I’m focusing this blog on the power of the mother tongue, and aim to provoke thought around this topic for you as readers. I am by no means a lingo-guru (my phrase)- so please don’t expect any linguistic analysis of phonology or morphology! The thoughts I share are specific to my dabbling in languages since my early childhood. Have you ever experienced the gradual shift in your own thinking, feelings and emotions, cultural comprehension and deep interaction with others which emerges from speaking to someone in their mother tongue, or being spoken to in your mother tongue? If you are learning a new language, do you feel or acknowledge any of the above, or plan to seek this in the learning of a new language? If English is your first language, does the fact that it is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages affect your treatment and attitude towards other languages?
I want to take you on a walk through how I arrived at this topic. I recently moved from my flat of two years in Cambridgeshire, back to my family home in Berkshire. This transition took far more time and adjustment than I had anticipated. As you might expect, I’ve spent quite some time unpacking boxes and de-cluttering. In the process, I’ve stumbled across old photos, books and other memoirs- particularly essays and Spanish study from my university days which I had stored in boxes (the photo above is a mere snapshot of my Spanish book collection!). My Spanish study material (which includes music and art) reminded me of my passion for languages, particularly my love for the sound of different languages.
When I came across my copy of the Colombian classic Maria (Jorge Isaacs), it catapulted me back to my Hispanic Literature lectures in Madrid. I was on a mission to make friends with native Spanish students as soon as possible, rather than other English speakers. I remember standing out like a sore thumb as the new ERASMUS student! Initially, I spent a lot of time exploring Madrid and finding my bearings (photo of me with the guide book, looking like a lost tourist!). I really had to put myself out there to integrate, and there was no space for any inhibitions. Once I built up friendships, I experienced a buzz, from not only learning a different tone and rhythm in Spanish, but also learning about the sense of humour, cultural idioms and adapting to these, whilst using them myself to help me come across as more native. Before I knew it, I was eating paella for lunch and feeling like a rather patriotic madrileña.
This ‘buzz’ feeling is not unique to me I’m sure. Those of you who are linguists out there, may have experienced the same, or more, of a passion? Just as some chameleons are able to change their skin colouration to fit in to their surroundings, so do we as language learners when we respond to a language, by crafting and adapting our speech style as closely as possible to those who speak it as their mother tongue.
This is not always the case I find- is it? Sometimes, in and amongst the constraints of our busy working lives, we may want to learn a new language to be understood at conversational level, but not master it completely. I certainly did the former when I worked in production factories, as part of my Graduate Management scheme. I learnt conversational Polish immediately so that I could communicate, be accepted and respected by the majority of employees who worked on the production line.
Conversational Polish provided an important point of connection with other employees, and I believe that they valued my efforts in learning their mother tongue. However, when I learnt Portuguese at university, I did this with a different intention – the intention of reaching intermediate language proficiency.
I’ve explained above how the process of unpacking triggered that inspirational ‘buzz’ feeling of learning another language. Amongst the move back, I’ve also been actively researching ideas for my first book which I am currently in the process of writing. It’s early days, so I won’t explain the detail of it just yet. Since this blog is about languages, though, I will say that language forms a central component of the research process that I am undertaking. For my particular book, I need to be fluent in conversational Punjabi. Alongside English, Punjabi is technically my mother tongue, as I grew up speaking both languages since birth. I raise both hands and admit that as a child, my spoken Punjabi was probably better than it is now, and that was the beauty of living in the extended family, spending a lot of time with my Dadima and Dadaji (grandfather), and exercising this language muscle throughout the day. At school, I spoke English and at home I spoke Punjabi – so I had the best of both worlds. My Punjabi has become a tad rusty over the years – my gender agreements are not always on point and my vocabulary is not broad as it was. I have, however, managed to keep it alive through watching Bollywood movies now and again (which are mostly in Hindi) and speaking to my grandparents as often as possible.
This week I conducted a pilot interview, in Punjabi, for my book. It was when I needed to ask a specific question, and couldn’t quite remember the correct noun, that I felt a sense of urgency and frustration to polish up on my mother tongue. For me, Nelson Mandela summed this up beautifully : ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart’. You may agree?
I’m pretty sure my Dadaji would agree with the above and it’s a mantra that he repeats. Dadaji is a highly talented, self-taught linguist. Before he came to the UK from India, he already knew some basic English, but developed native level fluency very quickly. His secret? He spoke with confidence, conviction and could not care less if he made mistakes! He had no inhibitions and he just kept on talking.
Sometimes I think we can put so much pressure on ourselves to be ‘perfect’ in the way we speak another language. We may think that we should only speak another language if we can string together a perfect sentence. I have the utmost respect and admiration for people who try to speak any other language, regardless of their fluency level, particularly if they are trying to make a living and fresh start in a new country. I am a perfectionist myself and learning Spanish initially was highly frustrating. I struggled with the idea that if I was to develop native level fluency, I would have to make endless mistakes in my oral communication – I later realised that mistakes were part of the language-learning journey. It was only when I cast aside my inhibition, took a leaf from my Dadaji’s wise book, and thought – what’s the absolute worst that can happen? I get laughed at – so what?
It was no surprise that the more I learnt to take myself less seriously when speaking, the more I improved in my fluency and confidence. It’s a common misconception, I think, that you need to be young in order to learn a language- you just have less on your mind when you’re young! As we all know, children’s minds are like fast-absorbing sponges when it comes to learning languages and that, I believe, is because they have not yet learnt inhibition. Have you ever found that after a drink or two, your fluency improves in a language that you are learning? I certainly did! I’m not advocating a few drinks every time we speak a new language, but if we can learn to mimic that same release of inhibition and relaxation which imbues us after a drink or two, the results in our language development will definitely be evident and heard.
On that note, I am off to Spain next week. My last visit was almost a year ago and that feels like far too long! I am looking forward to practicing what I preach above, and putting my language skills to the test! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas after reading my blog. Once again, thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and for your anticipated feedback.