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Not Lost In Translation!

Posted: October 21, 2011

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With inter-cultural Indian marriages becoming common, do parents in multilingual families fear their children losing out on either parent’s cultures?

By Melanie Lobo 

“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. This might have been true in Kipling’s time, but nowadays, marriages in India between people from very different communities are no longer a rarity. In the interweaving of cultures, language becomes a focus – and sometimes a sore point, being one of the most visible markers of culture and identity. How are Indian multilingual families dealing with this diversity of languages, especially when it comes to teaching the children? We talk to 4 Indian families, each with different ways of dealing with a multilingual family.

Culture is who we are

Anisha Kanjilal, a mother to two boys feels that it is important to retain your culture. She says, “It is your identity, it is who you are.” She and her husband Sanjeevan, come from multilingual families themselves. Anisha’s mother is from Mangalore while her father is Sindhi. Her father-in-law is from pre-partition Bengal while her mother- in-law is a Parsi. She grew up speaking Sindhi while her husband speaks Bengali and Gujarati. This couple wanted their children to speak all the languages and have made it a point to ensure that it happens. So they instructed their respective parents to talk to the grandchildren in their own native languages.

Anisha’s children have had no problem in picking up and learning all the languages and today, are very comfortable speaking and understanding them, although they are most comfortable with English, Marathi and Hindi. In fact, she says, that if she gives her children an instruction in English to convey to her mother-in-law or the maid, they automatically relay it to the person concerned in their native language. Her children have not had any problem in switching between the languages and both she and her husband are proud of the fact that they know so many. She feels that in today’s world, everyone is global and it is thus very necessary for children to learn about their background and culture. It is very important for her to have the culture carried on to the next generation. For instance, her father-in-law does not visit the Durga Puja pandals anymore, but she makes it a point to take her children to them. She states, “Sanjeevan and I have so much to give our children. Their culture is very much a part of who they are and where they come from.”

…in today’s world, everyone is global and it is thus very necessary for children to learn about their background and culture.

Language is communication, not identity

Samantha and Sanjeev Koppikar* are the other side of the debate. Samantha also comes from a multilingual background (she calls herself a “half Mallu/half UP”) while Sanjeev’s origins are in the Coorg region of Karnataka. Samantha feels, “Language is all about communication. It’s not about showing your rights or your identity”. As a couple they are not really too worried about teaching the kids each parent’s languages. Samantha feels that “A language is very rarely lost unless it is a dwindling race”. She thinks that it is more important for the children to learn one Indian language at least. The language the children pick up often depends on the place they are staying in. For instance, they stay in Delhi and the children now have picked up some Punjabi words.

Samantha feels that when you enter into a multicultural family, you have already made it clear that the cultural aspect is not very important. She adds, “By that one move you have shown that culture has taken a second place”. Moreover, the need to integrate the different cultures and languages into the children, she feels, is a very personal decision. “It depends on the type of person that you are. Culture is so much more than just a language. It is very difficult to pass on culture unless you are particular about it,” she concludes.

Let the children decide

Lavanya Donthamshetty, a Tamilian married to a Telugu speaker (and our food columnist!) has a similar viewpoint although she arrived at it through a different route. They lived in England for 10 years before moving back to Chennai four months ago. Initially, they tried talking to their son in both Tamil and Telugu but then noticed that the child was not really speaking all that much. He heard English being spoken all around him and in the end they decided that Three languages was one too many” for him. He picked up English really well and they then stuck to it. Both felt that it was better that the child spoke well, rather than concentrate on whether the child was speaking either the father or the mother’s language. They did not want to repeat the process when their daughter was born and so spoke to her only in English.

Both felt that it was better that the child spoke well, rather than concentrate on whether the child was speaking either the father or the mother’s language.

Lavanya states, “We let them take the lead rather than dictating what we want.” She feels, “Language is just one part of culture. There are so many other ways to learn culture”. The children are very aware of that and have subconsciously accepted that both their sets of grandparents are different. Having said this, she feels that the children are learning a great deal about their respective cultures from their interaction with their grandparents.

A strong foundation matters most

Kiran Manral (also comes from a multicultural background, her father was Muslim, her mother Catholic) married a Rajput from Kumaon. She made a conscious decision to ensure that her son did not lose his cultural identity. Kiran was exposed to both religions and cultures but felt that she “never belonged with either the Catholic side of the family or the Muslim side. I was the outsider.”  She feels quite “askew” herself and adds, “One must have some sort of base to start with, before one can move forward.” This was the primary reason that she felt that her son should have a proper base and grounding. Her son understands Bengali, Marathi, and is well- versed in English and Hindi. However, due to delayed developmental issues, it was decided that the family talk to him in only one language.

Kiran lives in a joint family and they primarily celebrate Hindu festivals and not Muslim or Christian ones. After being exposed to two religions and two cultures, she wants her own son to have a firm base.

Four different families with four different stories… it can be clearly seen that no single approach works, since each family’s circumstances are so different. Passing on one’s culture/languages is very much a personal choice. Is it important that your child learns his Dad or Mum’s languages? Or is it not? What would you do?

*Names changed on request

*Image Source: Beer

Melanie Lobo is a freelance writer. She grew up in cities across India but now

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