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December 3, 1999


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Mother Tongue Vs English Tongue

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By Jayakrishna Ambati and Balamurali Krishna Ambati

Not long after our parents landed in the United States as graduate students they were chastised by many Indian friends here for speaking to us in Telugu or Tamil.

They were sternly warned that this practice would condemn us to a life of academic retardation. So much for that bit of clairvoyance.

Among Indians in America it has become fashionable to say that one's child can speak English whereas ignorance and illiteracy in one's own mother tongue is tolerated. In this zeitgeist, it is hardly surprising that most Indian American children cannot read, write, or speak any Indian language.

The huge reservoir of research in developmental psychology pointing to superior performance of multilingual children on a variety of linguistic and creative skills has not deterred the self-proclaimed linguists in our community from decrying the evils of the mother tongue. They are also not dissuaded by multilingual preschoolers reading earlier and faster than their monolingual counterparts. They also seem oblivious to the higher verbal SAT scores achieved by multilingual children and those taking foreign languages.

The young child's alloplastic mind is fertile ground for a multitude of ideas and concepts. Far from stunting mastery of English, learning another language enhances a child's ability to learn English by expanding linguistic structure and syntax and recognizing symbolic relations between characters and sounds. The global increase in mental agility and flexibility in learning conferred by multilingual training affords greater creativity in solving complex problems.

Moreover, most children passively acquire English through ubiquitous interactions with teachers and fellow students at school, from television, and on the street. Conversely they imbibe their native tongue only at home.

Parents commit a grave injustice by not instilling in their children a sense of pride in the rich culture of India. Language is a window for youth to appreciate our culture; closing it diminishes their growth. The question of language inevitably leads to the broader issue of transmitting our culture to our children. Dress, diet, and dialect are perhaps the emblems of any culture.

Upon arriving in America many Indian parents readily relinquish the responsibility of impressing upon their children the values associated with our unique forms of food and fashion. Their abdication makes it easy for children to follow the path of least resistance by imitating their American peers.

Most Indian American teenagers deprive themselves of an entertaining window on Indian culture -- movies. Despite the numerous critically-acclaimed films that portray Indian values in an entertaining fashion, there is a tendency to paint all Indian films as mindless musicals. Incognizance of these masterpieces is symptomatic of a larger parental failure to expose their children to the richness of our culture.

Far too many youngsters see India as merely a land of mendicants, mystics, and miscreants. Such tragic ignorance is the dual product of parental failure to inculcate a sense of pride in our ancient and diverse culture and the child's indifference to the wealth of their native history. Unchecked, this burgeoning apathy surely is a death knell to any hope of preserving, if not perpetuating, our unique standing in the community.

The bromide that Indian American teenagers combine the best of both worlds is belied by the sad truth that all too often they don't amalgamate the virtues of either. Due to the failings of their parents and their own nonchalance, many of our youngsters fail to appreciate the richness of their ancient heritage and its timeless values. At the same time many of them succumb to the undesirable elements in American society.

When Americans themselves have begun to realize that this land is not a melting pot but rather a rich mosaic, it is ironic that many of us still cling to the archaic philosophy of being Romans in Rome. Today it is not uncommon to see many Indian teenagers peppering their phrases with profanity and seasoning their speech with slang. Perhaps those who seek to shed their identity would herald this development as our consummation with American culture.

There is nothing wrong in assimilating into American culture as long as it does not supplant our own. There is much of value in American culture, but blindly swallowing the chaff with the kernel is foolish. There are those who maintain that if we don't immerse ourselves in Americanisms we are insular.

Thankfully we don't live in such a Boolean world where we have to choose between extremes. Assimilation coupled with alienation from Indian values and customs is not only detrimental but also an unnecessary union that courts destruction.

It seems that our inferiority complex has not only outlasted colonialism but also survived our transatlantic voyage. Its stench is ubiquitous, what with the teeming accent reduction courses and all the Rakeshs and Muralis running around as Rockys and Morleys. When those we emulate out of false prestige are themselves sounding a clarion call for a return to traditional values, such mimicry is both self-defeating and self-deceiving. Only when we take pride in our traditions can we truly realize the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately many Indian parents in America and their children pursue a false prestige by blindly aping Western mannerisms while brashly abandoning their Indian values and mores. Would it not be more pleasing to parents' ears if their children called them amma, nana, mata, pita, instead of mommy and daddy? By the way it's Jayakrishna, not Jay.

The writers are physicians who grew up and studied in the United States.

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