Even as parents and schools focus on teaching English language to children today, many of them are gradually losing touch with their respective mother tongue.
India has an abundance of native languages, around 780, as per activist and professor GN Devy’s People’s Linguistic Survey of India, down from 1,652 languages counted by the government in 1961. And even of these 780 languages, some are endangered.
With language being a prominent medium of representing one’s culture — not to mention its diversity in our country — the gradually diminishing interest in mother tongue has also compromised one’s way of expression to establish their true identity.
Are children taking enough interest in their mother tongues?
Traditionally, India has had a rich repository of regional literature for children and yet, more often than not, they are either not encouraged enough or they don’t proper access to it.
As per UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, 40 per cent of the global population does not have access to education in a language they speak or understand. This translates to over two billion people who would benefit from having books in their mother tongues.
One of main reasons for this, perhaps, is how our education system is shaped to promote English, and what the curriculum calls a “second language”, more than the others. “Our education system has a lot of focus on learning English, because that’s obviously what is promoted in the job market. So, we start considering English and a few other standard languages as the only means to learning. Private schools start discouraging children to speak their mother tongue by penalising them for doing so. There are monetary fines involved at times too. This creates a kind of culture where mother tongue is looked down upon and discouraged in public spaces,” PhD scholar and researcher Ankit Dwivedi told Express Parenting, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, which is observed on February 21.
Dwivedi is among those people who are collaborating with children’s publisher Pratham Books’ Storyweaver, to create digital libraries for children’s books in a wide range of regional languages. Dwivedi is translating books for children into his mother tongue Bundelkhandi. Suzanne Singh, Chairperson, Pratham Books, says, “With 40 per cent of the global population not having access to education in their first language, the issue of lack of linguistic diversity in children’s books is a serious concern.
Currently, we are under utilising the potential of regional languages, believes Dwivedi. “Learning can happen through any language or medium. There is a lot of potential in learning through local languages, which doesn’t get utilised,” he said. And it is with this motto that he has so far translated 12 books into Bundelkhandi, of which eight are already available online.
Why we need more children’s books in regional languages
It is Dwivedi’s first attempt in translating books, and in the process, he has realised that there is hardly any existing written text for children in his language. “I believe many parents want to engage with children in their local language. Apart from oral communication, there is hardly any resource available in Bundelkhandi. And so, having some story books with pictures might be a good way to encourage children to learn their mother tongue,” he expressed.
The dearth of available material in a regional language that is relatively lesser in use is something that SNS Foundation also faced, while translating books into Marwari language. Damayanti Bhowmick from the organisation says, “There is a distinct gap in terms of the available literature for children in Marwari, which needs to be filled. Marwari is not like a mainstream regional language. But we are confident in our efforts since we are working at the grass-root level in the villages of Rajasthan. We roped in 12 teachers who helped us translate 100 books into Marwari. These books will be used in classroom teaching in government schools.” The books translated include picture books, story books and those on STEM, 50 of which have already been uploaded, Bhowmick informed.
How to get children to read books in their mother tongue
Publishing books won’t be enough, unless children are actually able to have access to them. While digital libraries are a step forward, what we need essentially need is more awareness and simultaneously, greater visibility for these books, something another children’s publisher Tulika is aiming for. The company has been publishing books in nine regional languages, namely English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali, apart from bilingual books too. Deeya Nayar, Senior Editor, Tulika, said, “The problem is marketing these books. We would love to do books in more regional languages but we will also have to be able to sell them in the respective states. This a very niche field. For a long time, bookstores would have all the books from the West, and one corner that would say “Indian books”. The situation has, however, improved over time. For people to buy these books, they should have adequate visibility.”
“Earlier, because of constraints of publishers, the books in regional languages would not be of a quality comparable to western books coming to the country, and not as attractive. They would typically be published on thin paper and in black and white. So, our main interest was to provide books for children in their mother tongue, which was as attractively produced as English books, so they could read in a language they are familiar with,” said Nayar.
Apart from the nine languages, Tulika has also published children’s books in languages from the northeast, namely Khashi and Mishmi, with the help of local writers and illustrators. Among others are Odia and Nepali.
For Tulika, a lot of their regional children’s books are circulated through NGOs, which include them in their literary programmes, mentioned Nayar. “As far as the mainstream market is concerned, who is going to want to buy them? Possibly because some bookstores feel these books won’t sell. But you at least have to get started and see how it turns out,” she said.
And Bhowmick agrees. “More than monetary resources, it is will and awareness that can help us take the cause forward,” she said.
English shouldn’t stop children from learning their mother tongue
The mother tongue is an important way to get children to stay rooted to their culture and a storybook in English may not serve the purpose sometimes. “Children learn both from the reality around them and through their world of imagination. Many a times, books in a language that is not from our own region may not have an expression for things local to us. So, we started getting alienated from our immediate surroundings. While that doesn’t mean stories in other languages don’t trigger their imagination, children also need to be able connect with their real world, to express themselves better. It helps them develop an identity,” Dwivedi highlighted.
This is not to say that children should only focus on regional literature. The idea is to get parents and schools to encourage them to read books both in English and their mother tongue. “It’s not so much about the pride associated with local language but more about demolishing the idea that standard languages are the only way to learn, when most parts of the world are focusing on promoting their mother tongue. These languages don’t stand in contradiction to one another. Learning English shouldn’t stop us from learning our mother tongue as well,” asserted Dwivedi.