Missing the mother tongue

Roopinder Singh

The tussle between teaching school children in their mother tongue or the English language is an old one. It is hard to remember that there was a time when all learning was in the mother tongue, or a language closely related to it.

Education was long treated as a privilege and thus reserved for the elite. Others had to make an extraordinary effort to gain it. The oft-repeated story of how Maharaja Ranjit Singh had devoted extraordinary efforts to ensure that even adults in his kingdom were educated, is predicated on teaching them math and the basics in their mother tongue, and in the script of their choice.  This was the traditional model of learning for much of India. The mother tongue provided the emotional connect, and if necessary, Sanskrit or Arabic were treated as knowledge languages.

The Raj and T B Macaulay’s infamous “Minute Upon Indian Education” ensured the primacy of English. Recognising the need to study the language of government and trade many schools and colleges were set up to teach English, and eventually in English.

Educated is not equivalent to the English-speaking, yet there is a tendency to take it to be so. Indeed, English has turned out to be the most viable language and knowing it ensures better career prospects, and the exposure to one of the primary knowledge languages is an education in itself.

Unfortunately, in this race, the pendulum has swung the other way. Today there is cultural alienation in the youth exposed only to the rich western fare, and not the classics of their mother tongue. Indeed, what is available in songs, the social media, and TV serials leaves a lot to be desired, but reflected in it is the pining of youth waiting for the latest status symbols, and it comes as no surprise that the desire for the best often leads to the west.

This article was published in The Tribune on July 22, 2018.


While it would be wrong to be a philistine, there is no denying the pull of the language of the forefathers — the poems composed in it, folklore and literature that is true to the origins of the land.

The heart pines for the mother tongue even as the mind translates the thoughts into English and the fingers type out this particular piece

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