea of your Indian roots (Or I’ve forgotten over the years which might well be the case!) but what you say strikes a chord for me with my British Asian friends. The older generations are still at least half-fluent in their mother tongue. But the younger ones – under 20s – not at all. It’s a shame and something I think they’ll regret as they get older.

    Brilliant post which I shall be sharing 🙂

  3. I fully agree with your sentiments. As an Indian who was born in Delhi but raised in Dubai, I sometimes am unsure of where my identity lies. I’m not a fan of Bollywood songs, rarely watch movies (catching Sanju in two hours though!) and don’t feel connected to India. Sure, I love going there on holiday but that’s about it.

    However, when I speak to my fellow Indians in Hindi, I can relate to their struggles. And it helps that I can converse with Nepalis, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis as well. Perhaps crack a joke to lighten up their day or share an amusing story.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. I understand why you feel the way you do. I’m a South African Indian, and with what happened in Apartheid segregation meant that all the older generations weren’t exposed to other cultures, I was lucky enough to study and work with other races without the racism so I’ve been able to ‘see’ both my family and other races and cultures a bit differently and appreciate my heritage. My son, who looks Indian but is mixed race, will be the true test of how much I’ve learnt 🙂 I want to drive him just as crazy as my mother drove me on Sunday mornings blasting her religious banjans!

  5. A nice and in depth post. Loved reading. I got an insight about how an Indian origin feels and experiences in outside India. It is interesting to hear from the horse’s mouth. I am glad that you are so Indian and you know Punjabi culture so well and you follow that. Hats off to your parents for their upbringing and imbibing these in you.

  6. Amazing written piece right here. As a 21 year old British indian I definitely feel myself relating to some of the things you’ve mentioned. I personally know a lot about my culture and religion (thanks to punjabi school and my grandparents stories) but lack the full ability to speak punjabi confidently, something I never use to care about until recently. Glad you checked my piece out on a similar topic at: hameetsdaze.wordpress.com

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