Reasons to Read to Your Child in Your Mother Tongue

Have you ever read to your child in a language you don’t usually read in?

It’s a parenting experience like none other.  And you shouldn’t miss a chance to try it if you can.

Although my daughter is fluent in our mother tongue( Tamil), we haven’t really read many books written in Tamil with her. We’re teaching her to identify some of the alphabets and make the effort to ensure that she speaks in Tamil at home( and believe me, it’s tough, once kids start going to daycare or preschool on a regular basis and are exposed to more and more of English everyday). However, we haven’t been able to lay our hands on too many good children’s books written in Tamil. I’ve come across a few that weren’t very well produced.  And the ones that I’m looking for don’t seem to be available anywhere.

However, a few days ago, I came across Pratham Books, a non-profit trust in India that offers beautiful picture books for kids in Indian languages. The best part is that some of these books are available online on Scribd, so I didn’t have to wait. I just started reading it to my daughter right away.

And boy, was it a delight to watch her!

Tamil is one of those languages that doesn’t sound exactly the same when you speak as when you write it. No matter how casual or conversational you try to make the writing sound, written Tamil always seems to come across as a little formal and ‘purer’ than spoken Tamil. As a result, when I read to my daughter from the book, the range of expressions that crossed her face went from interested to puzzled to delighted to confused to one of comprehension and wonderment. How I wish I could have captured it on video! Had I plotted her reaction on a graph, the spikes would probably have made a porcupine retreat in defeat.

What’s beautiful though – is how she loved the novelty of the experience.  She may not have understood all the words at first, but that perked her interest. She could figure out the plot from the visuals, and so tried to relate the story with the images. She was intrigued by the fact that we were reading in Tamil – a language she knew well – and yet, there was something about it that she didn’t fully understand.

We read it a couple of times and I explained to her what some of the words meant. Then she asked me to read it again and seemed to enjoy the experience even better.

In all, reading Nilaavum Thoppiyum (The Moon and the Cap) and its Hindi version, Chaand ka Tohfa ( The Moon’s Gift) was a delightful, eye opening experience for both of us.

It reminded me to put more effort into exposing my daughter to Indian language books so she could begin to appreciate the richness and diversity in these languages and also to encourage her to continue to learn and use our mother tongue. As for M, she seemed to be pretty fascinated by the fact that we were reading from different scripts and pronouncing strange new words. It was almost like a game – like I was reading some secret code or posing a riddle – and she couldn’t wait to figure out what I was saying.

In their book, To Learn with Love, authors William and Constance Starr describe Dr. Suzuki’s ‘mother tongue approach’ to teaching students music. His method was based on the simple observation that babies everywhere learn their mother tongue, almost effortlessly. He observed that since babies are constantly exposed to their mother tongue, they pick it up by merely being in the environment they’re in and by repeating what they hear several hundred or thousand times. He borrows this idea and applies it to teaching music. The Suzuki method involves exposing children to music from a young age, playing recordings and encouraging repetitions. And sure enough, kids who are trained in this way for years, do go on to achieve fine musical abilities in due course with exposure, training and consistent practice.

In today’s globalized world, where we are all about leveling the playing field and creating a universal language and breaking barriers, it’s not easy to hold on to one’s mother tongue. let alone ensure that our kids do. It’s more convenient and seems more practical to allow a language to fade away than make the effort to weave it into our complex world. “Language should unite, not divide.” “Language is just a means of communication, why make such a fuss?” are some of the arguments we hear in favor of allowing languages to disappear. But, children born in bilingual and multilingual families or those whose parents know more than one language are at a natural advantage over others who don’t share their background.  Various studies show the correlation between being bilingual and acquiring proficiency in other fields. Learning foreign languages also seems to be the fashionable thing to do. So, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to throw this natural advantage away, merely because it takes a little more effort to reinforce one’s mother tongue on a regular basis?

Maybe it’s time we borrowed Suzuki’s mother tongue approach and began applying it to teaching kids their mother tongue. And if your mother tongue is an Indian language, then children’s books like those from Pratham Books are a great place to start.

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11 thoughts on “Reasons to Read to Your Child in Your Mother Tongue

  1. I fully agree with you. Our mother-tongue is Marathi, and I speak to my daughter exclusively in Marathi when we are not with company or if it is not something to do with her studies. However she seems to slip into English often at home too and I have to keep reminding her to speak Marathi. We stay out of Maharashtra and she does not hear our language elsewhere. I have tried to source Marathi books but do not find many by Pratham or Tullika. We have some books by Navneet, but they do not have the effortlessness of a normal spoken language; it is a very flowery Marathi not easily comprehensible to a child who has no formal exposure to it. I have also got cassettes, CDs of stories told in Marathi. She enjoys these very much. I feel that she should have a firm footing in our language to really have a firm footing in our culture. No matter what other language she learns.
    Sorry for the long post!

  2. Hi Sandhya – Thanks for stopping by and writing such a perceptive comment. I know what you mean – since kids are exposed to English wherever they go and speak to their friends and outsiders in English, it’s easier for them to switch to it very often. They just start feeling naturally more comfortable with the language. Your idea of exposing her to Marathi songs and stories is great and seems to be working. That’s where audio books such as those from Karadi tales come to play and I think they’re the perfect way to hook kids to a language. Using music and stories is definitely among the best ways to teach kids pretty much anything.

  3. How wonderful to hear that! Tulika brings out bi-lingual books and books in the Indian languages because we believe the same. While children are always thrilled by them, parents and teachers still seem to have a mental block when it comes to buying books that are ‘not in English’.
    So it’s great to hear parents like you telling the world about the beauty of reading in the mother tongue. Thank you:)

  4. @Malarvizhi Jayanth – Thanks for your comment. Yes, when it comes to kids, there’s really no limit to how much they can learn and absorb. Most of the time, it’s a question of how much effort and time we grown-ups are willing to invest in them. I’m sure Tulika books make a great impact in this regard. I will definitely be checking them out for my daughter.

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