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The power of mother tongue

A foetus in the womb grows up in the familiarity of its mother’s voice. Upon entering the world, it is even believed to recognise its mother’s language. Perhaps, this is why our native language has come to be called ‘mother tongue’. It is the language we have grown up with since childhood. We are therefore fluent in it, identify ourselves with it, and express our thoughts and emotions through its words.

In a country like India where there are several mother tongues, there is often a bridge language to facilitate seamless communication between multilingual communities. We hence learn the bridge language for day-to-day communication say, at school or at workplace. But often, in our attempt to become fluent in this language, we might inadvertently drift away from our mother tongue. This phenomenon has become so widespread that several native languages around the world now face the threat of extinction.

On the occasion of International Mother Language Day, Soulveda explores the importance of mother tongue from a cultural standpoint.

Helps form cultural identity

A lot of us often settle in places where people speak a different language. Over the course of time, we too learn the new language and attempt to belong culturally in the new place. And yet, when we meet someone–even a stranger–who speaks our mother tongue, we feel an instant connection with them. We feel nostalgic about home. And for that reason, mother tongue is more than just a tool for communication. It is an integral part of who we are–our very identity.

Sociologist Malathi Gopal agrees. “Our mother tongue helps us reinforce and enhance our social and cultural identity–not only to ourselves but also to the world. It heightens our pride in our own culture. When we talk in our mother tongue, we reveal to the listener the place we are from and the culture we belong to. Even minute nuances of a language, like the accent for instance, can say a lot about who we are,” she says.

Our mother tongue helps forge strong bonds in society and brings about unity. A repository of our rich history, our mother tongue is key to preserving our traditions and cultural heritage.

Helps preserve culture

Mother tongue is the tool with which ancestral knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next. Languages, therefore, play an important role in preserving our culture. When native languages die, we lose along with them the powerhouse of knowledge possessed by the native people–about their environment, culture, philosophy and religion.

Take for example the Hezhen language of Northeast China. This native language is important for the continuation of Yimakan storytelling, a tradition of the Hezhen tribe. These storytelling sessions explain the history of the tribe, their battles and alliances, even as they eulogise their heroes. They further narrate stories about hunting, fishing, life and death, and various shamanic rituals; thereby showcasing the customs of the Hezhen community to younger generations. The oral Yimakan tradition is therefore vital in preserving the culture of the Hezhen community. Today, with their mother tongue endangered, the survival of the Yimakan tradition is threatened, and the Hezhen culture itself at the risk of extinction.

Helps build social unity

It is common knowledge that communication is the key to bringing people together. Of course, today, most of us are able to speak multiple languages. Despite that, we may have noticed that we instinctively feel more at ease communicating in our mother tongue. This explains why several social connections and groups that we form are based on our mother tongue. Take the likes of Tamil Sangam or Gujarati Samaj, for instance. These mother tongue-based clubs are present all over the world so that people can come together and feel at home in a foreign land. Interestingly, these groups manage to bring together people from different religions, races and even nationalities. Clearly, the bond formed based on language is a strong one. Agrees English and Foreign Language University Professor M Madhav Prasad. He says: “Language is essential to social unity. That is why, all communities of the past were language-based communities.”

In conclusion, our mother tongue helps forge strong bonds in society and brings about unity. A repository of our rich history, our mother tongue is key to preserving our traditions and cultural heritage. But more than anything else, our mother tongue helps us connect to our roots and appreciate our legacy. For that reason, our mother tongue is more than just a language. It is a part of our identity.

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