Modern Parenting Dilemmas: The ‘Only English’ Child

Posted: September 5, 2014

Is the rising tide of young people in India who can only speak English, a natural by-product of globalization? Or a modern parenting dilemma?

Recently I visited my cook’s home for a Pooja. I was introduced to her 3 year old nephew. At the mother’s insistence, the tot droned the alphabet, recited a couple of nursery rhymes and thanked me for my praise; nothing amazing in itself in an Indian home, except that every single word uttered by the child was in English.

Proudly, the mother announced (in Marathi), “We are sending him to an English medium school soon.”

Language is a means of communication. Or is it?

In our country, it is far more.

In a country of 18 official languages and over 350 spoken dialects, English is the medium of instruction for higher education and later jobs, national or international. Many of us converse easily in English, with colleagues and friends of differing backgrounds. English is perceived to be an economic and social equalizer.

My Indian language story

Twenty years ago, we were clueless about parenting but full of theories. Frankly, we were perturbed by the number of children who could not speak a native tongue without interspersing English. We had decided that we would teach our child only Marathi or Konkani, these being our respective mother tongues. We would deliberately avoid English for conversation at home.

Anyway, soon we had a live subject to test our theories on. After about three years of communicating in one language only, we had a child fluent in Marathi and a smattering of Konkani and Hindi (our own spoken-language skills also improved considerably).

At a gathering of old friends with their spouses and children, our son was the only one who knew no English. The other kids spoke mostly English! The other children were discussing Dr. Seuss, while my son knew only Amar Chitra Katha. They played hide-and-seek, while my son wanted to play luka-chupi. We could see that he felt completely alienated.

We wondered if our decision had been the right one.

But we wondered too soon. After a while, amazingly, the barrier erected by language was broken by the inclusivity that childhood bestows! And they were chattering away in a motley of tongues and playing like old friends.

The convenience of English

English is, indeed the language of the future, as far as jobs and global communication is concerned. Certain technical terms and phrases do not have an equivalent in local tongues. In many Indian families, learning English starts rather early.

For many, such as my cook’s relative, English is an ‘open sesame’ vis-a-vis their education and jobs (as indeed, it is!) For the odds to be evened out, parents who do not speak English are anxious to have a headstart for their offspring. And who can blame them?

For mixed language couples, it is a convenience. For example, if the mother speaks Tamil, and the father speaks Punjabi (Two States!), one of the parents will have trouble speaking to the child as they are both not conversant with each other’s language.

More often than not, in middle and upper class families, English is the language spoken at home, and is a first language for their children. But given that children learn very fast, why not take the trouble of teaching them a native language? These children will learn English as a second language rather easily, given that English will be the medium of instruction at school and their parents are also fluent in it.

Developmental experts say that while the primary language for a child should be the mother tongue, learning a foreign language improves cognition and mathematical skills. Sadly, in many modern Indian families, the foreign language is often the mother tongue, not English.

More than just a language

Language is a key to preserving culture as well. So are we in the process, creating a future in which our local tongues will fade away and also, our cultural fingerprint?

English is a language of communication globally. Still, knowing an Indian language, preferably your mother tongue is good.

Looking back, I am glad that our child learnt Marathi. He can converse with us, his grandparents, and enjoy a play, song, movie in Marathi. I take great pleasure in his interaction in Konkani with my mother.

Is this line of thought typical of a person of my generation? This worry that, in the future, most Indian languages will be a hybrid of English inserts?

Or, is it an inevitable side-effect of globalization and as unstoppable as global warming! Am I being oversensitive about something that is just a means of communication?

Pic credit: Ankur (Used under a CC license)

Hi. I am an anaesthetist by profession living and working in Mumbai. I truly love

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  1. Good one Ujwala, I totally agree, even we speak with our kid only in our mother tongue coincidentally konkani and marathi 🙂 English she will anyway learn in school..

  2. Absolutely agree. My nephew could only communicate in Konkani and some broken English when he started nursery. Thinking that he would miss out on interactions my sister decided to start conversing in English with him, that was when an elderly neighbour told her not to, that he would pick English soon enough at school. She also added that children at that age will not care for who they interact, they will find ways to do. and hey presto, she was right. Today he speaks English fluently and is one of the few kids in his class who can speak his mother tongue as well.

  3. Good one and I totally agree that a child should definitely be conversant with his mother tongue. What I think is not right is treating English as a foreign language. It’s not that anymore. It’s universal language and a must for learning as most instructions, books, and specially computers are in English. Why make a conscious effort to not learn it? Two languages can be easily learnt simultaneously. In fact a child should have such proficiency levels that he should be able to switch over to the other langauge as and when required

  4. I made an effort to speak to both my sons only in Hindi. Yes, they did not really know any English till they joined school. English being the medium of instruction, they both picked it up without any problem. But I feel proud that both my sons are fluent in Hindi that my husband and I speak. But yes, I have seen many kids around us who cannot speak their native tongues. In a way, I feel sad that our children are losing out on their native tongues.

  5. Yes. Agree with Neha that English is not ‘foreign’ any more.
    Children will pick up English rapidly once they begin to attend school, esp if it is the medium of instruction. But, by the age of three, if they have not learnt to speak it, the opportunity to learn the Indian language or mother tongue is lost.

  6. Multicultural communities mean that children can only communicate in a common language. In some places that might be Hindi, in others English. I don’t see that it is such a big deal to deny a language or only speak one to a child. Children at that age learn many languages effortlessly. Including English in this bouquet means the child is better able to adjust in play/pre-school/nursery where English is normally lingua franca.

    There are many, many examples of children who were fluent in their native tongues (sometimes more than one Indian language) speaking only in English when they got older. This doesn’t mean that the language they’ve learned is forgotten, it is only an issue of usage. It isn’t a question of one versus another. Whenever we swing to extremes, there’s something in us that is the issue…the child comes with no issues, it is the adults who over think.

    Ever think of how languages are taught? Might be a good idea to do that – if Indian languages were taught as systematically as some western ones like French, exposure to a language wouldn’t be a pre-requisite to learn it…meaning more people can learn a language, say Konkani without needing to be born into Konkani families. How much fun that would be – to have the opportunity to learn without any barriers to learning like needing to hear the language spoken a lot in order to learn it!

    • Sangitha, precisely the point that i was making.
      Very young children learn the spoken languages by hearing the words. So, if they are going to hear english in copious amounts in school/ playground/friends and absorb it, then where will they learn the mother tongue/father tongue, except at home? More so in the absence of a structured teaching elsewhere, as you pointed out.
      Let me be clear.
      This is not an indictment against English, but a plea to make Indian languages also part of the verbal communication.
      In my opinion, in our haste to make our children fluent in English, ( as necessary as it is), the local tongues, esp in city bred children, are left behind.

  7. Absolutely agree!
    Wonderfully articulated article !

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