Guest post by Avni Gandhi
As an elementary educator and a student of child psychology, I have always been a proponent of the importance of learning one's mother tongue. My mother tongue is Gujarati, and I know I want my kids to learn it first before they learn English (and hopefully many other languages as well). Why?
- For emotional and mental growth - Gujarati is the language of my ancestors and is part of my cultural heritage. Knowing the language is how my children will be able to connect to our rich traditions and our roots. Language is a key to inclusion. How else will they feel included in their Gujarati heritage if they cannot participate in the dialogue? In today's diverse world, children often lack a sense of belonging and identity. Knowing your mother tongue can give your child a sense of identity.
- Young children’s brains have greater plasticity – It is incredibly easy for kids to learn languages at a young age. They pick it up organically and fluidly, so why not help them maximize their potential?
- It teaches multitasking – Speaking two languages helps children learn to express themselves in multiple ways. This ability translates in an increased ability to multitask because the brain learns to balance multiple ways of understanding.
- To connect them with your home country – Despite the rapid spread of English education, the vast majority of people in South Asia still speak the local language. By teaching my children my mother tongue, I am making India accessible to them. Rather than feeling like outsiders in a place where they cannot connect, they will be able to travel freely someday and engage with the ordinary people who live there. This experience simply cannot be replaced by staying at five-star hotels and speaking in English to the few people who are able to understand you. Besides knowing Gujarati means they can score a bargain while shopping!
- Adds to their skill set in a demanding economy– The rapid rise of India as an economic power also means that, from a purely career perspective (which I really don't think should be the primary reason), knowing Indian languages will be a skill that may prove highly beneficial in our children's careers, much like Chinese has proven to be over the last 10-15 years.
That all sounds great but it begs the question of how?
For many of us who have spent the majority of our lives abroad, we ourselves do not know our mother tongues. So how can we teach our kids? There are a few outlets:
- Grandparents and relatives – They are a fountain of knowledge on this topic and we probably underutilize them. Tell your parents to speak (or video chat) with your kids in their mother tongue! Simply spending a few hours a week speaking another language will have miraculous benefits for your kids.
- Cultural and language classes – A large number of religious schools and cultural groups are now hosting classes for young children to learn their mother tongue. Take advantage of these. They can be a great way to also meet other people with similar cultural backgrounds.
- Books and other resources – These did not always exist in abundance and were often hard to find, but thanks to a growing number of niche stores that specifically cater to different South Asian/Indian populations such as Gnaana, KitaabWorld and other online retailers parents can find these materials readily and have them delivered to our doorstep.
Better yet, we can also take advantage of technology and create these types of materials for ourselves and others. This is really what inspired me to write my first book "Ka Kaachbaano Ka: A Poetical Introduction to the Gujarati Alphabet."
The book is tailored towards an audience that does not know Gujarati at all. There is text in Gujarati within the book, but it is all transliterated. There is also a short lesson at the end on basic conversation. I hope that resources like these will help people learn their mother tongue and spread the knowledge on to the next generation.
There is also a need to make learning a new language fun and engaging. Using resources such as Gujarati flashcards and DVDs teaching Gujarati with rhymes and songs make sure kids are engaged and want to learn more. Also, check out these other bilingual books to tell your kids stories in Gujarati, including familiar stories such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
About the Author:
Avni Gandhi is an elementary school teacher, an aspiring artist, and a proud mother. She migrated to America during high school and has remained deeply connected with her Indian cultural heritage. Avni is passionate about ensuring that the next generation remains connected to its cultural roots, and spends her free time creating new educational materials for her family.
She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a B.A. in Psychology, and obtained her teaching credentials from Cal State University, Northridge. She taught at the CHIME Institute in Woodland Hills, CA before deciding to stay at home with her beautiful son, Arjav.