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The Language Wars of A Bilingual Family

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Oct 23, 2015

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From the tender age of one week, my son liked music and lyrics. In the initial days of Ochoa’s life, my father would play the radio for him early in the morning. It could be a Dev Anand song or a ShahRukh Khan number; but as soon as the song started, my son would be at peace on his grandfather’s lap. It was decided then and there that we would have to be a musical and vocal family to raise this child.

I discovered a colourful Minnie Mouse figurine among the now-forgotten toys of my 5-year-old niece, and enlisted its aid. Every time my 2-month-old son woke restless from his sleep, I would bring in Minnie – whose hands seem to ask “why?” – and sing, “Minnie Mouse ki bolchilo? Minnie Mouse Ochoar milk chaichilo! Ohhh no!” (What was Minnie Mouse saying? Minnie Mouse was asking for Ochoa’s milk!) This silly, sing-song line captured my infant’s imagination every time. His eyes grew wide as he tried to match the dancing figurine in my hand with the voice I was creating for the milk-stealing doll.

Soon, the Minnie Mouse song pacified my child round the clock. At 3 am, when he screamed with colic, Minnie Mouse’s squeaky Bengali calmed him down. When it got too sweaty on a sweltering Gujarat afternoon, Minnie Mouse soothed away his discomfort.

My husband, a Gujarati who knows enough Bengali by now, also started to do the routine whenever he played with Ochoa. However, over tea one morning, my husband, frowning in thought, told me that our baby needed to hear some Gujarati as well. It was after all, his father tongue, he reasoned. I suggested he create a Gujarati character and a routine around it. He was dubious and stressed at the thought of performing; my husband is not exactly the creative kind. Although he realized the significance of my idea, he couldn’t find the right outlet. Sensing his despair over how to make his language just as important for the little brain developing at a rapid pace in our home, I handed him a chimpanzee soft toy and asked him try out a funny voice for it.

That evening, after my husband got home and took charge of Ochoa, I was busy with other chores. I’d forgotten the conversation of the morning, and so was shocked when I entered my son’s bedroom that night to the animated strains of “Chimpu Kaka su kehta tha?” (What was Chimpu Kaka saying?) – set to the exact tune of the Minnie Mouse song! Even the words and actions of my husband’s song were same. Only Minnie had been replaced by a gruff, Gujarati-speaking Chimpu Kaka.

I was stunned at my husband’s laziness and guts for lifting my entire gig. When I expressed my indignance – in our common language, Hindi – he sulked for a few days, then gave up on the Chimpu Kaka character altogether. It was our first skirmish in a protracted war of languages.

For a bilingual family, which language dominates and which is sidelined is always an issue. I entered the war at first laughingly, and later, with mischievous glee. For me, it wasn’t about the one-upmanship. I come from a Bengali home in Delhi. Bengali and Hindi came naturally to me, while plenty of Punjabi trickled into my brain, thanks to various Sikh landlords. After marrying a Gujarati and settling in Ahmedabad, I was delighted by how much of the new language I managed to learn. So I never really worried about my child’s linguistic abilities; I knew he would get there.

For me, it was the regular, warm Bengali that I missed speaking. After having my baby, I was just happy to find someone with whom I could speak Bengali again.

So, while we as parents subtly kept score, our baby steadily started to become bilingual. Dr Benjamin Spock, in his book on baby and child care, says that children who grow up hearing two languages have a real advantage. They may often (but not necessarily) take more time to express themselves clearly, but once they get going, they quickly become fluent speakers of both languages. Research backs this: After a baby turns six months, he or she can pick up more than one language and can even differentiate between the two. Parents just need to be consistent and speak the languages clearly on a daily basis. And no, the baby does not mix up the languages out of confusion.

Bilingualism expert Barbara Zurer Pearson has written extensively about it in the book, Raising a Bilingual Child, in which she explains: “If you do not buy a lottery ticket, you will not win. Similarly, if you do not maintain a bilingual environment, you will not have bilingual children. Luckily, the odds of children becoming bilingual are not like the odds of winning a lottery.” In fact, if we are any luckier as parents, our son may even pick up Hindi before going to school, thanks to our maids who coo at him in the national language.

So the Bengali and Gujurati are both here to stay. You see, after facing a crushing defeat at the hands of a tiny toy mouse, my husband brought out the big guns: His mother came and stayed with us for a few months. Every four hours, she sang “Haal vaal re ala karo…” (dear love, go to sleep) to Ochoa. It is a loud, dramatic Gujarati song that contradicts every expectation of a lullaby; neither is it soothing nor does my mother-in-law have a soft voice. But our son went to sleep immediately, as if on cue to those opening lines.

The contest has now heated up, and I called up my mother to learn a Bengali lullaby or two. But nothing works as miraculously as the cacophony of that song. Gujarati has finally made itself at home in our 8-month-old boy’s mind.

As things stand now, it is I, and not his grandmother, who sings that lullaby three times a day. As for Minnie Mouse, she is planning her next move.

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Written By Runa Mukherjee Parikh

Runa Mukherjee Parikh is a freelance journalist and has been reporting on education, women and culture extensively for nine years. A persistent animal rights crusader right from her teenage years, she has moved from feeding dogs in her area to writing about the Animal Birth Control programme in her city. Brought up in a very culturally inclined Bengali home, she is now a part of a big Gujarati family and is figuring out her role in it. A mother to a toddler with mixed roots, she lately spends most of her time parenting and watching other people parent, usually with a bowl of popcorn. Tweets at @tweetruna.

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